It’s spring break week for many Syracuse schools, and RedHouse’s student arts programs are in full swing. Young musicians are jamming under the tutelage of visiting guest instructors, teenage thespians are practicing their staging, and elementary-school artists are singing and munching on snacks in the performance room. Yet, sitting in the lobby of the new RedHouse complex at City Center, you’d never guess that there are one thousand bodies in the building.
The lobby is remarkably quiet, even peaceful, as RedHouse staff simultaneously run their student arts programs, dismantle the set and materials from last week’s production of ‘Snow Queen’, and continue to settle into their new space.
Such a range of projects would have been impossible in the old RedHouse building on 201 West Street. Opened in 2004, the original RedHouse featured a 90 seat theater, a small lobby/cafe, and limited performance spaces for musicians.
While the original RedHouse offered a uniquely intimate theater experience, public interest in performances and other programs quickly outstripped the size of the space. Students, actors, instructors, and administrators all rubbed shoulders as staff scrambled to find space and time for its many programs.
“We would have to start from zero with every show,” recalls Samara Hannah, the executive director at RedHouse. “It was so inefficient, and it really burned out our staff.”
With expansion in mind, RedHouse purchased a $2 million ownership stake in the City Center building in June 2014. The City Center complex, located at 400 S. Salina Street, is the former home of local landmark Sibley’s department store. RedHouse remodeled the space that once served as Sibley’s warehouse, pumping $8 million into designing, constructing and outfitting the space.
Construction proceeded quickly, with RedHouse obtaining a certificate of occupancy after a mere ten months of active construction. Hannah points out subtle vestiges of the building’s past in the new layout: several hallways feature exposed marble, left over from the Sibley days.
RedHouse executive director Samara Hannah in one of the building's new theaters.
While ‘Old RedHouse’, as Hannah and her team refer to the West Street building, featured a single theater, the ‘New RedHouse’ has two designated performance venues, the larger capable of seating up to 350 people. “The old building,” she adds, “defined the programs that we were able to offer. This new space is working for us, instead of us working around the space.”
An extensive AV system links the acoustically-sound performance rooms with both theaters, so that all productions can feature live music. It also provides actors with real-time footage of the mainstage.
Similar attention to detail defines the dressing rooms. All of the dressing rooms in RedHouse are handicap accessible, and several feature built-in lockers and walk-in showers.
These features came in handy during RedHouse’s recent production of “Snow Queen”, a joint venture with ARC of Onondaga that features actors with developmental disabilities alongside able-bodied professionals. Hannah notes with pride that both showings of Snow Queen completely sold out.
The new space also has ample office space for RedHouse’s fifty full-time employees, as well as overflow space for their extensive network of part-time staff and ‘artists in residence’.
Staff linger outside of the box office in the RedHouse entryway.
The new lobby, though, is the universal favorite feature. Complete with high ceilings, customizable lighting and a built-in bar, the lobby feels at once avant-garde and accessible. RedHouse is already fielding requests by external organizations to use the lobby space for corporate retreats, special events and fundraisers. Hannah and her staff are delighted by the interest. “We’re waking up this part of the city,” says Hannah.
She chalks up the lobby’s appeal to its big-city aesthetic, noting that the lobby “makes people feel like they’re somewhere special”.
Hannah and her staff are continuing to learn the intricacies of their new home as they prep for RedHouse’s grand opening on May 31, featuring a production of the musical 'La Cage Aux Folles'.
Moving to a new space offered the opportunity for Hannah, the RedHouse board, and staff to reevaluate the RedHouse’s mission and its many offerings. Hannah notes that certain programs have been strategically left behind in the ‘Old RedHouse’ as the organization sharpens its focus on consistently delivering high quality performances and services.
“This new space is going to enable us to be who we are, and be extremely good at what we do,” says Hannah.