Construction workers, some dressed in flannel, some in suits and loosely knotted ties, arrived at the theater and walked right past the celebratory wine. The keg was in another room.
They were in Midtown on Thursday night for an evening of theater appreciation of sorts — an "arts" event for men and women who don't usually get out to shows. But these folks know more about the theater than most.
They had dug its foundation, poured the concrete, welded the framework, and though most were enjoying the barbecue, others were still laying the carpet and installing the stage floor as the party went on.
Today, the public gets to inspect their labor, the new Playhouse on the Square on the corner of Cooper and Union, a $12.5 million arts facility that is the largest new building project undertaken by a Memphis arts organization.
"It's a game changer," said Susan Schadt, president and CEO of ArtsMemphis, which gave Playhouse $500,000 — its largest grant ever — for the construction. "At a time when the arts are threatened on so many levels, it's something that the community could really get behind."
The workers who built it are only a fraction of that community, which Playhouse hopes to bring together under its big, new roof.
Playhouse's executive director Jackie Nichols said that building a new theater was borne of necessity. The company's artistic quality had outgrown its two converted movie theaters, one at 51 S. Cooper, and the other, Circuit Playhouse, at 1705 Poplar.
"We determined that in order to grow, we needed a better facility," he said. "Once we showed other arts groups what our new home was going to be, they all wanted to be part of it."
One attraction is the size of the theater, designed by the Chicago-based Morris Planners/Architects, the firm that created the renowned Steppenwolf and Lookingglass theaters in Chicago.
With 348 seats, and no seat farther than 30 feet from the stage, the auditorium gives other arts groups the kind of space they'd been pining for. It's a mid-sized venue they can afford to rent for one or two weekends and not have trouble filling to capacity.
The designs were changed to make the stage compatible with ballet and opera. One row of seats was removed and the stage deepened to accommodate Ballet Memphis' dancers. Acoustical panels and an orchestra pit that can fit up to 22 musicians make the theater suitable for chamber opera.
Michael Ching, artistic and general director of Opera Memphis, says that at a time when opera fans are flocking to movie theaters for High-Definition Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, regional companies have to offer a different kind of experience.
"We're not going to out-Met the Met," Ching said. "But now we can do something up-close-and-personal. When we do have a performance at Playhouse, we can try emphasizing the theatrical over the grandness, and it's something we can take seriously."
There are few arts administrators in Memphis who haven't gone on one of Nichols' many hard-hat tours of the building, or put their trust in his vision of a Midtown arts hub.
He convinced Jon Hornyak, senior executive director of the Recording Academy Memphis Chapter, to hold its regional conference there in April.
"There's something in all of us in the arts world that wants us to band together in a certain degree," Hornyak said. "He's building a stage people want to come to. Historically, Midtown is where a lot of the music studios are. We wanted a Midtown venue."
Les Edwards, board chair of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, said the versatility of the space won him over. Several movie premieres will be held there in October.
Nichols looked beyond the performing arts as the space was being designed. The new theater has four art galleries, and another in the five-story office building next door, which the company also owns.
Getting the support of other arts groups may have also helped with the capital campaign, a $15.5-million fund drive ($3 million is still being raised for an endowment) that put big fundraising plans from other arts groups on hold until Playhouse was finished.
Nichols, 62, who founded the theater in 1963 when he was in high school, has steadily grown the company through careful budgeting and frugal living. His own salary is less than $40,000, though he runs the city's largest arts group in terms of property. It owns and maintains four theaters, an apartment building for guest artists, a storage warehouse used by the Opera and the Ballet and a theater school.
All the property is paid for, including the new theater.
"When I first saw people doing theater as a child, I thought, 'This is what I want my community to look like,' " Nichols said. "The people onstage are rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight. Other producers I've known are in it to see what they can get out of it. For me, I find joy in creating opportunities for people. Your soul needs to be fed. And the arts feed the soul of the city."
Walk Right in
Playhouse on the Square is giving free tours of its new building from 1 to 6 p.m. today. The building is at 66 S. Cooper. Call 725-0776.
Inside the new arts center:
A 348-seat auditorium, with no seat more than 30 feet from the stage, and a 7- to 10-inch rise between rows, making for a better view over the person in front
A rooftop garden, which will be open during shows and also rented out for private events
Five art galleries, one dedicated to work from the Memphis College of Art
A large rehearsal and warm-up room with a sprung floor for dancers.
A cafe and bar for pre- or postshow parties
Within the five-story office building attached to Playhouse are the theater's business offices, costume shop, dressing rooms, green room, rehearsal rooms and two floors of office space that will be rented to other nonprofit organizations.
A scene shop that is twice the size of its former space
A ground-level meditation garden
A "trapped" stage, meaning sections can be removed, allowing pieces of scenery or actors to be raised or lowered through the stage floor