Here Buffalo is on the brink of becoming a "casino city," with all the potential for cultural disaster that such a move holds, and its indefatigable theater community keeps moving onward and upward.
The latest in a number of bold moves by Buffalo theater companies comes from Road Less Traveled Productions. By fall this young company will be in its new permanent home in the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre on Main Street, right in the center of the Theater District, according to Scott Behrend, founder and artistic director of Road Less Traveled.
This is a giant step forward for a company with only a three-year history. But it has already shown itself to be a well-grounded company that champions local playwrights by developing their scripts and producing their plays. The consistent quality of the productions, many of them premieres, promises that the move will add a new dimension to the already rich and varied downtown theater offerings.
"Everybody sees it as a win-win situation," Behrend said in a recent interview. "It will raise the profile of Road Less Traveled, and more people will be coming to downtown theater. I'm also hoping that there will be crossover attendance from Market Arcade moviegoers."
Previously, Road Less Traveled was mostly performing as an in-resident company at New Phoenix Theatre on Johnson Park, with occasional stints on the Irish Classical Theatre stage, a couple doors down from the Market Arcade complex.
"We were ready for new digs," Behrend said. "We are thankful for the time at New Phoenix and the support of [New Phoenix director] Richard Lambert. And the collaboration with Irish Classical was great. But we were having something of an identity crisis."
The new theater will be carved out of an existing movie house in the Market Arcade complex. According to Behrend, construction will begin in two weeks, and the theater will be up and ready by July, in time to prepare for Curtain Up! and the launch of the three-play 2006-2007 Road Less Traveled season.
"We'll be taking out seats to accommodate a 26-by-30-foot stage," said Behrend. "It will be a 92-seat playhouse equipped with state-of-the-art lighting and sound facilities. What's also exciting is that the space is about 40 feet high. There will be no restrictions when we do a play that requires two levels. A second-floor space will be converted into dressing rooms, and we'll have a limited fly system."
One unusual feature came about because both Behrend and members of the Market Arcade board didn't want to see the new theater lay dormant between Road Less Traveled productions.
"We wanted to create a space that would never be dark," Behrend explained. "So we decided to keep the movie screen intact. That way films could be screened at those times when we or another group weren't using the theater."
As it happened, Behrend and Jon Elston, playwright-in-residence and the company's literary and general manager, had already been talking about ways to incorporate screened images into a live production. "Now we have that full-scale movie screen to work with if we want," Behrend said.
And another coincidence: Elston's new play, which has been in the works for some time, is titled "Buffalo Movie" and will be part of the upcoming season.
This additional movie screen fits nicely into the mission of Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre. The not-for-profit entity, created in 2000, is committed to offering a wide variety of film programming along with live cultural events, as a broad-based complement to the commercial films programmed separately by Dipson Theaters. The extra screen will help facilitate that effort.
Headed by Road Less Traveled Productions board President Patrick Fagan and Vice President Bernard Huber, 10 months of negotiations led to the consummation of the deal. Then began the search for funds.
"We knew it would take a sizable hunk of change -- about $40,000 -- to build the sound and light systems and construct the stage itself," Behrend said. "We made what I think was a good proposal to the Wendt Foundation." Wendt agreed: The foundation will fund about 90 percent of the project.
The Road Less Traveled season will begin Sept. 8 with "The Dodo Bird" by Emanuel Fried. Later in the season, in April, Road Less Traveled will present the premiere of Elston's "Buffalo Movie." It's described as a cynical comedy about the shady dealings on a film set. A third play is yet to be announced.
"It's exciting that Road Less Traveled Productions will be in its own theater this early in the company's career," said Behrend. "From the start, one of our goals has been to be in the heart of the Theater District. And now it is happening."e-mail:rhuntington@ buffnews.com