Waukesha Civic Theatre prepares to break ground for expansion

Rendering of the exterior of the expanded Waukesha Civic Theatre.

Last updated on February 3rd, 2022 at 01:27 pm

Waukesha Civic Theatre has raised $3 million to start construction on the first of a two-phase expansion project that will add rehearsal space, a new black box theater and more office space at the downtown Waukesha venue.

The theater, which has operated out of the former Pix Movie Theatre space at 264 W. Main St. since 1999, plans to break ground on the expansion and renovation in March.

In 2020, the theater purchased the adjacent building at 270 W. Main St., the former Little Swiss Clock Shop which closed in 2019 after over 50 years in business. The purchase was funded by a lead gift from John J. Bryant III, which allowed the theater to move forward with its expansion plans.

Executive director Rhonda Schmidt said the organization has been “bursting at the seams” in recent years hosting classes, workshops, camps, auditions, rehearsals and performances. It serves roughly 3,000 students annually through its year-round theater academy program and school outreach, and it hosts about 50 live productions annually.

“We’ve outgrown our space,” Schmidt said. “And the demand and interest in the programs continue to grow.”

The building currently includes a main stage theater that seats 261, two rehearsal spaces, a scene shop, a box office, concession and bar area, and administrative offices.

Phase one of the project, which is expected to occur from March to September, will involve renovating the current lobby to expand its capacity; constructing a new Main Street-facing rehearsal hall, which will serve as a classroom, rehearsal space and reception area for events; and creating collaborative office space for staff, interns and volunteers.

Currently, during its summer camps, students eat lunch and socialize in the lobby area due to space constraints.

“The new expansion will be incredible for those purposes,” Schmidt said.

The theater launched its capital campaign in September and has raised roughly $3 million to date, with a lead donation from Bryce and Anne Styza. The organization aims to raise another $1.5 million to fund phase two, which will include the completion of the new Black Box Theatre. The theater will host up to 85 patrons for smaller productions, concerts and classes.

“The theater will have a tremendous impact on how we serve the community,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said leaders hope to raise the additional $1.5 million in the coming months so that work on phase two could occur simultaneously with phase one.

“We’ll be launching a community campaign to involve everyone in the community in the next several weeks,” Schmidt said. “… We’re hoping that several donors step forward with major gifts and take advantage of the naming opportunities that we have available.”

The expansion will allow the theater to serve an additional 1,000 students and grow the number of schools it serves from 12 to 20. It also expects to increase its live productions from 50 to 75 annually, and its special events from 10 to 25.

The project has received necessary city approvals to move forward.

“The city has been incredibly supportive of the project and for what it can do to the revitalization of downtown Waukesha. It’s been a priority for all of us to make downtown Waukesha as vibrant and bustling as it can be,” Schmidt sad.

The theater is still bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmidt said, noting that some remain hesitant to return to full capacity shows. Meanwhile, its classes are full.

“Our fall classes, which sometimes have been our lowest enrollment, they are bursting at the seams, and we had to open up another class due to high demand. Our winter classes started last week, and those are full as well,” she said.

Like other businesses on Waukesha’s Main Street, the theater and its employees are also continuing to recover from the Christmas parade massacre that killed six people in December.

“The neighborhood is still hurting, but we’re healing together,” Schmidt said. “It really is a neighborhood. … And being able to replace painful memories with joyful ones I think is really important.”

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