The cultural architects for the new Greater Plymouth Performing Arts Center believe their repurposed performance space will be both a home for local talent and a drawing card for performing artists from all over.
“We needed a place where we could have theater productions,” said Bob Hollis, president of the center’s board of directors. “The North Street library was too small.”
And Memorial Hall, the World War I era auditorium where the town orchestra plays, was too big. The town’s North Street library has been renovated to serve as a visual arts center with a small meeting space. Memorial Hall has 1,400 seats.
But the space the performing arts center’s board members found, a former church with great acoustics and a prominent steeple in Plymouth Center, was just right. The hall will not only be the right atmosphere for theater, Hollis said, but also for music, dance, comedy, and children’s shows.
“It will be world class,” Jake Hill, a singer-songwriter who has released four CDs and performed nationally, said of the new facility. “We’ve been working toward that goal. It will be for all types of music. Big, big names will want to play there.”
“The room itself was built to be tuned for the natural sound,” said Hill, 30, who grew up in Plymouth. “Just hooting into the air or clapping in the air you can hear the reverberations.”
A member of the local group Plymouth Community Theatre and owner of his own insurance agency, Hollis spent a long time looking for a Plymouth location for arts and artists who do not need a huge audience to prosper. When he found it, he helped form Greater Plymouth Performing Arts Center Inc., earned its legal nonprofit status, began raising money, and drew up a strategic plan to buy the 19th-century building located prominently in the town center and a business plan to operate it.
In addition to Hollis, the new group drew on the skills and experience of board members attorney Lloyd Rosenberg, CPA Ben Husted Jr., music teacher Donna Hollis, architectural designer Renee Nardo, and recording artist Hill.
Then the group went to Town Meeting to propose that the town buy the building at 25½ Court St., a church built by the Methodists in 1880 and bought in 1976 by the town’s Beth Jacob Jewish congregation to use as its community center. The group also needed funds for repairs to the old church to meet the building code.
Drawing on a network of creative and financial expertise, the group wooed and won the support of selectmen and other local boards, then persuaded Town Meeting to approve $360,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to buy the building and grant the center a 99-year lease to operate it.
Questions were asked at Town Meeting, Hollis said. The town has invested in recent years in the preservation of other historic buildings, notably the 1820 Federalist courthouse, only to see development plans languish. But the plan won the approval of three-quarters of the meeting.
Town Meeting also granted the group $285,000 to bring it up to code. The center has also raised $60,000 for a sound system and other improvements and christened the building The Spire after a naming contest.
After three years of planning and renovations — the sprinkler system has been installed, bathrooms were being framed up, and the lower-level multipurpose room was being rewired earlier this month — the center is looking forward to a series of grand opening events in April.
“One last hurdle,” Hollis said. “We have to get a variance before the Mass. Architectural Board. There’s no place to put an elevator.”
ADA rules require an elevator for accessibility, but historic buildings can apply for relief from the rule if the elevator would destroy the character of the building, Hollis said.
“The whole three-floor building will be utilized,” said Allison DiMaggio, the center’s director of communications.
On a walk-through recently, Hollis showed off the lower-level home of Mark Bryant’s Seasound Audio and Telecom studio, which has been servicing telecommunication systems for local businesses for two decades. Plans call for the building to have four tenants, including a performing arts school. Rentals from the tenants will pay for the building’s operating costs, Hollis said. And fees from performances in the auditorium will pay for future restoration or capital costs.
The main floor lobby can be used for small audience gatherings such as open mikes. Upstairs, a balcony will provide space for video recording of performances.
The heart of the building, the former sanctuary — with its pews, patterned ceiling, colored-glass windows, chandeliers, and excellent acoustics — will become an auditorium that seats 225. The elevated altar space is now a broad stage area, with room on the wings for the center’s new electric piano and a concealed stairway for the performers. Additional lighting and a new sound system are being installed.
“But the acoustics are already so good,” DiMaggio said, “that most groups probably won’t use it.”
Hollis said he anticipates that about three-quarters of the performances will be musical. Some acts will be local or regional but even groups with a national profile are looking for more intimate settings, he said.
“Two hundred and fifty seats is the sweet spot for theaters now,” Hollis said.
A series of opening celebration events will kick off with a community open house on April 5, followed by a Gala Variety Show and reception on April 11, a celebrity benefit concert on May 16, and Plymouth’s first-ever Jazz Festival on May 24-25.
The variety show will illustrate the range of arts and performance styles to which the new center lends itself. The lineup includes the Johnny Souza Trio, theatrical excerpts by Bay Colony Shakespeare Company and the Plymouth Community Theatre, a skit by Boston’s Improv Asylum, and sets by singer-songwriters Mark Whitaker, Hayley Sabella, and Jake Hill and the Deep Creek Band.
The May 16 benefit concert features a program produced as part of Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concert series, performed by nationally renowned baritone Andrew Garland of Kingston and Warren Jones, an accompliehed piano accompanist.
Performers for the Jazz Festival are still being lined up.
Hollis said events such as the open house are a thank-you to the community for its support of the project.
“This is a celebration not only of the vibrant arts mecca that Plymouth has become,” he said, “but also of a supportive community that has ensured our success.”Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.