A New Stage For Master Arts?

Written by Terry DeBoer on . Posted in Local

master arts LobbyTim VanBruggen of Master Arts Theatre (center) shows onlookers the lobby of their prospective new home.Master Arts Theatre (MAT) executive director Tim Van Bruggen paused while giving a tour of what could be his organization's new home.

"The square footage of this lobby is bigger than our current auditorium," he told onlookers.

"That's a terrible statistic, but it's also funny," he smiled.

The faith-based theatre company has an inside track for a move to the relatively spacious Central Christian Church in the 2500 block of Leonard St. NE near the I-96 expressway.

Four "test-run" August performances in the prospective space were successful with full houses and also drawing a wave of financial donations.

But a sale is not a done deal. A purchase deadline from the soon-to-be-closing church looms and there are zoning matters which Master Arts currently has under consideration.

MORE BREATHING ROOM

Space has been a crying need for the faith-based theatre company. For 20 years it has made do in a cramped, 100-seat former chapel just off S. Division Ave. in Byron Township. Lack of storage, dressing rooms and office space; compounded by overcrowded staging and sets have hampered staff, volunteers and audiences alike. During musicals, instrumentalists were often seated in the lobby adjacent to the auditorium. Barrier-free access, parking, box-office and concession areas all are limited at its current home.

During one of several recent tours Van Bruggen pointed out various possibilities in the Leonard St. location. A fellowship hall and attached commercial-grade kitchen could provide a setting for banquets, classes or other special events which don't require auditorium space. The church education wing could contain offices, dressing or storage areas, or classroom space for youth and other training events.

"The auditorium is already wired for light and sound," Van Bruggen explained of the sanctuary which would more than double MAT's current seating. And a higher ceiling and platform would enable larger sets needed for some productions.

Another luxury for the theatre group: a huge backstage area with its own restrooms, providing actors numerous stage entry points, quick-change dressing rooms, and prop/costume storage.

THE JOURNEY TO NOW

Just a few years ago, MAT had an agreement to move into a 68th St. SE church which was building a new facility at a different location.

Several factors caused the church to halt the project and the deal fell through. That turned out to be a blessing, according to Van Bruggen.

"We would have been saddled with a mortgage just as we entered the COVID period," recalled the executive director of the pandemic. The COVID onset promptly shut down MAT's spring 2020 run and led to staff and working hour reductions. Hopes for resumption later in the year were ended with further pandemic surges. One of the productions put on hiatus is ironically titled "Life Derailed." The comedy is now scheduled to open MAT's new season, running Sept. 16 – Oct. 2. (For the complete schedule visit https://www.masterarts.org/20212022-season-of-identity.html)

IT'S ALL IN THE DETAILS

Van Bruggen is careful not to put the cart before the horse.

At press time it looked like the financial pieces were falling into place. Using privately-held mortgage notes, on-going fund-raising (which started years ago) and assets realized from a potential sale of its current location, an agreed-upon purchase price is in sight.

A larger hurdle may be getting a City of Grand Rapids zoning variance for theatrical use of the former church facility. The current church on the site is zoned for institutional use. But despite its non-profit status -- MAT would require some sort of theatrical district-style variance. The theatre has such a variance at its Byron Township location.

If appropriate zoning details are settled and a sale is realized, Van Bruggen is hopeful MAT can take possession after the first of the year. (Central Christian Church is winding down and its completion of ministry service is set for Oct. 17.)

"There would so many possibilities that would open up for us in this new space," the director stated.

Meanwhile, the theatre will continue to function at its 77th St. SW home until its next step becomes clear.
Author Information
Terry DeBoer
Author: Terry DeBoer
About:
Terry is a journalist/feature writer for newspapers, magazines and websites, with a background in radio broadcasting. His usual beat is arts and entertainment, specializing in Christian/gospel music. A married father of two, he is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan Contributing Writer: West Michigan Christian News August 2011 – Present Feature writer: -Mlive.com (website and various newspapers) 1988– 2016 -Spotlight New Christian Music Magazine 1997-2008 -Church News Editor, Church Herald Magazine 2004-2009

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