Leaders and patrons of the arts organizations that call the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center home are watching closely as the city considers future options for the iconic round building with the blue roof.
Music Theatre Wichita is among the performing arts groups that have a strong interest in the upcoming decisions.
In the basement of Century II, carpenters are cutting large pieces of flat wood planks. These boards are part of an elaborate set being created for an upcoming show in Music Theatre Wichita’s summer season.
MTW’s costume workshop is set up in a small area near the scene shop. There are large cutting tables with stacks of colorful fabric nearby. Dress forms hold some of the clothing designs; two big tables are covered in sewing machines.
About a dozen people work in the costume shop, creating wardrobes for the actors, actresses and dancers who perform five musicals each season. And that’s a lot of sewing: The smaller shows might need about 75 costumes; the larger productions require 300 or more.
Seamstress Deborah Roberts lives and works in Los Angeles and has been coming to Music Theatre Wichita for more than 25 years to design costumes and run the shop.
“This is the only place that I know of that you can actually come and create costumes from scratch,” she says. “Most shows come in on a truck that’s already built so you don’t get the experience that you do here.”
MTW also has workshops where props are built and massive fabric backdrops are hand-painted on a mobilized frame.
Producing artistic director Wayne Bryan says Music Theatre Wichita is one of the few remaining regional theatres to create original productions.
“What we do is so unique, it’s kind of hard for people to grasp that it actually happens here the way it does,” Bryan says. “We’ve learned how to put on a Broadway show with 10 days of rehearsal and just a couple of weeks of building sets, props and costumes.”
The nonprofit theatre company has been creating and staging its Broadway-style productions at Century II since 1972. The theatre group has adapted to the building’s structural challenges over the years and has paid for a number of improvements, “to all of our mutual benefit,” Bryan says. “It has allowed us to do better productions and it’s allowed touring entities to come to Century II.”
The problem now, Bryan says, is dealing with a 48-year old facility greatly in need of maintenance.
“Last year, two of our elevators broke down and could not be put back online overnight,” he says. “And that’s a sign that the aging of the building is going to catch up with us and needs major rethinking either in terms of renovation or replacement.”
Other long-term tenants — the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, Wichita Grand Opera and Music Theatre for Young People are also based at Century II — agree.
Symphony CEO Don Reinhold says sound bleed is an ongoing issue in the Concert Hall.
“As a symphony orchestra, that sound issue is the most critical because we are like painters. We paint on a canvas of silence,” he says. “And if that silence is disrupted by a thumping bass speaker next door in the exhibition hall and we’re trying to paint a Messiah or a Mahler symphony, it doesn’t work.”
Reinhold says he wants the city to protect and preserve the performing arts as it makes decisions about the future of Century II.
“The issue of how to replace or renovate the building has to be taken into consideration as to how that impacts all of us. And that’s a very complicated issue,” Reinhold says.
Both Reinhold and MTW’s Bryan are worried that whatever decision the city makes regarding what’s next for Century II could have an impact on their daily operations.
“We have to be able to retain our operations because if we were told, ‘We’re sorry, but you have to take a hiatus for two years or three,’ which is probably the minimal kind of time we’d be looking at to renovate [the existing building], that would put us out of business,” Reinhold says.
Bryan says a hiatus could hurt the size of the group’s audience and workforce in the long run.
“For us to stay viable, we just have to have a facility somewhere in the city that allows us to do what we do,” he says.
So far, the city hasn’t been able to come up with a plan that the community could support or afford during 15 years of discussions.
To help move the process along, City Manager Robert Layton says they’ve hired a consultant to look at the possibility of a public-private partnership and other revenue sources, such as naming rights as financing options.
“We’ve looked at some possibilities both for remodeling the facility as well as for building a new facility,” he says. “Now what we want to do is look at the development of funding alternatives, recognizing that the cost of a new facility or even a remodeled facility could be very expensive."
John D’Angelo is director of Arts and Cultural Services for the City of Wichita and manages Century II.
“I don’t think there’s any one way to pay for it. I think there’s going to be a combination of funding sources,” he says. “So I think what we need to do is put a package together and I that’s why we want to get this piece done because that helps us then talk about what does that look like.”
D’Angelo says the current state of Century II is already affecting their bottom line. Convention business has been down the past five years, and the Concert Hall stage, with its curved design, can’t accommodate some off-Broadway touring shows that want to come here.
"It’s either we don’t have enough line sets, the stage isn’t deep enough, the wings space isn’t deep enough, the ceiling won’t support,” he says. “So we’ve had to pass on a few that we wish we were able to get."
He says any plan going forward needs to balance the needs of two separate operations.
“I think you also have to always remember that Century II is not just a performing arts center, but it is also a convention center, and we really look at them as two separate business models because they operate differently,” he says.
The consultant’s report is expected by the end of the summer, and the city will use the information to come up with design and financing plans. The community will be able to offer input at public meetings and social media forums this fall. The goal is to get a proposal to city council by the end of the year.
D’Angelo says the decision to remodel or replace Century II will include accommodations for the performing arts groups.
“We have always talked about a phased approach to the construction as well because we recognize that if we put them out for a season or more, then that could harm them as an organization,” he says.
Layton says sustaining convention business is a different story.
“The convention business may be a little harder [to accommodate]. We may have a down season or a down year, but again, that’s a couple of steps down the road. And right now, we have to determine how best to move forward in terms of the cost of the building and the revenue,” Layton says.
The city is also considering what to do with 30 acres surrounding the convention center and the Central Library. The library is just as old as Century II and will be vacated when the new Advanced Learning Library opens at Second Street and McLean next year.
With so much development now occurring west side of the Arkansas River, Layton says the timing is right to address Century II.
“The whole idea is to energize the river, and we recognize that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing with the convention center so this is probably the best time to come up with a solution,” he says.
Meanwhile, the show must go on for Music Theatre Wichita’s 46th season. They’re finishing up props for the Newsies and The Hunchback of Notre Dame shows that will debut this summer.
Wayne Bryan says he knows that the city faces tough choices as it moves forward with developing a plan for Century II.
“It’s very tricky, and I don’t envy our city leaders. They don’t have an easy path, and I don’t believe that anybody is just blowing off the importance of this,” Bryan says. “I think they all realize it is a key element to keeping downtown viable.”
When the final curtain falls in August, Bryan and his crew of 300 will pack up the props, scenery and costumes from this season and move it all into storage.
Next year there will be new shows and sets to build, and, just maybe, there will be a new chapter starting for Century II.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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