Aspen District Theater is due for a bond-funded upgrade
Planners, consultants seek input on future use of on-campus theaters
The Aspen District Theater and Black Box could use some upgrades, according to attendees at Thursday’s community meeting at the Black Box.
The entrance to the District Theater — located inside the elementary school — is also the entrance to the school itself, prompting safety concerns as well as issues with flow; the theater also shares bathrooms with the elementary school. (The Black Box theater, located in the high school, has its entrance to the east of the main doors.)
Access to the neighboring venues, while central to the district campus, isn’t easy to navigate for those with mobility challenges. And spaces near the District Theater stage that might otherwise function as rehearsal space or dressing rooms are currently operating as preschool classrooms.
Plus, the two on-campus facilities see use not only from student performers but from other community arts organizations like Theatre Aspen and the Aspen Community Theatre. That offers an “incredible opportunity” for students to gain exposure to professional productions, but it also means the facilities face challenges with availability and management, said Tammy Baar, who has been involved in both student and community theater in Aspen for decades.
Bookings must be submitted months or even a year in advance, and professional groups don’t always have access to all the facilities (like dressing rooms or a scene shop) that they need at the same space because many spaces serve multiple purposes.
“Clearly, the uses of (the theater) are limited somewhat by the design,” said Kurt Hall, who serves as the vice president and district liaison for the Aspen Education Foundation, a nonprofit that funds a variety of initiatives in Aspen’s public schools.
There’s an “enormous” amount of potential, said Melanie Muss, a local parent and real estate agent who is also involved in the community theater scene.
But considering the high caliber of performance that often takes place at the venues, the facilities themselves are “substandard,” she said.
“I think people come despite the spaces. … It’s more than just aesthetics, it’s a whole flow,” Muss said.
These issues are hardly new; back in 2005, the campaign for a $33 million bond issue floated the idea of upgrades at the District Theater, but that remodel never happened.
But now, there’s more funding to go around thanks to voters’ approval of $94 million in bonds for facilities upgrades — including performing arts facilities — and teacher housing last November.
Thursday’s community meeting was part of a series of conversations happening this month to help consultants and planners evaluate how some of that bond funding will address the need for upgrades at the District Theater and Black Box.
Talks between planners and community members kicked off in earnest with Zoom and in-person meetings this week and will continue into the next week, Gena Buhler said in an interview after the community meeting.
Buhler has been in touch with a number of local arts leaders, but she and Gilbert Sanchez encourage anyone with input on the future of the District Theater and Black Box to reach out to both of them via email (email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively).
Architect Gilbert Sanchez, who has been extensively involved in the bond process with the district, facilitated the discussion alongside consultant Gena Buhler, the head of new business development in North America for the performing arts consulting company Theatre Projects. (Buhler previously served as the executive and artistic director of the Wheeler Opera House from 2015-2020.)
The target project costs for bond-funded updates to the District Theater and performing arts facilities is about $2-3 million, according to an Oct. 12 bond update that SitelogIQ’s Damion Spahr presented to the Aspen School District Board of Education.
A $6 million ballpark figure for the District Theater and performing arts improvements that was referenced during the community meeting was “simply an old number that was considered at one point in time,” said Spahr, who is a member of the owner representative team.
After years of master planning and pricing, an ultra-comprehensive, district-wide “wishlist” for improvements totaled $185 million in potential projects, $13.5 million of which was specific to performing arts, according to Sanchez.
In the meantime, “we’re going to have to prioritize,” Sanchez said. Doing so calls for an evaluation of the present and future uses of the two performing arts facilities.
Meeting attendees agreed that both the needs of the school’s students and the needs of the community should be part of the discussion moving forward; it’s not an either-or question but one of how to balance both.
Although the school owns and operates the structures, they are in no way exclusive to students, and the size of the District Theater — as well as the parking and bus accessibility available there — make it a “valley asset” with the potential to become a “world-class facility,” Hall said.
“I don’t think people realize what a unique asset it is,” Hall said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the approximate budget for bond funding for the District Theater and performing arts; it’s about $2-3 million, according to a bond update presented during an Oct. 12 Board of Education update.
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Come Tuesday afternoon, the Aspen School District Board of Education has some goals to set. Members will review their draft priorities for the 2021-22 school year and, if all goes according to the agenda, they’ll approve them, too.