Of the many performing arts groups in Tulsa, only a handful have a permanent home stage. Tulsa Project Theatre, founded just last year, is now one of them.
In a new three-year partnership with venue management giant SMG-Tulsa, TPT will present its second season at the Assembly Hall Theatre in the Tulsa Convention Center.
Built in 1964, the Assembly Hall was intended for theatrical productions, and was used for years by local organizations like the Tulsa Philharmonic and the Tulsa Gridiron Club.
"For us to be able to bring that back, to help breathe new life into this space, is an honor and a privilege and something we're really excited about," said Todd Cunningham, TPT's founder.
The hall, on the Convention Center's second level, currently looks like what it's been for some time: a large conference room that happens to have a stage in it. But it's very much a working theater, boasting professional lighting and integrated sound systems and a 1000-person seating capacity.
Renovated as part of the recent $50 million Convention Center overhaul, the space will be further adapted to meet the needs of a musical theater company known for pulling out all the stops in shows like "Rent" and "The Rocky Horror Show," both of which TPT presented at The Joint at the Hard Rock Casino.
"We loved performing at the Hard Rock, but its 21-and-over age restriction was limiting," Cunningham said. "We want to do some family shows and have children of all ages come see what we do."
TPT presented "Rent" last April in collaboration with students from the University of Tulsa musical theater department, under the direction of TU professor Machele Miller Dill. Dill also directed "The Rocky Horror Show" in 2010.
The collaboration was a huge success, receiving excellent reviews and blockbuster ticket sales. TPT and TU are now in discussions about how to continue their relationship within this new development. "We have great synergy with TU's theater department and we expect that to continue," Cunningham said. "Our new venue and partnership with SMG could provide even more opportunities where our TU relationship is concerned."
Both SMG and TPT cheer the partnership as contributing to the revitalization of downtown Tulsa.
"People are using the word 'renaissance' a lot about what's going on downtown, but it's not just about building new buildings and rearranging streets," Cunningham said. "It's about how existing facilities are going to be used. It really changes the landscape of downtown when older buildings are used for art."
Mayor Dewey Bartlett and former Mayor Kathy Taylor attended the press conference announcing the partnership, along with Delise Tomlinson, Executive Director of Downtown Development for the Tulsa Chamber, and John Bolton, General Manager of the Tulsa Convention Center.
Bartlett served on the board of American Theater Company when it used to perform in such offbeat locations as the rooftop of the Mayo Hotel parking garage, and said that TPT's work reminds him of the cutting-edge productions of that time.
"We in Tulsa have the advantage of a very vibrant, active theater community," he said. "I love theater. It makes us think, laugh, cry, and participate, and creates an environment that lets one's imagination run rampant.
I'm so glad that we are now using this great space for theater -- for local theater."
Tomlinson shared Bartlett's enthusiasm. "Having TPT here is an extremely exciting addition to the culture and excitement we already have downtown," she said, noting the flurry of activity around the BOK Center, the Blue Dome, Brady, and Deco Districts, and the Aloft Hotel going in at the old City Hall, directly across from the Convention Center.
TPT is working towards becoming a full Equity Theater company, a goal brought into closer view now that it has its own home stage. Its association with TU has allowed it to operate under a University Resident Theater Agreement through the Actors Equity Association, but full Equity membership has always been the company's goal.
Meeting Equity standards at the Assembly Hall Theatre will involve making changes to things like dressing rooms, and Cunningham said the Tulsa Convention Center staff has been "very accommodating" as the process gets underway.
Bolton called Assembly Hall "an iconic space" and said "our entire [SMG] team at both the BOK Center and the Tulsa Convention Center will work hand-in--hand to assure the success of Tulsa Project Theatre using our vast resources.
"Todd and his group have built a reputation for outstanding works and being able to revitalize a gem in the Assembly Hall Theatre is a true win-win for everyone."
Cunningham said he fell in love with the Assembly Hall Theatre "at first sight" and looks forward to using the space as it was originally intended -- and shaking it up a little bit, as well.
The large seating area beneath the stage could be set up for dinner theater, or for a performance "in the round," with seating limited to create a more intimate feeling. "We look forward to being able to create an overall theatrical experience, starting as soon as you come through the lobby doors," he said with an excited smile.
"I don't know if you realize this," he continued, "but there are hundreds of performing arts groups in Tulsa. We are such a blessed community to have such talent in this city.
"The Performing Arts Center is an amazing space, but there are so many groups vying for it that it became necessary for us to become a gypsy theater group, traveling around trying to find a home.
"To now have the opportunity to be a part of this transformation [of downtown Tulsa] and do so with a home in the heart of it and a partnership with SMG is a humbling honor and privilege for Tulsa Project Theatre."
The new season is still in the works, but it will include four large shows and a few smaller ones. TPT plans to christen its new home with a fundraiser, "A Rocky Halloween -- The Masquerade Ball" on Oct. 29 -- an event that will, in Cunningham's words, "welcome Tulsa back to Assembly Hall."
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