AUSTIN (KXAN) — The show will go on in 2021.
Tony Award-winning producer Bob Bursey started his position as executive director of Texas Performing Arts in January 2020, right before the pandemic hit the area in March 2020.
“I’ve been working here, leading the organization during the time it’s been closed, longer than it was actually open,” he said.
The University of Texas at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall shut down in March 2020. Throughout the pandemic, Bursey tried to find opportunities to make the best possible use of the downtime at the city’s largest theater.
‘Silver lining’ renovations
Privately-funded $3 million renovations are underway at Bass Concert Hall that will prepare the venue for its next 40 years, Texas Performing Arts announced April 6, 2021.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott passed an executive order on March 10, 2021 that allows all businesses to operate at 100% capacity including performance halls, bars and more. Since then, venues like Paramount Theatre have scheduled full-capacity shows later in the year.
Bursey said crews are making great progress. He’s excited to welcome back people to the theatre.
“Just imagining that feeling of sitting in the theatre, the curtain going up and the energy you get from the performers on stage — that’s what’s really kept us motivated during this time. Working as hard as we can to make that happen and have it be a great experience for everybody when they can come back.”
The theater is on schedule with renovations set to be completed by the middle of May, just in time to host graduation ceremonies for UT’s class of 2021.
“You imagine what those students have been through. A part of their junior year, their entire senior year has been under these very difficult pandemic circumstances and so we’re excited to welcome them into a refreshed, reopened facility to recognize their accomplishments,” Bursey said.
This isn’t the hall’s first rodeo with renovations. Bass Concert Hall turns 40-years-old this spring. It’s in constant need of improvement and upkeep, Bursey said. The theater expanded its lobby in 2009 with an enhanced front façade and replaced orchestra-level seats in 2013. Those additions paid off. In 2019, the performance hall sold the highest number of tickets of any Austin theater, welcoming 285,809 attendees, Texas Performing Arts said.
The focus of the current renovations is to improve patron safety and their experience. Of note, balcony sightlines and seats are all being renovated, as well as audio/visual systems and lobby space.
The original 1,241 balcony seats, from 1981, will be recycled and replaced. The side sections will be rebuilt and curved toward the stage to improve sightlines and increase comfort, allowing patrons a full view from all balcony seats. Accessibility and sightlines for wheelchair-bound performance-goers will also be improved.
“The pandemic kinda presented an opportunity for us to replace all of the seats in both of the balconies, and then because we did have this dark time, [we’re rebuilding] the side sections of the balconies to eliminate all of the obstructed view seats in those areas, so every seat throughout the entire theatre is now gonna have a good view, new chairs to sit in.”
Audio/visual system upgrades will expand capabilities for artists and designers. The house sound mixing position will be relocated and include new audio/video infrastructure to support recording and streaming.
Lobby areas will be reconfigured with additional circulation space to help reduce crowding.
Making improvements to the lobby will create more space for people to move, especially when you’re coming into and leaving the building, Bursey said. Bass Concert Hall upgraded its ventilation and filtration system to keep the air in the theater as healthy as it can be.
Other renovations include replacing aisle lighting for better visibility and all new carpet in the lobbies and auditorium.
Bursey is aware of the luck involved with being able to do renovations during a public health crisis.
“We’ve taken on some risk to do it, it’s a little bit counter-intuitive, actually, because the pandemic has been so financially devastating for us and other performing arts organizations. But, we did not want to be deterred by that, not be swayed from our mission and goals, and try to use this time to make some serious improvements,” he said.
He’s looking ahead to the next 40 years for Texas Performing Arts and Bass Concert Hall. The group announced its “Broadway in Austin” season, which will restart in December 2021 with the return of the musical “Hamilton.” They’ll be announcing more planned shows this spring.
“We’re gonna step into that time with a real feeling of hope and optimism about the performing arts, live arts and entertainment in Austin going forward.”
Overall, he’s excited to get performances back on stage.
“I think for the artists that we work with, with our whole team, the reason that we’re here, we’ve trained for years and years. What gives us fulfillment and meaning, is to be able to make that connection between artists and audiences and have people sharing a real experience in time and space. For me to be able to bring my family back to see a performance here and to share the inveigle artistry we’ve been kind of deprived of, in some ways, for more than a year is gonna be extremely special, I think.”
UT Austin Project Management and Construction Services brought in a team of industry experts to execute the latest Bass Concert Hall renovation project. You can learn more about the renovations on the hall’s website.