Esther Simplot wants a new performing arts venue in Boise. Will this study justify it?

Does Boise need a new midsized theater?

The widow of billionaire J.R. Simplot is helping fund a study that could assess whether there is enough need in the community for a midsize theater that could be used by Opera Idaho and other organizations. The study is scheduled to be finished by
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The widow of billionaire J.R. Simplot is helping fund a study that could assess whether there is enough need in the community for a midsize theater that could be used by Opera Idaho and other organizations. The study is scheduled to be finished by

Does Boise need a new performing arts theater?

Esther Simplot thinks so. The widow of billionaire J.R. Simplot is helping to pay for a study to assess whether enough support exists for a midsize theater that could be used by Opera Idaho and other organizations.

Meanwhile, there has been talk of the Shakespeare Festival building its own indoor venue someday to produce theater year-round, though no plans have been announced.

For the Opera Idaho study, two options are on the table:

▪ Should the company pursue building a new, midsize theater that could also be used by other performing arts groups?

▪ Or, can the Egyptian Theatre, its current home, be renovated into more of an actual theater?

Simplot, who is 83, is involved in this study, though “just on the fringes,” she told the Statesman in a email. She would be a likely benefactor of a new theater.

“If I can make it happen that Esther can have this theater in her lifetime, that would be kinda cool,” said Mark Junkert, Opera Idaho’s general director.

Q: Why does Simplot think Boise needs a new venue?

A: Mostly because Opera Idaho, which she supports, is cramped when it performs at the Egyptian Theater but overextended when it performs at the Morrison Center at Boise State University.

The 750-seat Egyptian was built 91 years ago as a movie theater. It has no backstage or offstage wings, and the dressing rooms are inadequate, said Opera Idaho General Director Mark Junkert. There is no orchestra pit, so the musicians and audience are on the same level.

The 2,000-seat Morrison Center is too large in its natural state for the opera company to fill. The opera uses a flexible-curtain system the Morrison installed in 2012 to bring the house size down to 1,300, and also make it more affordable. But even with the curtain, the long, sloping main floor diminishes intimacy during a performance, and it can get expensive to fill the largest proscenium stage in Idaho with a set. (A proscenium stage is the most common indoor stage, and frames a performance like a painting. As in a movie theater, all audience members see the performance from one general direction.)

Currently the opera performs four main-stage productions each season, three at the Egyptian and one at the Morrison.

“We’re at the point where we need an adequate theater for the company to grow,” Junkert said.

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Mark Junkert, Opera Idaho’s general director, shows off “the dungeon,” a room under the Egyptian Theater’s stage that is sometimes used by Opera Idaho performers for costume changes because the theater lacks backstage space. Kelsey Grey

Q: Do other arts organizations want a new venue?

Ballet Idaho and the Boise Philharmonic could potentially use a new venue, but both organizations are in flux. The Philharmonic is still searching for its next executive director. Ballet Idaho will transition to its new artistic director next season as Peter Anastos retires.

Ballet Idaho Executive Director Jenny Weaver said Boise could use another performance space and her company supports the opera’s pursuit and will participate in the study, though she’s not convinced Ballet Idaho would use it.

“We enjoy our current spaces,” Weaver said. “We’re filling the Morrison Center more than we have in the past, and using the curtain less. And we love our intimate space [upstairs at the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy], where our audience is close.”

With Morrison Center Executive Director James Patrick booking more performances, including shows with longer runs – he said it’s full about 200 dates out of the year on average – Junkert said it’s harder for local groups to get the dates that work for them.

Weaver said a smaller theater than the Morrison Center would allow for more Ballet Idaho performances, but it also would increase production costs.

“You have to pay the dancer, backstage crew, and the costs of renting costumes and sets,” Weaver said. “We would have to sell out every show to justify the costs.

“Plus, people like seeing us at the Morrison Center. It’s where all the big shows play when they come to town, and we want to be part of that.”

Q: Hasn’t the idea of another performing venue been studied already?

Yes. A similar study was done in 2012.

The idea of building a new 900- to 1,200-seat theater has been around even longer. When the Trey McIntyre Project set up in Boise in 2006, the dance company made a pitch to expand and improve the 435-seat Special Events Center at Boise State University. The idea got no traction.

In 2012, Esther Simplot commissioned a feasibility study to transform the Boise Centre into a performing arts center. At the time, the Morrison Center had just installed its flexible curtain. The study found that there wasn’t a need for another space.

Simplot was disappointed, as she has long wanted to build a theater for the groups she supports — the ballet, philharmonic and opera.

“While no location for any new venue has been determined, it has long been Opera Idaho’s desire for a theater in Downtown Boise,” the company said when it announced the new study last month.

Last year, the city of Boise commissioned a study looking at building a theater within the new Downtown library project to be designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. That study concluded that there is probably a need for a midsize and for a black-box theater, but that the library project was not the right venue for either. (A black-box theater is a rectangular room with black walls and a floor shared by the performers and the audience.) The library instead will contain a flexible event space with about 300 seats.

The city’s study was the impetus for the opera’s new study, Junkert said.

DieFledermaus 2016 (2)
Opera Idaho’s 2016 production of “Die Fledermaus” is one of the many operas the company has produced at the Egyptian Theatre since 2008. A new study will consider whether the former movie house can be further adapted into a more viable performance space. Peter Bumbarger Provided by Opera Idaho

Q: Can the Egyptian be made to work for the opera and other groups?

Possibly. The study will consider that, too.

The Egyptian was built in 1927 and has been remodeled twice, in 1979 and 1990. Boisean Earl Hardy bought it in 1977 to save it from demolition. His daughter, Kay Hardy, and the Hardy Foundation refurbished it in 1999 to return it to its original splendor. Hardy and her husband, architect Gregory Kaslo, support the new study. The foundation is helping to pay for it.

“It’s the one theater left of all those old theaters that were destroyed in the name of urban renewal in the 1970s,” Junkert says. “The Egyptian should have a life and I don’t know what that life should be, but we owe Kay and Gregory a first shot. Let’s at least see.”

The Egyptian is used today as a film venue and a music venue, almost equally. Hardy and Kaslo have already made some improvements to the space to accommodate the company, such as updating the rigging and acquiring a removable platform stage.

A study that Opera Idaho commissioned in 2014 looked at adding an orchestra pit and dressing rooms. It determined that both could be done, by excavating where the pipe organ is stored under the floor for the pit, and making a third level out of two on the Capitol Boulevard side where there are two small upstairs dressing rooms.

The new study will look at ways to improve the entire space for performance, and to possibly add seating.

“We need to keep the interior character,” Kaslo said. “They can excavate as far down as they want, and maybe they could purchase part of the parking garage to build out the stage.”

Surveys of Opera Idaho audiences revealed that people prefer the intimate experience of the Egyptian over the Morrison, Junkert says.

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“Singers love singing here,” says Opera Idaho General Director Mark Junkert, on the Egyptian’s stage. “It’s intimate. Great sound. And the audience ... loves it as well.” Kelsey Grey

Q: Who’s doing the study?

Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, a San Francisco-based consulting firm, will be in Boise in mid-March.

APF is one of the go-to consultants for theaters and other performance venues throughout the world. It helped adapt The California, a deco-style movie house, into a 1,150-seat performance space used by Opera San Jose and the San Jose Symphony. The $58 million project was completed in 2004. The firm also helped develop a new structure for the University of Denver’s Newman Performing Arts Center that includes the 1,000-seat June Swaner Gates Concert Hall. They’re both examples of what could happen here, Junkert says.

The company has consulted on at least five projects in Idaho, including the Sun Valley Pavilion, which opened in 2008, and the Argyros Performing Arts Center, which is now being built on the former nexStage Theatre site at 120 Main St. in Ketchum.

The study is scheduled to be finished by June.

Q: What will happen once the study is finished?

A feasibility study is just the beginning of creating a new venue. For example, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival did such a study in 1993, and it took five years before the festival announced its public capital campaign to build its current amphitheater on Warm Springs Avenue.

That theater opened in 1998, but it was another five years before the grounds and interpretive center were complete.

“There’s always a long path, and the devil is in the details,” said Idaho Shakespeare Festival Managing Director Mark Hofflund, who shepherded much of that process.

The company initially looked at adapting spaces such as a warehouse that is now the Knitting Factory, or building its own facility.

“What happens when you do these studies is that you ask questions that give you a broader sense of possibilities,” he said. “And you get more information to make a collective decision. For us, what it led to is something the community now values highly.”

Q: Would the community support a new theater financially?

Junkert thinks so, if the study justifies it. For him, this project is personal.

When Junkert started 10 years ago the opera’s budget was around $439,000. The 2018-19 budget will be just over $1 million. The company is growing and taking performances to Pocatello and Sun Valley.

After investing 10 years in the company, Junkert recently extended his contract to 2022.

“We need a standard theater for the kind of opera we do,” Junkert said. “We determined that we needed to lead this process, and we’re in a better spot to do so than we’ve ever been in our history.”

There needs to be a groundswell of broad community support – not just for construction but to manage, administer and sustain a theater over time.

Junkert said the Treasure Valley has grown in the six years since the last study the opera and Simplot commissioned. “We might get a different result now,” he said.

Dana Oland: 208-377-6442, @DanaOland