By Matthew Milton // Photos by Philip Thomas
Fayetteville’s TheatreSquared is in the midst of its 10th season, a collection of locally-produced and nationally-acclaimed productions that include a boldly-reimagined “A Christmas Carol,” “The Royale,” “My Father’s War” and “Matilda,” among others.
But this year is different than the nine that came before it. This season, which kicked off in August, will play out across the stage of TheatreSquared’s first-ever permanent home.
TheatreSquared (T2) is something to behold. The $31 million complex was designed by Charcoalblue and Marvel Architects, the same firm that transformed an abandoned Civil War-era tobacco factory into the incredible, theatrical home for St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn, New York., T2 was designed to serve as more than just a theater, but a public gathering space with several indoor and outdoor common areas, rooftop terrace, a bar and more.
The incredible new space features two state-of-the-art performance venues, as well as designated rehearsal spaces, production design workshops and office accommodations for the theatre’s administration and educational staff. It also includes eight apartments for guest artist housing.
In just a matter of months, this incredible new space has already earned its place in the hearts of Northwest Arkansas’ artistic community as a cultural landmark. But it would not have been possible without the hard work and vision of the two men who started it all.
TheatreSquared was the brainchild of Artistic Director Robert “Bob” Ford and was officially founded in 2005.
“Northwest Arkansas is rich in poets, novelists, visual artists, musicians of all kinds, besides having a long history of great community theatre, a demonstrated love for new plays and a top-flight theater department at the university — ideal soil for growing a professional theatre,” says Bob Ford.
Ford, who’s also a professional musician, having performed as a flutist with the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (SoNA), holds a Master of Music degree from Yale University and Masters of Fine Arts in acting from Rutgers and in playwriting and screenwriting from the Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas at Austin.
“Those of us who dreamed up TheatreSquared had been making professional theaterlong before we arrived in Northwest Arkansas, and we wanted to continue,” he adds. “In fact, we wanted to use everything we’d learned elsewhere to grow a new theater, here in the middle of the country, that would rival the best in New York or Chicago or anywhere else for that matter.”
Over the last decade, they’ve hit the mark. At T2, he has helped produce more than 65 plays and musicals and facilitated 50 development projects through the Arkansas New Play Festival. He has written nine full-length plays, including his first, “Tierra del Fuego,” which won the Stanley Drama Award.
Executive Director Martin Miller joined the T2 team in 2009. In the decade since, he has produced more than 100 plays and developmental works, grew the theater’s annual budget from $160,000 to $4.3 million, and expanded its audience twentyfold. It was he who led T2 from its temporary confines to this incredible new space.
But for Miller, it’s not the numbers that excite him the most. It’s the stories.
“In the past decade, TheatreSquared has grown incredibly — from 3,000 in attendance to over 65,000 this year,” says Miller. “But those numbers are more meaningful when you realize each one is a story. When someone tells me her perspective changed forever after a performance of “Fun Home,” or that he saw his life on stage in “Vietgone,” or that she decided against a planned move because she wanted to become a founding subscriber, it reminds me of the power the arts has to transform lives. These stories are often the best milestones for how far we’ve come.”
If they were going to continue impacting lives across Northwest Arkansas through the art of theater they’d need a forever home.
“In our previous space, we were starting to turn audience members away because the seats were full, and closing shows earlier than we’d have liked to because of the limitations in our rented space,” Miller says. “We wanted to create a space for theater that would match the quality, intimacy and excitement of what was happening on stage.
“In a sense, we didn’t realize how many compromises we were making both artistically and in the audience experience until we opened the doors to the new building,” he adds. “It’s been an exponential leap since that date.”
Miller, Ford and company then embarked on what would be dubbed the Our Next Stage Campaign, an effort that began in 2015 to raise special funds to create Northwest Arkansas’ first permanent home for professional theater and guarantee the future of this cultural and educational anchor for decades to come. The same year, the Walton Family Foundation chose the theater as one of the first participants in its Design Excellence Program. The program provides financial support to design public spaces.
For their next stage, they’d need $34 million, of which $31.5 million would go to fund the design, construction and equipping of the facility; $2.5 would go toward establishing the TheatreSquared Trust, a new artistic, educational and operating reserve to provide for the company a secure future.
“We knew we wanted to create two intimate performance spaces, offices, rehearsal space, workshops, and guest residences to support our artists, and an open-all-day space for the public to use a community living room downtown,” says Miller. “The vision statement community members drafted helped guide the architects to not only program these functions but to elevate them and achieve a “more than its parts” sensation that the building is something significant when you walk in.”
He shares an excerpt from that vision statement:
“We see a gathering place — a theatre commons — that is welcoming and fascinating, alive with activity. A building that draws the eye and evokes curiosity. A place that invites, hints at the unusual, suggests something significant will happen here. We see glimpses of creativity through every open door. And in the beating heart of the building are brilliant performances, intimate and unmediated, celebrating the joys and struggles of what it means to be human.”
Miller is quick to recognize just how rare it is for one to find such high-quality theater, in such an intimate setting, where Arkansas sits on the map. He and his team leaned into that.
“It is relatively unusual, in the middle of the country, to experience top-quality theater created locally, in an intimate space,” he says. “The new building reflects our values of intimacy, with its human-scale architecture; transparency, with its glimpses of the creative process and quality, with a high level of finish.
“Anyone passing through Fayetteville is welcome to walk right in and see it for themselves, as the building and Commons Bar and Café are open all day.”
The space reflects the passion Ford and his team put into their work every day, sharing with the same community in which they also live.
“T2 started with a passion for telling stories that zero in on the human heart,” Ford says. “That suggests gathering everyone tightly around the hearth to watch, share and feel, to laugh and discover as a community. It demands a space that’s intimate, and a building surrounding that space — public areas, workshops, offices — that keeps with a sense of the human: proximity, attention to craft, people- and artist-centered environments and materials. That’s our building to a T.”
TheatreSquared is not just an intimate home for local art. The building, itself, is as much a work of art as what takes place on the stages inside. The 50,000 square-foot masterpiece unites two state-of-the-art theaters and board-formed architectural concrete wraps each one. The theater’s mainstage is designed for perfect acoustic isolation.
According to T2’s website, in Marvel Architects’ innovative design, the artistic spaces, far from hidden, project from the facade. The studio, rehearsal space and mainstage are all plainly visible from the street, so that no matter where you stand outside, it’s clear the building’s purpose is to create and experience live theater.
“TheatreSquared was privileged to be an inaugural participant in the Walton Family Foundation’s Design Excellence Program, helping us hire the ‘dream team’ of Marvel Architects and Charcoalblue to co-design a space that would meet our core needs, express our identity and be architecturally distinctive in its own right,” says Miller. “Many of the materials are sourced from the state of Arkansas, from the board-formed concrete to the exposed, clear-sealed steel. We traveled to nearly 30 theatres in the U.S. and the U.K. to see the best and worst precedents and learn from all of them.”
According to the building’s description, the project exceeded national standards with repurposed building materials, all-LED lights, furniture milled from trees on-site, enhanced commissioning and efficient systems. Behind the building, the outdoor patio serving T2’s new dedicated guest artists’ apartments is constructed out of reclaimed brick from a 150-year old structure that once stood near the old Fayetteville Depot.
The new space is also a testament to the support T2 has received from the community.
“The city of Fayetteville, state of Arkansas, Fayetteville A&P Commission and the Walton Family Foundation were our lead partners in creating this space, and hundreds of others joined with generous gifts to help get us past our threshold to break ground,” says Miller.
The Fayetteville City Council invested $3.1 million toward construction of the building, and the Advertising and Promotion Commission committed $3 million over 15 years. In June of 2019, Gov. Asa Hutchinson authorized a $2.9 million commitment from the state’s rainy-day fund.
“We consciously set out to do precisely this: Create a landmark building and a signal arts institution. Yet, none of us was prepared for the enormous sense of excitement and accomplishment, the sheer joy, that we’re feeling as we make our way through our first year in this building,” says Ford.
“Very few people in our art form get such an opportunity, and it’s because of an exceedingly rare combination of ingredients here in Northwest Arkansas, a population that’s hungry for the most sophisticated, meaningful expressions of the human soul; an unusually high head-count of citizens who stand ready to invest in the cultural commonwealth of Arkansas; a real can-do, even ‘we’ll show them’ attitude when it comes to challenging perceptions about our state; acutely aware funding organizations, like the Walton Family Foundation, the Walker Foundation, the Windgate Foundation that have had the vision and foresight to single out, seed, grow and sustain the arts in the middle of the country; and political leadership both here in Fayetteville, and at the state level, that understands the key role the arts play not only in a robust economy but in the overall health of its citizenry.”
“Now that the doors are open, it’s incredibly rewarding to see people using the space as their own. Fairly quickly, it’s become the building that a local will invite a dubious out-of-town guest to visit to gleefully defy their expectations of a trip to Arkansas,” Miller adds with a grin.
According to Miller, the opening of the new T2 is just the beginning. A new beginning.
“With community support, we will work to grow the theatre to a truly national stature and become an engine of creating new plays that will play on stages across the country,” Miller says. “Zach Theatre of Austin, Actors Theatre of Louisville and others have provided a template for how TheatreSquared can make an impact locally and nationally — as have our friends at the Arkansas Rep.”
Ford adds, “There is a fast-developing theater ecology in NWA that makes it an incredibly vibrant place to make theater; a professional training program of the first rank at the University of Arkansas; a long history of passionate amateur community theater; the Walton Arts Center’s long-standing Broadway series; Trike Theatre and Arts Live Theatre, feeding a passion for theater in kids; first-rate theater programs in several of the public and private schools in the region. In an increasingly digitized, screen-dominated world, if you’ve never had a taste of live theater performed at the highest level of artistry in an intimate space, come check us out. There’s nothing else like it.”
After all, Miller says, “This theater was built for you.”
“Shakespeare in Love” served as the company’s inaugural production in the new space, which kicked off on August 14. The remaining season schedule includes “Ann,” now through March 29; “My Father’s War,” from March 25 to April 19; “Matilda the Musical,” from May 20 to June 21.
Want to see the space for yourself? The theater’s Commons Bar and Café is open all day and into the night from 8:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon on Sundays. The café features breakfast pizza, pastries and café service in the mornings with espresso drinks plus nitro and cold brew on tap. The full lunch and dinner menu are paired with craft beer, premium wine and cocktails. Seeing a show? Grab a local craft beer before curtain and enjoy it from your seat while you take in the performance or share a carafe of wine and some Pure Joy ice cream after the show.
Get to Know the Stage
In TheatreSquared’s intimate new mainstage, the front row has moved even closer to the stage, while the back seating row is just one row deeper than in the former space. Audience members enter at a shared level with the performers. Two rows wrap around the top to create a new circle level with some of the best views in the house. The custom seats are self-rising, creating ample room for patrons to circulate. A third tier of seating can be activated for additional capacity as needed. And the walls of the audience seating section are clad in warm-hued wood.
Get to Know State of the Art
Behind the scenes, dedicated wing space, on-site production workshops, 12-feet of depth below stage and a state-of-the-art rigging system mean that, for the first time, TheatreSquared’s designers and production team have access to a full artistic palette to create any imaginative world onstage.
With an innovative, flexible design, the theater’s capacity is expandable from a typical setup for 275 to 360 for a special occasion. The stage can shift from partial thrust to full Shakespearean courtyard, from traditional proscenium to an in-the-round stage. And the back wall of the stage house can portal open to the company’s on-site scenic workshop to create an extremely deep stage effect.
Get to Know The Building
TheatreSquared’s new 50,000 square-foot home unites two state-of-the-art theaters, the company’s first dedicated rehearsal space, offices, education and community space, on-site workshops for scenery, props and costumes, eight dedicated guest artist apartments, outdoor terraces at three levels and an open-all-day café/bar at the active corner of West and Spring.
Board-formed architectural concrete wraps both theater volumes. The theater’s mainstage is designed for perfect acoustic isolation from even the blast of a freight train’s horn one block away.