Friday, August 16, 2013

The Box shapes up entertainment landscape in Riverside, Calif.

[Another version of my story originally appeared in the Aug/Sept issue of Riverside Magazine.] 

A new black box theater recently opened downtown, bringing a myriad of possibilities to local performers and arts organizations.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase in a completely different situation, with a light shined on what they’re doing,” says Patrick Brien, executive director of the Riverside Arts Council. “That’s going to put them in a position of having to elevate their game, because hopefully, there’s going to be a lot more people aware of it. That, in itself, is exciting."

The Box (located in the Fox Entertainment Plaza) doesn’t have a fixed stage or seating. So the venue, which has capacity around 200, is readily adaptable for a wide variety of events.

“By its very nature, you can do things in that space that you can’t on a much larger scale,” notes Brien.  “It has a much higher degree of intimacy” compared to the much larger Fox Performing Arts Center stage next door.

He believes a show performed in such a setting “really enhances the suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience … being 10 feet away from a dancer, you can feel the level of expressiveness that’s taking place; much more so than when you’re 100 feet away.

“As a performer, you can’t hide. You really have to be in touch with what you are thinking and feeling about your character.”

Those abilities were put to the test in July, when Riverside Youth Theater’s presentation of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” was the first paid slate of theatrical shows.

“We are thrilled to be back where our customers and parents are,” said Debbie Wolgemuth, RYT founder and artistic director, before their brief run started.

The troupe had been performing in Moreno Valley for almost three years “because we didn’t have a venue to rent in Riverside that was on the small-to-medium size,” she explains. “People are so eager (now) and told us they’re going to see our shows again since we’re back in town.”

Although Riverside Youth Theater had done shows at Cal Baptist University in the past, there were no other optimal facilities to rent on a regular basis. High schools and churches tend have too many restrictions on content. Having a place the size of The Box is a welcome addition.   

“Riverside is unique in that we have a lot of large venues, like Landis, Fox and the Municipal,” Wolgemuth says. “But we really don’t have many small to medium sized theaters. I’m so thankful the city bit the bullet and listened to us in the community and said, ‘yes, there is a need for this and we’re going to spend the money on it.’"

Earlier this summer, a series of free tribute act shows concentrating on the music of The Beatles, Johnny Cash, The Eagles, Rolling Stones and Neil Diamond served as a warm up for The Box. Patrons received surveys and provided feedback.

According to Rey O’Day, interim program manager for The Box, those concerts served as a way to “test drive the theater. It’s like buying a new car; part of what you’re going to learn is where the buttons and switches are and what works. I wanted to create something that would use all the different aspects of the theater.”

Demand for the free ducats surpassed expectations.    

“By the fourth one, we had a full house and good sense of things that worked and didn’t work,” says O’Day.

Her main goal in booking The Box is that “the community has an opportunity to embrace the space. In the year before it was built, I spent a lot of time visiting with people all over the community to find out what they were looking for … The city council felt strongly that there needed to be a community focus to the building.”

Some early attendees marveled “about was how close they were and how they felt part of everything going on in the room,” O’Day noted.

During a tribute show by Jumping Jack Flash, the sound and lighting were both admirable and the seats (placed in three elevated sections, plus a smaller row directly facing the performers), proved comfortable.

Former KRTH 101 FM DJ Brian Beirne - a veteran L.A. music figure and noted historian, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - served as emcee. That night, he provided a fascinating 1960s music anecdote about touring with the real Stones during the 1960s.

Bella Donna
With any luck, Beirne will have some more memorable stories to share when he presents “Rock ‘n’ Roll Thursdays” tribute shows this month and next.

The Beirne connection came through O’Day’s friendship with the Bollinger Family, which operates the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont.

“I knew (they’d) done tribute bands. I wanted ones I knew were really good, not problematic backstage and had a track record of doing what they do. Brian provided input and was a gem to work with.”

David St. Pierre, who serves as stage manager for some shows at The Box, is working with Patrick Brien on bringing theater events in the fall (not to mention overseeing some Riverside businesses), notes the facility is “long overdue” and should be “more affordable for the smaller non-profits.

“It has long term potential (for) professional things like jukebox musicals to small dance troupes that want to put on recitals,” he continued.

Gregory Wolfe
During the trial tribute run, “the crowds were excited. Everybody I talked to was amazed and thought the venue was a great place,” said St. Pierre. “The ones we’re doing in August are ‘for sale’ tickets. I think it’s a good deal. We’ll see if the people come out.”

A drama production and album release party for Riverside smooth jazz saxophonist/singer J. Boykin are coming in September and a Christmas show is slated for December.

Citing Los Angeles and New York City’s longstanding reputations for fostering burgeoning theater productions through multiple small venues, Brien said “I think this [theater] has the ability to put Riverside on the map in an entirely different way.”

Upcoming events:

Aug. 17-18: "High School Musical," presented by BellaJohn Theatrical
Aug. 22: Creedence Relived (Creedence Clearwater Revisited Tribute)*
Aug. 29: Gregory Wolfe (Rod Stewart)*
Sept. 1: Jazz at the Box/J. Boykin Album Release Party with special guest Jacob Lusk of "American Idol"
Sept. 5: Bella Donna (Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac Tribute)*
Sept. 13-15: "Eleemosynary," presented by Gestalt Theatre Project
Oct. 10: City of Riverside Night of Arts and Innovation
Oct. 12: City of Riverside Mayor's Celebration of Arts and Innovation
Nov. 1-3, Nov. 8-10: "Shrek The Musical," presented by Riverside Youth Theatre
March 1-2, March 7-9, 2014: "The Sound of Music," presented by Riverside Youth Theatre

Creedence Relived
*Rock ‘n’ Roll Thursdays presented by DJ Brian Beirne ($22 each or three shows for $18 each)

The Box is at Fox Entertainment Plaza, 3635 Market St., Riverside. 
For more information, call (951) 826-2427 or go to 

Photos courtesy Arts & Cultural Affairs, Riverside Metropolitan Museum

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