This feature is a part of the Chico News & Review’s Bring Back the Arts campaign, an interview series featuring the leaders of Butte County arts and music venues discussing their efforts to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The Q&As are published in the CN&R and broadcast during the Chico News & Review radio show, Thursdays, 5-5:30 p.m., on KZFR, 90.1FM.
There are pandemic projects, and then there’s what the folks at California Regional Theatre have been up to. Executive Director Bob Maness and company haven’t been learning how to bake bread, they’ve been spending it.
The local theater group hired Billson Construction and has used its state-mandated downtime remodeling the space vacated by the Blue Room Theatre, which was forced to move out as revenues disappeared due the coronavirus shutdown. Maness said that, between California Regional Theater (CRT) and the building’s owners, roughly $300,000 has been invested so far on what will soon be called First Street Theatre. The restoration includes opening up the main theater space to reveal the large hall of the original Masonic Lodge and adding a full bar to create an events center that will be used by his company and can be rented out to other producers.
Over its nine years, CRT has made a name for itself by putting on large-scale, professional-theater-caliber productions of Broadway musicals—such as Les Misérables and Sweeney Todd—in the Center for the Arts building on the Pleasant Valley High campus. The busy troupe was forced to put those regional shows, as well its smaller black-box productions, on hold due to COVID-19, and its expansive children’s theater program—made up of 200 or so students—dialed back its offerings to meet state requirements.
All this meant that the new spot was able to get a lot of attention, and Maness is hopeful that it will be ready for a grand opening by the second week in September. With the smell of fresh paint strong in the air, the CN&R spoke to him in the transformed theater about the year that was and his hopes for a new future.
How did your company members respond to having to shut down due to the pandemic?
We had just finished Little Women that February, so we hadn’t started our next regional show yet. So, we were OK as far as, “I don’t have to disappoint a lot of actors right now; I don’t have to cancel a show and do a lot of returns right now”—but our kids program was ongoing throughout the year, and they were in the middle of Willie Wonka [& The Chocolate Factory], just having a blast. When it all hit, our hearts broke because these kids worked so hard and they were only about one month out from performance. There was nothing we could do.
Even though that happened, it wasn’t but a week before our staff had gotten together and said, “What can we do? What’s next for us? What is possible?” It wasn’t about what we had, but what was possible. What was possible was doing Zoom with the kids. What was possible was—as we went further into less restrictions—doing classes spaced out with masks on, whether that was outside or it was inside. We never wanted to stop—for the kids’ sake. These kids and these performers—adult and young—are too precious and too important to CRT to stop.
How did the kids react to getting that outlet back during shutdowns?
They loved it. The kids were excited to start again. The kids were excited to do anything. And even though they had restrictions, they said, “We’ll do the restrictions, we’ll do what ever you say, we just want to be part of a show.”
Did you do any virtual productions?
No, by the time we were ready for our next performance, the COVID stuff had lightened enough that they could do spacing and masks outside. So, we would do the show, film it, and then we’d give that to the parents, and the parents would get a chance to see their kids perform.
What was the regional show you had planned last fall?
We were scheduled to West Side Story. We had rights for it, we were well into the audition phase of it. We decided that the best thing for the public and the best thing for the performers was to postpone. So, we postponed West Side Story through the fall, through the spring, and when we got through the spring, I said, “Let’s table it. Let’s just talk about it when it’s safe.” So, we’re just waiting until it’s a safe time to pick up. It’s such a large performance, a heavy-dance performance, where you have a lot of breathing in masks. It just didn’t feel healthy or safe.
So, the theater has been able to financially weather the pandemic so far?
We have gotten so much support from our community, so much support from our parents, our ticket-holders, our patrons. Everyone has just come alongside—donated tickets back, donated anything that was, like, a registration, just donated it back to us without any refund asked for, and that just goes back to how beautiful this community is.
We did get a few grants from the state of California, which was great. There’s a Shuttered Venue [Operators] Grant that we’ve applied for. If we get [it], all of that money will go into projects like this, to the kids, wherever it can go to give back to the community. Because the voice of the arts is so important to who we are is a community.
How’d the First Street project come about?
When we heard about [the Blue Room moving out], our hearts were grieved. We were so sad because we were losing another voice in the community—a very distinct voice. No one [does] what they do. We need all genres here in Chico.
What I want to do is open an event venue where theater entities—like the Blue Room—who don’t have a home can come and perform. Places like Legacy [Stage], who don’t have a regular home, can rent the space, come here and perform here.
I will make no secret that California Regional Theatre owns this theater. However, the key is that is low, that’s a soft light, so to speak. The key is these people have a place to go and say, “We’re performing at First Street Theatre.” Our name doesn’t have to be connected to what their identity is.
Can you describe the scope of the remodel?
The transformation has been pretty significant. We’ve done our best to bring this building back to its original architecture. We’ve taken out the ceilings and raised them back to their full height, which is at the highest height is 22 feet. We’ve tried to restore some of the beauty, which hasn’t been seen for awhile in the building, including crown moldings, the height of the windows. We’ve made a larger space in the lobby. We reset the bathrooms further back, making the lobby larger and the restrooms full size, bringing ADA compliance to the building.
We’re bringing in state of the art lighting, state of the art sound, state of the art staging. We’ll actually be able to do a two-story set in the building, rather than just a one-story set.
What does CRT plan to do in this space?
This venue here at First Street is planned to be something that more than our entity uses. We’ll put in the first two or three shows, because it’s going to be really important for us to work out any bugs. Then after that, we want to open it up.
As far as CRT goes, we’re just continuing to expand. Our CRT regional shows will still happen at the Center for the Arts. We’re looking at bringing Annie in there; we’re looking at bringing [The] Little Mermaid in there—shows that are very family-friendly.
And then, of course, we have our children’s theater that brings up kids in the community as an after-school kind of program. But then, at this venue here, we’ll express more cutting edge [productions]. We’re looking at doing shows that are a little more edgy. We see this venue as an opportunity for a date night, too. We’re surrounded by downtown—beautiful restaurants, bars, nightlife. We’re just excited that we can be here.
What do you think the prospects are for the Chico arts community coming out of the pandemic?
Excellent. It depends on the community and what they’re willing to do to bring it back—and the people I talk to, the people I know, want it to come back in tremendous ways. If it’s something we all work together toward, then we have an excellent chance. If we give up on it, we don’t.
New season: California Regional Theatre will be announcing its upcoming season later this month. Visit crtshows.com for updates.