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Do the right thing for the Performing Arts Center

I am a Nashua resident since 2008, and since this relocation from Europe to Nashua: am the Minister of Music of The First Church (UCC) of Nashua, Artistic Director of the First Music Concert Series also in Nashua, and a freelance conductor and concert artist here and abroad, working in the genres of Musical Theatre, Opera, Ballet, Symphonic, Classical, Pops, Choral and Jazz music. As well, I am a trained theatrical lighting designer from four years of study at Ithaca College in New York State (prior to VariLites and CAD becoming the norm), learning this concurrently with my degree in Direction for the Musical Stage. – Essentially, a theatre kid at heart. With now a career at the console and on the podium.

It is wonderful that Nashua wishes to enhance the Arts in the city and help boost support of Downtown with a Performing Arts Center. However, as this project has now developed, and unfortunately has been honed down from its original vision: what you have now on the docket, for a heckuva lot of money, is NOT a PAC. It is a very expensive event center with theatrical elements. However, it is no-where near capable of accommodating most of the traditional “performing arts” in a larger scale already in the City: community organizations such as the ActorSingers or professional organizations like Symphony New Hampshire, which is one of the major professional Arts organizations crucial to Nashua’s (and New Hampshire’s) identity.

Yes, studies are quoted. Studies say we need a venue of Size X. There is a management company already eager to book the new venue with performing acts ready to use the space. But where is the vision here? Studies say one thing, but the Arts was never built on studies. Does one believe Picasso took a poll to see if someone would like his work? No. He painted. – Does an opera company not try to start up in a struggling market? No. Artists energize people, get them behind something grand and not-before-known as a need, have a vision and plant the seed. If we only build what we know, there can never be true growth. Dream. Build. And they will come. For this amount of money: dream BIG!

The seed was planted here. Marvelously. – But then it sequestered itself in its planning from even the most basic of contact to the Arts organizations in this community, of which First Music is one (for instance) but wouldn’t necessarily have “use” for even a 700-seat venue, and relying on a natural (not sound enhanced) acoustic. As far as I could tell, public comment periods were not announced well at any point, and only recently has there been a deluge of opportunity for public comment, but unfortunately (for me personally), always in a rehearsal period here or time away abroad conducting.

I have had the fortune to work in, and also open- four to five newly-built and repurposed arts venue properties in Germany, from a range of 600-1800 seats. One even having a significant hotel and mall attached. – I have seen the process of a new design and worked first-hand on the load-ins of several original companies of Broadway shows in Germany, including a complete new-build of a theatre on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin by architect Renzo Piano. Watching the Nashua design and planning process proceed from a distance, I was greatly supportive, UNTIL the Alec’s property location became the only option and started morphing the project into something that is far from a true Performing Arts Center.

If the intention of the new build is to ONLY accommodate modern genres of performer: rock, pop, some jazz, comedians, other small acts: by all means! But please don’t call this a PAC. In only seeing the limited ground plans available to the public online, it is clear the lack of:

• An orchestra pit.

• Wing space in any direction (usually two areas to accommodate full sets moving on or offstage).

• Proper “fly” space to make complete curtains, drops and sets disappear into the air.

• Dressing room space for chorus, ballet, or other larger ensembles.

• A planned natural acoustic without sound enhancement (or flex planning if both are wished).

• Stage space to accommodate either existing organizations in their usual stage capacity will NOT serve the community and professional organizations well in the long term! One is beginning to reach the finish line towards the Marathon of building Court Street: the sequel. A known space limited in its use, and completely unacceptable currently in its poor upkeep. (Bless all the organizations that use it successfully! We need them and they need a home!)

In limited speaking with either Arts Commission or PAC Steering members, criticism is clearly not wished and everyone simply quotes the “studies” – Well, if that is the “vision” – God help the taxpayer and the residents of this city who have looming fiscal issues coming up in the next years, without a current design that is NOT fully useful in its marketed intention, and seemingly being pushed through just for the sake of saving face.

When all this planning started, Elm St. Middle School was not yet to be closed. Placing the PAC at Keefe Auditorium was not an option, but it really is possible now. If one does not consider this: where do organizations like ActorSingers or Symphony NH have their future home base in Nashua? They can’t, if Keefe disappears. And although the purpose of the PAC is to expand smaller professional offerings to the city, at what cost to existing successful arts machines in the city who cannot use such a venue fully at such an enormous cost?

Imagine such a vision: a stunning new architectural glass enclosure flanking the current front and entire left side (enclosing the entire pillared entrance but allowing for a modern foyer, coat room and audience gathering space, new restrooms and a possible café?) – The opportunity to reconfigure the Keefe Auditorium to both modern seating standards (reducing capacity) and possible designing retractable walls to close the balcony, etc. for smaller arts events. (Or even acoustically alter the space for when lesser reverb is wished) – The chance to build a proper orchestra pit and expand wing and backstage space in an almost limitless fashion for a true Performing Arts Mecca for the city. To serve revitalization downtown and also keep the footprint of downtown from the Plaza to the top of Concord St? – Not simply down to City Hall and “we’re done.” – This is vision. This is something to get excited about.

The initial excitement for a new PAC downtown began to wane in arts circles here, in my opinion, when compromises were made to keep costs down. SPEND that extra $10 million and build it right, once! – Look at your high schools. Both with mediocre performance auditoriums, when clearly the newer school could have had a much more substantial performance space which could have fulfilled such a need. But that point is long moot.

In the same way an 18-month extension was given to initial fundraising to plant the seed money needed for this project, I personally implore the board to allow itself the extra time to have the city explore Keefe as an option, now that this is suddenly on the table, and not make a rash decision for a design at the ALEC site that will not serve the needs of all performing arts for the coming generations.

With the known fiscal crisis of city employee’s insurance, a new Middle School on the horizon and those immense costs, an unknown fate of the Tannery property possibly needing taxpayer assistance for clean-up, the public support of this “PAC” project is at a low in the community. Many cannot tell you exactly why. But here on an artistic level, from a local resident working ardently in many genres of the Performing Arts industry worldwide, perhaps, please… take a step back to evaluate, but not kill the project. Make sure the right decision is made to support the Arts properly for the long term. Something Nashua can be excited about.

All of Nashua.

Without any offense to multiple people I know personally on a few of these Commissions: please, guys – do the right thing for the project, and not just make sure there IS a project.

Joseph R. Olefirowicz is locally the minister of music of The First Church (UCC) of Nashua, and artistic director of the award-winning First Music Concert Series. He also is a concert artist and freelance conductor internationally in multiple organizations, including the Russian National Orchestra Moscow, the Warsaw National Philarmonic and Chorus and the Munich Radio Orchestra.

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