SALT LAKE CITY — For Tony Award-winning performer Brian Stokes Mitchell, performing and viewing theatrical works is akin to the experience of attending a church service.
“You should leave the church and you should leave that theater feeling better, feeling bigger-hearted, feeling more open-minded than you did when you walked in,” Mitchell said in an interview with the Deseret News.
And as Mitchell prepares to headline the premier performance at Salt Lake City's soon-to-be-opened George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater Oct. 21, he has high hopes that the new theater will offer such opportunities of enlightenment.
“From everything I’ve seen and heard about this theater, it will certainly be a place that will allow people to leave that theater with that (feeling of being better) in their hearts,” he said.
The groundbreaking on the Eccles Theater, located in downtown Salt Lake City at 131 S. Main, took place two years ago on June 3, 2014, but for Phil Jordan, division director of Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, it’s a project he has been working on for six years.
“I’ve been fortunate in my life to build a few theaters and projects related to theaters, and (the Eccles Theater) is the most satisfying for me because it’s been built upon so many who have believed so long and hard in what we’re doing,” he said. “I think that more than anything, we’ll be a new host for a lot of new content, and I think over time, people will come to value the addition of (the theater) to a family of beautiful venues.”
Building hopes into reality
The Eccles Theater, a joint venture by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, joins a group of venues operated by the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, including Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
Designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects in conjunction with the local firm HKS Architects, the Eccles Theater features a five-story grand lobby, the 2,500-seat Delta Performance Hall, the flexible Regent Street black box theater, as well as a rehearsal studio, in-venue restaurant and patron and donor lounges, according to a news release.
“It’s very exciting, and one of the exciting parts about it is all of the people who have worked on this and all the things we were all hoping would happen and imagining would happen, actually have happened,” said Stephen Swisher, a developer with Garfield Traub Swisher, the firm that has worked to develop the theater and the surrounding area.
According to information from the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, the 185,000-square-foot Eccles Theater required 3.8 million pounds of concrete, 4.4 million pounds of structural steel and 10,223 square feet of stage flooring.
According to Swisher, the seating in the Delta Performance Hall, which consists of a main floor and three balcony levels, was modeled after the tall configurations often found in European opera halls.
“This theater was designed to have a really intimate feel and to be good for either an acoustical or amplified performance, so we have adjustable acoustics built into the theater. It will work for an amplified or an acoustical performance,” he said, noting the theater also features the latest speaker and AV system.
In addition to the special acoustics inside the hall, Swisher said the theater was built on a 6-foot thick concrete slab and uses 2-foot thick concrete walls to minimize the noise coming from TRAX and traffic on Main Street.
The lobby is connected to the adjacent 111 Main office tower, creating an open, flowing space. The space also includes the Encore Bistro, which is operated by Cuisine Unlimited and will be open Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. According to the bistro’s website, special dinner menus with themes in line with the shows will be available for select evening performances.
“We really wove (the Eccles Theater) into the urban fabric and made it part of downtown, and our lobby is always going to be open,” Swisher said. “We’ll have activities going on in here during the day, including the bistro, and we combined (the lobby) with the private office tower. We’re going to have (thousands of) new people a day coming downtown that don’t live here now, using that tower and sharing this lobby. We have them walking right by our ticket offices as they come and go.”
Jordan said after all is said and done, his favorite thing about the theater is the seating.
“We’ve been looking at drawings and we’ve been here with hard hats and we’ve been standing on decks of areas with no seats, and now we’re able to sit in the seats and what I really feel (happened) is a significant delivery of the promise that it’s a 2,500-seat hall that’s very well-organized,” he said. “More than anything, the customer is the big winner because there really is not a bad seat in the house, and they’re extraordinarily comfortable.”
A commitment to the arts
According to Cami Munk, communications manager for Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, the Eccles Theater is simply an addition to an already vibrant Utah cultural arts community. She cited a study recently released by the National Endowment for the Arts that showed 84.5 percent of adults in Utah attend some form of literary, visual or performing arts event or go to the movies at least once a year, compared with an average of 66.2 percent of adults nationally.
“(The Eccles Theater) is just another very visible, very important commitment to the future of arts and our community,” Munk said. “With so many new people coming in (to the community), and for them to see how important it is and the investment, and it’s important enough that it’s a public investment, that’s impressive to me.”
Munk said the Eccles Theater fills a need that is unique to what the county’s other venues offer.
“This complements what we have and it offers new opportunities for new things, but it also opens opportunities in our existing facilities as well,” Munk said. “Because of things being able to move, like Broadway moving from Capitol (Theatre) to (the Eccles Theater), it opens up the Capitol Theatre for more interesting things and maybe some local things that we haven’t thought about or haven’t been able to get because we haven’t had the space.”
While local “legacy arts groups” such as Ballet West, Utah Opera and Utah Symphony already have “homes” in the previously existing venues, Munk said Eccles Theater will play host to a variety of touring performances. She said the broad span of events is evident even in the theater’s first six months of scheduling, which includes the Broadway show “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” a concert by singer-songwriter Morrissey and an event with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“I think this theater is going to appeal to lots of different types of audiences,” she said.
Jordan added that as a touring facility, he believes the Eccles Theater will attract many people who normally wouldn’t attend an event at a performing arts venue.
“When (touring groups) visit us, the reason they are is because they’re ... of more popular taste or more popular interest,” he said. “I think because of that, there are going to be different people coming to the Eccles Theater that perhaps wouldn’t feel comfortable in going to other theaters.”
And getting people through the doors of the Eccles Theater encourages them to try out events at Salt Lake City’s other venues, he said.
“‘High tide floats all ships’ (has) been a phrase associated with this project,” Jordan said. “The intention is that as people come to a performance that they’re feeling more accessible to, then they will say, ‘Wow, that was a lot of fun. Let’s go see something over at the Capitol Theatre now’ or ‘I’d like to see something at the Abravanel Hall now’ or ‘I really wanted to go see this thing over at Rose Wagner.’”
The grand opening of the Eccles Theater is scheduled to be a three-day celebration Oct. 21-23, an event Katherine Potter, senior advisor for the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, says will offer “something for everyone.”
The Delta Performance Hall will be open to the public beginning Friday, Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m., with a premier performance headlined by Mitchell and Tony-nominated Broadway actress Megan Hilty.
Mitchell, who has performed in Utah multiple times, including as a guest performer during the 2008 Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert, said he is looking forward to returning to the area for the celebration.
“To get be one of the first performers and kind of get to put my energy in that place and my sense of joy and love of the theater and love of the arts, and be able to share that enthusiasm and be allowed to be part of that by a community, is a great, great honor,” he said.
Mitchell said he and Hilty recently performed together with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the philharmonic’s opening-night gala and said the two would take a similar approach to their performance at the Eccles Theater opening by presenting a “celebration of the American songbook.”
“I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with her again,” he said. “She’s another great spirit to have on the stage dedicating this new temple of entertainment.”
Local performing arts companies will also join Mitchell and Hilty onstage, including Ballet West, the University of Utah Department of Theatre and Ririe-Woodbury Dance company. Tickets are $50-$200, and black tie is encouraged.
Opening celebration events will continue throughout that weekend, including a free open house and 15-minute performances Saturday, Oct. 22, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; the Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word" from the theater Sunday, Oct. 23, 9:30 a.m.; and an additional opportunity to tour the theater Sunday, Oct. 23, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir performance marks the first time “in the broadcast’s 88-year history that the program will originate from a Salt Lake venue other than the Salt Lake Tabernacle or LDS Conference Center,” according to a news release.
Tickets to the “Music and the Spoken Word” performance are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis at artsaltlake.org.
“I think what we want the grand opening to do is to be something exciting and interesting,” Potter said. “But we also want it to showcase the best of what this theater can be, which is an amazing performing arts venue, but also a community space where people can feel free to come in and enjoy the public art and the architecture, enjoy the performances, enjoy the amazing food and just have this be a place for everyone to experience whatever they’re interested in experiencing.”
For additional information about the opening celebration, visit ecclestheateropening.com.
If you go
What: George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater grand opening celebration
When: Premier performance Friday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.; open house and arts celebration Saturday, Oct. 22, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast Sunday, Oct. 23, 9:30 a.m.
Where: George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, Salt Lake City
How much: $50-$200 for the premier performance; free for the open house and arts celebration; free, but tickets required for the “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast