The Colligan Theater opens at the Tannery Arts Center under circumstances no one could have imagined when it was first conceived. That it even survived a long and complicated road to completion is a testament to sheer willpower
It’s just hours before the first performance ever at the Tannery Arts Center’s Colligan Theater, and Julie James is standing outside its front doors, looking simultaneously exhilarated and stressed. James’ Jewel Theatre Company is the arts company in residence at the new $5.8 million building, about to present the preview performance of Guys and Dolls, which will run there through Dec. 6.
She’s earned this permanent home for her group—at 182 seats, twice as large as their previous playhouse on Center Street—because of her reputation for watching carefully over every little detail, and producing quality productions year-round on a shoestring budget. Her time has come for a call-up to a bigger theater like this, and the details have gotten bigger, too—like, for instance, whether the audience will actually be able to get into the building for the show.
“The guy was here yesterday and fixed all the doors,” she tells George Newell, the former executive director of the Tannery Arts Center who played a big part in shepherding the theater project through.
“So they’re not jamming anymore?” he asks her.
“What about the back door to the stage?”
“Oh, yeah,” she says in a knowing tone of voice. “He worked on that a lot. And he fixed it!”
One would expect some last-minute complications when opening a brand-new performing arts center—not that it’s something that James or most people in general have ever had to do.
“There’s a lot,” she admits. “It’s typical I guess with new buildings, right? There’s always a bunch of things. But it was so funny, I don’t know what it was with the doors.”
Angel investor Bud Colligan, who along with his wife Rebecca got involved two and half years ago not just as major donors, but also working closely with the Tannery board of directors on the project, says that nailing down James’ involvement was a key moment in the process. The couple had long considered Jewel Theatre Company “one of the best-kept secrets in Santa Cruz,” and so it was the first thing that came to mind after Tannery board member Scott Walecka did a market analysis to determine how financially viable the theater could be.
“Part of the discussion was around making sure we had a business model for the theater that could be successful going forward,” says Colligan. “The key to that, it turned out, was to have a strong resident theater arts company to manage it, and also take a lot of dates.”
The project broke ground in October of 2014, and back then no one could have known the added significance the opening of the theater has now, three and a half months after the darkest days in the short history of the Tannery, which opened in 2009. When 8-year-old Madyson Middleton was found dead there on July 27, and 15-year-old Adrian Gonzalez, who also lived at the Tannery, was arrested for her murder, some longtime champions of the innovative live/work artist space worried it would always be tarnished by the tragedy. Those same supporters see the opening of the Colligan Theater as a potential turning point: the first good thing to come along since the entire community was in mourning, and a huge new opportunity for the campus.
“People have said the timing is good because it’s a certain margin of time away from the bad things,” says James. “I think everybody’s ready to celebrate and move forward in a new way. Definitely people are feeling great that it’s completed.
“There are theater people who haven’t ever visited the artists here. Their audience will get to see there’s a new theater, our audience will see that there’s artwork. It’s just going to help bring the Tannery more to life than it already has been.”
Out of the Box
Most people involved with the theater project are surprised at how smoothly it’s gone from breaking ground to opening its doors.
“I’ve never been involved in a project this large that’s come in on time and on budget,” says Colligan.
Add to that the fact that it was completed without any public money, which is almost unheard of.
“The community really came through and provided the funds,” says Jess Brown, chair of the Tannery’s board of directors. “To be able to open it up without any debt, that’s just an incredible feat.”
Nor was this a standard performing arts kind of project. Instead, it was part construction, part restoration. The 8.2-acre parcel now called the Tannery Arts Center was originally built in 1856—and rebuilt after various storms and fires over the last 150 years—but was known throughout the 20th century as the Salz Tannery. Salz Leathers closed in 2001, and the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. The Colligan Theater is built on the site of the Salz Tannery’s Hide House, which was used for exactly what it sounds like. Because the large open warehouse required a bowstring truss roof design with no supporting columns, it was a perfect spot for the theater—if you don’t count the fact that the floor had to be raised 4.5 feet to be up to code.
“We had to take an old box, and turn it into a theater,” says Newell. “The architect was brilliant; he was able to put this beautiful façade on the front and still meet the historic preservation standards. The reason we used the old warehouse was it was a building of historic significance, and we wanted to preserve it to the greatest extent possible. But also, it was 5,000 feet of clearspan, this big box without poles in it, because the bowstring trusses held up the roof. So we thought ‘OK, this is a great place to start. Now how much of a theater can we fit into that?’ All the performance space is the same footprint as the original warehouse.”
While the building process has looked lightning fast to the outside world, Colligan notes that in reality “the project took a long time to pull together.”
“We were drawn to the project mostly because we were interested in the preservation of a historical structure, and in completing a project that had been a dream for everybody, but couldn’t seem to get finished,” he says. “We were able to build on the foundation that everybody laid. The project has really got two different stories.”
One of those is the physical construction that lasted a year. The other stretches back four decades.
In 1976, Ceil Cirillo visited Alexandria, Virginia’s Torpedo Factory Art Center, an old munitions site that had been converted into a complex of artist studios, galleries and workshops, and opened in 1974. Cirillo was converted, too; “adaptive recycle” became her architectural philosophy.
Coming to Santa Cruz in 1990, Cirillo was better known during her time as Redevelopment Agency Director and Economic Development Director for her role as a driving force in rebuilding Santa Cruz after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake than she was for her search for a performing arts center site. And yet, that search began not long after she got here, and, over the years, included a number of spots that never panned out. In 1995, while serving on the Cultural Council’s “Action Plan” Facilities Committee, she heard from a wide range of arts groups about the lack of performance space locally.
Then, in November of 2001, the Salz Tannery closed.
“I thought ‘this would be a great campus for the arts, and we could meet all of our needs,’” Cirillo remembers.
By February of 2002, she was already holding focus groups with several local arts organizations.
“I was looking for an opportunity to bring all those nonprofits together,” she says. “The important thing for me was that these nonprofits have certainty. They wouldn’t be subject to the economic pressures of the time.”
By 2009, her plan for the Tannery had finally been realized, but the performing arts center she always wanted took six more years. Those who’ve been involved with the project over the years credit several individuals and groups who’ve stuck with the Hide House development like Newell, Tannery board member Bruce Nicholson, and construction company Devcon. But they all reserve a special level of respect for Cirillo.
“When Ceil came up with this concept, having the live/work [space] and the studios and the theater, the vision was there,” says Brown. “Now that these things are in place, I think the broader community can see why it’s important.”
As for how she kept that vision intact through various challenges and fundraising struggles over the years, Cirillo remains pretty matter of fact. “It needed to happen, and there wasn’t anybody else who could do it. And I just had faith in this community that it would get done,” she says.
But her lifelong love of the arts comes out passionately when she remembers how hard she had to fight for the artist live/work concept.
“I ran up against a lot of opposition,” Cirillo says. “But artists are a very important part of our economy. You can’t ignore people’s passions and genius. We need to showcase them.”
For James, who will still manage Center Stage, the Colligan Theater means room to grow.
“It’s quaint at our old space, and the audience loves how intimate it is, so it’s nice to come to a bigger space, but not too big. This is a really perfect next step for Jewel,” she says. “Where we were kind of busting at the seams, here we have a little more breathing room. There’s more space, and it’s nice to have twice the height—so we can do larger sets, and we can do levels, which we couldn’t do at the old space. A lot of those things that every show we’d go ‘oh, I wish I had more this or that,’ this is completely filling that.”
Her technical staff is noticing the difference, too.
“At the Center Stage, the ceiling was so low that you had trouble blending lights together. People would be constantly walking through shadows or hotspots,” says Mark Hopkins, the lighting designer on Guys and Dolls. “Because there’s so much room [at the Colligan Theater], the lights have a chance to blend together and create a smoothness. If I walk from one side of the stage to the other, it’s smooth. That’s a nice thing. And then we get a whole bunch of new color changes.”
Early response to Jewel’s move seems encouraging. James says the company’s subscriber base has been growing by about 35 percent every year, and ticket sales so far at the Colligan have surpassed her expectations.
“We just keep adding performances to make sure we have enough open seats for single tickets versus subscriptions. I kept the same number of performances, knowing we wouldn’t be selling out as much here. But frankly, we’re doing really well, and we have some shows already sold out at the bigger house, so that’s great,” James says. “The real challenge is maintaining that.”
The hope, of course, is that many other arts groups will also make use of the Colligan. While it’s an honor to be chosen to manage the theater, she says, she doesn’t have time for a victory lap.
“There’s a little bit of feeling like ‘wow, all the hard work is being noticed,’” she says. “At the same time, it’s a juxtaposition of ‘this is wonderful’ and ‘it’s a big, huge responsibility, and the pressure’s on.’”
Colligan hopes the lesson that comes out of the theater’s successful completion is that people can and should dream big in the public arena, the way Cirillo did.
“We need more things like this in Santa Cruz. We need to get out of the mindset of ‘this can’t be done,’” Colligan says. “We’ve got to find a way to break through that mentality. Part of creating a better community is showing people that we can make progress, that we can do things together.”
Meanwhile, James is outside the new theater again, feeling more confident about the doors.
“Did you hear that truck that just went by? Not once in there have I ever heard any of that stuff. I’m sure it’s been going by, we’ve been here every single day,” she says. “We were worried, what were the ratings on the doors? We got an acoustician involved, the consultants to deal with all the sound issues. The other theater, a motorcycle goes by and you can hear it. But I have not once heard anything in there that wasn’t a sound effect that they were playing.”
“That,” he says, “was money well spent.”
In addition to the production of ‘Guys and Dolls’ at the Colligan Theater (see page 26), the Tannery Arts Center will host a Thursday Art Market on Thursday, Dec. 3 (3 to 6 p.m.) and a Winter Art Market, Friday, Dec. 6 (6-9 p.m.) through Sunday Dec. 8 (Saturday and Sunday hours are noon-5 p.m.). There will be arts and crafts from more than 50 artists—everything from paintings to jewelry to glass art, candles, cards and more. There will also be art demonstrations, live music and dance, card and ornament making, and more.