A thriving home for all the arts
● By J. Chambless
(Photo by Arhscana Images) Professional dancers will perform as part of the debut show by Nickerson-Rossi Dance on June 2, 3 and 4.
By John Chambless
Six years ago, putting a theater in the
middle of West Chester seemed like a great idea, but not really
possible. But during a tour of the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts
Center in April, Michael Nickerson-Rossi showed off the results: A
pristine main theater space with brand-new seating, lighting and
sound system; studio space upstairs and downstairs; two bar/reception
areas; two immaculate new dressing rooms; rehearsal spaces … In
short, everything a performing arts organization could need.
The former national Guard Armory building looks the same on the outside, but the inside is a hive of activity, providing a broad, diverse lineup of music, theater, dance, film screenings and classes. It's been a long road, but after a New Year's Eve kickoff party and four months of full-time activity, the future looks limitless.
“I'm based in the greater Los Angeles area, where the company is from,” he said. “I also own the brand-new Palm Springs Dance Festival. I had been in that area all of my L.A. dance career. The company had been touring in Italy, and we brought in international guest artists. My family's from this area, and they let me know about this new project. With my connections, I feel I can make this an outstanding Mecca for dance. Eventually, I will do a dance festival in the West and here. The company is Nickerson-Rossi Dance, so we have NRD West and NRD East. I'm flying two of my dancers from the West to our performance here for our East Coast premiere on June 2, 3 and 4.” Nickerson-Rossi, who leads Nickerson-Rossi Dance, a resident modern dance company at the theater, can't wait to get started. Sitting in the main auditorium, where the seats still have a new-car smell, he explained how the company landed in West Chester.
That show, “Blueprints,” will “offer the community the makeup of dance, how I feel I will program dance in this theater,” he said.
Nickerson-Rossi offers training for young dancers, and will bring in four professional artists in July – one each week – to teach workshops and choreograph a dance with the students. The results will be shown in a summer program on Aug. 19. “So I'm giving them some really great experiences,” he said.
But there's lots more going on at the performing arts center. There are nine resident companies who either rehearse or perform there, and the West Chester Studio for the Performing Arts is opening doorways to theater for young people across the region. Therese Walden-Murphy is a professional actress who leads classes in various aspects of theater for ages 4 through adults. She's also the education director for Uptown. “When I was interviewing here, I was asked if I saw myself competing with the Brandywine Ballet Company, but no, we're a modern, contemporary company,” he added. “In the borough, there are no others. That's what the exciting part is. There's a lot of people from Delaware, from different counties, who travel into Philly to see dance, and now they can come here.”
“I brought West Chester Studio to Uptown to be their education program,” she said. “My way of looking at education for young children through the arts is that we do bring in children who might want to work in the industry professionally, but most of the children are not going to go into the industry. But they can learn so much from the performing arts. My thought is that if I can teach kids to connect with themselves, find out who they are and get them to express their ideas, that they will be better off, and do whatever it is they want to do.”
This summer, the studio is offering seven camps for kids to explore acting, singing, dancing and improvisation. Registration is open now.
After Uptown was allowed to buy the vacant Armory from the state for $760,000 in May 2015 and broke ground just under a year ago, “We raised $4.2 million,” said executive director Angela Scully, “but it cost more than that, so we need to raise another $500,000-plus, and we also need to re-do the outside of the building. It has to be done with historic preservation in mind, so it's not just power-washing. So we're still looking for funding, and we have naming opportunities available.” The theater has evolved from four friends discussing the need for a theater in West Chester to the present-day staff of two full-time paid employees, some part-time technical workers, a 24-member board of directors, an advisory board and an array of donors.
“I've seen so many theaters go under,” Walden-Murphy said, “because the only thing that's supporting that building is one theater company. What I think is great about Uptown is they are pulling in all of these creative arts and allowing them all to support the building.”
Outside rentals of the facilities are available as well, Scully said, adding to the financial support for the arts companies. “Someone is renting the bar for a wedding brunch,” she said. “Someone else is renting a space upstairs for their office party. Another person rented the upstairs space for his album launch.”
Leslie Telthorster, who handles publicity for Uptown, said that surveys distributed to those who came to see the debut production came back saying, “We came expecting to see community theater, but got a whole lot more,” she said, smiling. “And people are learning that we have all these other things happening.” That kind of endorsement will pay off when audiences return to see other productions, or concerts, or dance shows. The initial board backed the idea of bringing in the Resident Theater Company, which made a spectacular splash with their initial production of “Monty Python's Spamalot,” which sold out nearly its entire run from March 31 to April 16.
Scully said the center is running at about 85 percent capacity, “and our schedule is quite full,” but there's room for more. “For us, the goal was having a mix of the arts so we would have a cross-pollination,” she said. “I love when I see people come in for 'Spamalot' and they are bringing their grandchildren back for Therese's shows, or they come for a concert or a travel adventure film screening. That's what we were looking for when we started.”
At the New Year's Eve kickoff gala this year, Scully said, there weren't any chairs installed yet in the theater space, but 550 guests filled the building, even dancing on the stage to celebrate the opening of a new attraction in downtown West Chester. The mood was upbeat and optimistic.
With West Chester University's arts departments on the southern end of town, and now Uptown on the northern end, the borough is bracketed by the arts. The downtown business community has been a firm supporter as well, Scully said.
“I think they saw this as the missing piece of West Chester,” she said.
For more information about the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (226 N. High St., West Chester), visit www.uptownwestchester.org. For information about the West Chester Studio for the Performing Arts, visit www.westchesterstudio.com.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.