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Groups look for right fit in booking acts

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A Lotus dance is performed during the 2014 Chinese New Year Gala on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 at the Columbus East High School Auditorium.
A Lotus dance is performed during the 2014 Chinese New Year Gala on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 at the Columbus East High School Auditorium.

When area arts groups talk about the kind of performance space they want in Columbus, it brings to mind the famous fairy tale about Goldilocks and the three bears.

For some local venues, the performing arts space is too big.

For others, the space is too small.

And for nearly everyone, the “just-right” space doesn’t exist.

When looking for a place to perform, Columbus arts groups choose from:

Judson S. Erne Auditorium at Columbus North High School.

Robbins Auditorium at Columbus East High School.

Southside Elementary School auditorium.

The Nugent Custer Performance Hall and the Miller-Tangeman Lower Lobby at The Commons.

YES Cinema.

The Harlequin Theatre at FairOaks Mall.

Various church sanctuaries.

During warm-weather months, outdoor events also can be booked at:

Mill Race Amphitheatre.

Donner Park.

David Bowden, artistic director for the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, acknowledged that there are venues the orchestra can and does use in Columbus, but he said most aren’t ideal for performances.

“A dedicated performing arts facility is probably, in my opinion, one of the most-needed additions to the community,” he said. “Our community is a very supportive community of the arts, and most of the arts groups struggle because we lack appropriate facilities for doing our basic mission.”

A new theater that seats 1,200 people is needed, Bowden said.

The Philharmonic performs most of its concerts in the 1,067-seat Erne Auditorium at Columbus North, but it’s not ideal, Bowden said.

For example, Philharmonic musicians are not able to store their instruments at North High School, and the group continually negotiates over the space that is shared with the high school, local middle schools and other performing groups, Bowden said.

Columbus East’s Robbins Auditorium has been used by the Philharmonic, but not recently because of limitations such as its location, steep seating that can be difficult for patrons to navigate and a cracked theater shell, Bowden said.

The Philharmonic last used Columbus East’s auditorium in 2011 because Columbus North was booked, he said.

However, not everyone believes a new performance center is the answer.

“I don’t think Columbus needs another venue. I really don’t,” said Robert Hay-Smith, owner and director of the Harlequin Theatre at the FairOaks Mall.

With The Commons, plus school performance venues at Columbus East, Columbus North and Southside Elementary, Hay-Smith asked: “How many auditoriums does this town need?”

The Harlequin Theatre seats up to 150 people and hosts musicals, plays, concerts, stand-up comedians, one-man shows and private events.

Hay-Smith has had to turn away people on a number of occasions after selling out.

However, people in Columbus aren’t going out for entertainment as they did in the past, he said. He called the current performance venues adequate for the market’s needs.

Columbus residents can learn more about the ongoing debate over more and different types of performance space when the city revisits its Crump Theatre feasibility study in a public session 5 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.

In this encore presentation of a March 24 gathering, people can review proposals for the currently closed Crump, two of which include bulldozing it and starting over. Also presented will be options from Lafayette-based architectural firm Jones & Phillips Associates about the downtown Sears property, which consultants say could become the site of a 1,200-seat performing arts center.

The Jones & Phillips study says Columbus lacks performance space for live music tours and theater performances. Existing venues in Columbus would not suit the needs of many major traveling performing production, the consultants said.

Commissioned to evaluate future uses of the Crump, the consultants decided to expand on the idea of a Sears site arts center after the department store chain announced plans to vacate its downtown building.

Consultant Van Phillips said Columbus needs two types of performance venues — a touring house that has seating for about 1,200 people and a community facility that has seating for 300 to 600 people, neither of which exists in Columbus now.

Columbus could support the new performing arts center at the Sears site and renovate the Crump, which has 632 seats, into a 300- to 450-seat theater with perhaps a bar and restaurant, Phillips said.

That plan would cost roughly $30 million to build a new arts center and another $4 million to renovate the Crump, Phillips said.

The city’s umbrella arts organization, The Columbus Area Arts Council, uses The Commons, outdoor venues at Donner Park and Mill Race Park and a new outdoor plaza at Washington and Fourth streets as locations for its events throughout the year.

Those spaces are all “home to the arts,” said Karen Shrode, the arts council’s executive director.

Each has limitations, however, she said.

The Commons doesn’t have “wing space,” extra space hidden from the audience at each side of the stage where performers enter or exit, or “fly space,” which is the space that holds specialty lighting and allows workers to move stage sets on and off stage.

Not having those areas limits what types of acts can be booked, Shrode said.

Anything scheduled for an outdoor venue has to deal with potential bad weather.

About 4,000 spectators had to be evacuated from the Aug. 31 Tommy James and the Shondells Hospice fundraiser because of heavy rain.

It marked the third straight year that the Our Hospice of South Central Indiana event was affected by weather. The Three Dog Night concert was moved indoors to Columbus North High School’s gymnasium in 2012. The year before, the concert featuring Grand Funk Railroad had to be canceled when a thunderstorm whipped through the downtown park before the band took the stage.

Shrode said there is no one-stop-shop for performances in Columbus and that recent discussion of a new performance space is warranted.

“We would love to see a robust performing arts environment here, an even larger one than we have now,” she said.

John Johnson, who works with the Mill Race Players acting group and the drama department at Columbus North High School, said the high school’s auditorium can be too big for the actors’ needs. But it is currently their only option for performance space.

“It’s really disheartening to sell 300 seats in a 1,000-seat house,” he said. “I think one of the things the community is missing is a facility that has 400 seats.”

When looking at the school facilities and the Nugent Custer Hall on the upper level of The Commons, the consultants did not see the kind of performing space they believe the city needs.

The Nugent Custer Hall can book only some small music shows and family theater shows, the consultants said. The performance hall can accommodate 450 seated around tables and 700 seated in a theater format, according to The Commons website.

Margaret Powers, executive director of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, said the group had used The Commons performance space but that the sound quality was below standards.

The Nugent Custer Hall “isn’t a performing arts facility, no matter what people thought when it was built,” the consultants said.

One floor below in The Commons is the Miller-Tangeman Lower Lobby, which recently was upgraded with a new $16,000 sound system, said Shanda Sasse, Commons manager.

The area can be used for small musical performances and presentations, she said. But it is primarily a lobby area and has limited seating availability about 30 to 40 people.

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