Eau Claire (WQOW) - Nearly six years after the idea was unveiled, but still seven months before it's set to open, we got our first glimpse backstage, inside Eau Claire's new Confluence Arts Center.
It's downtown Eau Claire's new celebrated star. The building is 155,000 square feet. The atrium alone is 7,000 square feet.
Once you're inside and pass through the atrium, you notice art and art galleries throughout the building.
"So local, regional literary, visual arts are highly important to us, the building, as well as those communities to have a home here,” said Jason Jon Anderson, the Confluence Arts Center acting executive director.
One of the galleries is the Graham Avenue walking gallery.
“This gallery's a block long, and takes us from Eau Claire Street all the way down to the Gibson Street entrance", said Anderson. “We have a block long walking gallery both on the north and south side of this hallway."
When looking at art, you can also enjoy views of the city. Anderson says that anytime the building is open, the public has views of the confluence. Throughout the building are extended walkways to allow multiple people to get a view.
Then of course, there are the two theaters. The JAMF Theater is the smaller of the two. It holds 450 people.
"This is one of the largest flexible theaters that you're going to find in the Midwest, being able to be configured in both proscenium, thrust, and in-the-round configurations. It's going to make this a really great space for both campus and community groups to utilize,” said Anderson. "The second floor railing's removable in four foot sections so that scenic elements can be attached or performers can utilize sort of step off points. So if you were to think of 'Peter Pan,' Tinkerbell could essentially fly across the room."
Next door to the JAMF Theater is the RCU Theater, the star of the show. According to Anderson, the stage is three times the size of the State Theater stage. It took 10 days just to put up the scaffolding in the theater. The space will be able to host Broadway shows, touring acts, individual and community orchestras, as well as live music performances.
According to Anderson, the stage is 93 feet from stage floor to sub-grade, and 133 feet to the top of the fly tower. At the center of the stage is the giant trap area.
"It's exaggerated. That's done both with the partnership with UW Eau Claire as an educational process,” said Anderson. “It's also exaggerated because if we were ever to incubate Broadway shows as we'd like to do, they start with a larger footprint and reduce it down to fit into a Broadway theater, because those older theaters are much smaller in New York."
Another impressive element is the state-of-the art orchestra pit.
“At State it's manual, Confluence is hydraulic. It can be at stage height, audience height, pit orchestra height where the physical orchestra is, and also serve as an elevator to the trap level below us,” said Anderson.
According to Anderson, the lower level of the RCU Theater holds 800 to 900 guests with the upper level holding another 400. In all, the theater will seat 1,266 people.
"We've shrunk the house dramatically. The State is 150 feet long from the front of stage to the back of house, here we're 78 feet. So we've brought the audience substantially closer,” said Anderson. “It's wider than that sort of long shoe box that the State Theater is. This is done both to give the audience a better experience but also give the performer great proximity to their client essentially. A lot of things have changed since the 1900s and the way theaters are constructed. This is a much shorter and wider space."
The Confluence Arts Center even changed the way their box seats were put in place.
"In an opera house, the box seating actually juts into the space,” said Anderson. “Here we've actually put our audience members outside of the venue. They still have great views because of the shortened knee wall, have great site lines to the stage. But it allows us to have specific shows to have performers here instead of guests.”
If you're worried about there being noise issues between the two theaters, don't.
"One of the very unique things about the two theaters is that they're completely acoustically separated. They have an individual floor, they have individual walls. They're a shoe box inside of a shoe box. They don't actually touch each other in any capacity. There's an entire space of a block wall between their adjoining walls, and they don't have any tying elements that connect one to the other,” said Anderson. “So acoustically, as one space resonates, the other does not. So you can have two events happening at the same time and not impact each other."
Not only did a lot of time and thought go into the building's major interior elements, but the minor ones as well, like the crinkled copper you'll see.
"It really gives it a high value and level of finish that I think is very reflective and odeful to our lumber baron days, and the industrial era, and the advent of copper,” said Anderson. “And connecting it all together really says the history and story of our city. And it's always reflective of where we're headed as a modern society."
That goes for the outside, as well. Anderson says the stone on the exterior comes from Kowalski Family Stone in Mosinee, Wisconsin. It's Wisconsin black granite.
“Which is a cousin of course to our state stone which is red granite, so it's quarried locally. To our knowledge, it's the first time it's been put on the exterior of a building here in the state. So we're really excited to have it. At sunset it gets this green metallic reflect to it,” said Anderson.
Some of the other elements on the exterior of the building are an ode to some of the other performance venues in Eau Claire, like the candy-colored glass which pays tribute to The Joynt, and the copper cladding which pays tribute to The Plus. Anderson says the copper also pays tribute to an old gas pulley that was once across the river where the RCU headquarters currently sits.
Even the pillars in the front of the building were carefully considered. “These main pillars in front of us are called Pixie Stix by the architects, but they really came from the idea of log jams that would've been prevalent at the turn of the century here on the river,” said Anderson. “And this became their architectural touch to build it that basically makes a look of four logs that are bent and twisted together, and then each get topped with a little LED lights that serves as beacons anytime the building is in use."
If you're wondering, the building is on track to open on September 1.
"We are absolutely on schedule for September first, feeling very good about it. We had some delays that people would notice sort of on the exterior of the building... that's more of the physical curtain wall glass and copper cladding can't be installed in subzero temperatures,” said Anderson. “But those aren't delaying the master schedule in any way. It's just the visual appearance for people watching the building's progress, we just wont see those until we get closer to the end of February as opposed to the end of January."
The next seven months will see some of the technical elements added to the building.
"There's sort of a couple next steps, which will be the finish floor will go in. The seating will be installed. Then the railing. Then we have finishing carpentry that hasn't begun yet. That's where the finish paint comes in, the acoustical ceiling across the top, and the final light fixtures. Really the goal is by the time we get to the end of February the space converts to being final finishes to carry us through,” said Anderson. “But then we have all of the theatrical install if you think of that that comes later. So it's all of the electrical, and audio, and video systems that get laid on top of the base building."
"You know we only get one shot in 50 years to build it right,” said Anderson. “We really wanna make sure that we give this community exactly the type of performing arts space it needs. It's a responsibility the entire staff works on every day."