Home is Where the Art Is
Arts Council To Reopen Court Square Theater
By JILLIAN LYNCH
Soon, the sights of flying bread at the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” funky local bands at MACROCK, theatrical performances by Valley Playhouse and edgy documentaries at the Hispanic Film Festival will have a home once again.
The Arts Council of the Valley board of directors voted unanimously to reopen Court Square Theater at its May meeting.
The council, which runs the theater, was waiting for the results of a nine month task force that drafted multiple business plans and explored the possibility of doing performing arts downtown without a designated space, or by partnering with nearby spaces like the Forbes Center at James Madison University.
“Every space has its strengths and weaknesses,” council Secretary Stephen Hess said. “There are certain things JMU students can’t do at the Forbes Center that they can do at Court Square.”
For example, during “Rocky Horror,” prop bags are given out; theatergoers can have food and drink; and with 260 seats, the space is more intimate than Forbes.
Theater fans and community members alike were devastated when the Arts Council decided to close the theater for at least a year last July due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the city cut funding for the theater in fiscal year 2020, many feared Court Square Theater might never reopen.
“I had a petition with 500 signatures on my desk,” said Jenny Burden, director of the Arts Council of the Valley. “A lot of people couldn’t imagine a downtown without Court Square Theater.”
“We’re not competitors with the Forbes Center,” Burden said. “They host national performing arts groups and JMU productions. Court Square Theater is the performing arts space for downtown.”
The theater is home to local and small-scale events in downtown Harrisonburg. It has a 53-foot-wide and 16-foot-deep stage with wings and a backstage with lighting, sound and a green room.
When the Arts Council surveyed community members, the response was overwhelmingly in support of continuing operations of the theater, which is known for showing Oscar-nominated documentaries and short films.
“The ACV has always supported diverse programming,” said Karina Kline-Gabel, organizer of the Hispanic Film Festival. “People from a lot of different communities in Harrisonburg attend.”
Even though there’s no set date for reopening yet, the Hispanic Film Festival, planned for early October, is moving along full speed ahead.
Valley Playhouse is planning a show for the fall and hopes it will be able to partner with Court Square in time.
“It would be wonderful to partner with Court Square Theater,” Valley Playhouse President JP Gulla said. “But you can’t plan a show without a location.”
The only “film” playing on the new projector these days is a two-hour loop of trailers and commercials used to keep the projector warm while the theater waits to open.
Before it can reopen, Court Square needs to replace the HVAC system and hire a managing director to run all aspects of the theater.
Burden also hopes to add a new marquee to the overhang on the side of the building to draw more attention to the theater. The existing marquee is blocked from view by a tree.
The council hopes to raise $150,000 and is launching a fundraising campaign. The money will cover the necessary costs to start up the theater again.
By early 2022, Burden said, she hopes the theater will return to its pre-pandemic schedule of daily events, including community meetings, concerts, theatrical performances and film screenings.
The council says it’s the community’s turn to show up at the theater and use it in addition to supporting it financially. “I’m excited to see what it can be,” Hess said. “I hope people realize it’s worth your energy, time and contributions.”
Burden said the council’s budget for the theater is roughly $500,000 annually.
While the city cut funding in fiscal year 2020, in 2021 it significantly reduced funding for the theater with no change to what the ACV receives for other programs.
“We received 10% of what we usually receive to run Court Square Theater,” Burden said.
“I think a good responsible local government has to evaluate where to put their dollars,” Hess said. “I think the theater has a great opportunity to present itself as a place that lots of people use.”
Ticket sales alone do not cover all the costs of employees and running the building.
To help defray costs of operating, according to a press release, the Arts Council applied for a $73,955 Shuttered Venue Operators grant from the Small Business Administration and is waiting for the results.
It’s not just about being profitable, however. Hess said things like parks and golf courses oftentimes cost the city money but are paid for because they provide nonmonetary value to the community.
“It’s worth the energy and the investment,” Hess said. “It provides a very significant value.”