Looking the Wolfe in the teeth

Longstanding structural needs at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium were the sole agenda item for a special meeting of the Asheville Civic Center Commission on March 26. And a unanimous vote gave Civic Center Director David Pisha a letter of support for bringing the workhorse entertainment venue up to a more serviceable level.

Pisha was on vacation at the time of the meeting, but staffers Marcia Hart and Dan Dover were on hand to discuss the director’s intentions. Hart and Dover oversee programming and technical maintenance, respectively, and Hart was forthcoming regarding the physical restrictions she faces in bringing shows to Asheville.

“Nederlander [producer of the Center’s Broadway series] has really done good by us to keep us in the market,” Hart said, noting that Asheville has a sophisticated market that expects the best. Under current conditions, though, this often translates to a kind of “Best Lite,” because larger productions just don’t fit. Hart is currently negotiating to bring in The Producers and Annie for next season, but they can’t be full productions. Last season, she lost Jesus Christ Superstar and Stomp because of the staging restrictions, and Cats came in as a very abbreviated version.

The list of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium’s needs was not unfamiliar, having been discussed repeatedly over the past several years as the future of the Civic Center was debated by two City Council-appointed task forces, and as the commission itself has advocated before Council. But Pisha is pressing to correct some of the more egregious problems by: extending the back wall to enlarge the nonregulation stage; adding wing space (which, Hart says, is desperately needed for the several large dance competitions she books); raising the too-low proscenium arch; and changing the notoriously difficult load-in situation for sets and equipment.

Pisha will be taking the commission’s letter of support and other data he is assembling to City Manager Gary Jackson, and discussing an architectural feasibility study for the proposed work. The hope, according to Broadbooks, is to solve “longstanding, serious, functional problems in a cost-effective manner.”

The commission has already lobbied Council and obtained a budget for repairs to the auditorium’s leaking roof. But Broadbooks, in a post-meeting e-mail, acknowledged the challenge of developing a “moderate budget” for this additional work in a way that funds might be recaptured before a new performing-arts center, still only at a conceptual stage, could be built. He emphasized that “an improved T.W.A. will draw more patrons and help build the market for the new Performance Arts Center that is still some years in the future.”

Improving the auditorium now, he believes, would mean increased ticket and concession sales, as well as a greater contribution to the Civic Center’s “growing economic impact upon the local economy.”

Hart echoed that optimism. “We are trying to work within the frame of what we have now,” she told Xpress. “I do know that David [Pisha] does think that for a minimum amount of money, we could vastly improve what we have.”

Hart characterizes the proposal as a “functional facelift.” But despite the leaking roof and staging restraints, she says, “I do run into people who are quite impressed with the style” of the art deco detailing inside the facility. “It’s not all bad.”

The proposed improvements, she concludes, would not only facilitate larger shows, but would likely translate into multiple-night performances—with multiple-night income.

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