After purchasing the building in March of 2003, the Board of Directors, Steering Committee and many volunteers went to work to solicit donations, put on fund raisers, clean, haul junk, take down damaged ceilings and walls, publish and distribute information, write grant proposals, paint, and generally stabilize the building and make it presentable.
In 2004, non-profit status was obtained and a State of Michigan Cool Cities grant was awarded to the Project. The grant, leveraged by donations from local individuals and businesses and work done by hundreds of volunteers, allowed Soo Theatre Project to renovate four former storefronts and start an arts education program, Soo Theatre Arts Resource Studios (STARS).
In September, 2005, STARS opened with a part-time director and ten highly qualified artists teaching classes and private lessons in dance, piano, harp, voice, strings, flute and acting. About 100 students took classes for the first term. Class offerings and the number of artists teaching at STARS continued to grow. The faculty maintains a high quality of instruction in private lessons and classes as well as summer camps and directing and playing in performances on stage and in the pit. Soo Theatre Project has offered area professional artists a chance to use their talents and earn money in the arts.
The energy and networking of these artists at Soo Theatre Project has spawned many programs and enhanced the arts for everyone. They have started a number of ensembles. Christmas concerts, recitals, and community events have included performances by STARS youth orchestras, a New Horizons adult string group, youth and adult cello groups, a youth chorus, a dance theatre, and a flute club. STARS faculty and students have been involved in countless shows, from small concerts and recitals, benefits for United Way, Girls on the Run and other organizations to Christmas concerts, with combined STARS
and community groups.
In addition, STARS has provided the opportunity for children and adults to enjoy day camps each summer, exploring the arts and presenting student productions on the stage of the Soo Theatre. New summer camps have been added. In the history of the camps, approximately 120 students have participated each summer. The camps have included a pre-schoolers camp, a combined elementary through high school musical theatre camp, an elementary musical theatre camp, an elementary arts exploration camp, a vocal camp and opera apprentice program for youth and adults, and beginning and advanced string camps–all taught by the STARS faculty and guest artists who have come to participate in operas, Broadway shows and dance performances here.
The demolition of block walls that divided the theatre auditorium was accomplished with about $45,000 worth of in-kind and volunteer services in the winter of 2005. The renovations in the theatre auditorium and the opening of the adjoining accessible restrooms included in the STARS renovation have allowed the theatre and stage to be used during the warmer months of the year. The first production in the theatre, in August of 2005, included many local musicians and an original play in celebration of the Soo Locks Sesquicentennial. The audience sat on folding chairs.
The Soo Theatre auditorium still lacks adequate heating, only allowing performances from mid-May to mid-October. Even with that short season, there have been over 80 performances on stage since summer 2006, some running for multiple days. Each year since 2007 a major Broadway musical has been presented at Soo Theatre–Annie, Oliver, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, Little Shop of Horrors, Camelot, The Music Man. These shows have given people from all over the Eastern Upper Peninsula a chance to work under professional directors. Since April of 2015 Soo Youth Theatre has presented a production with the entire cast made up of kids ages 7 to 18. Annie, Jr. and Beauty and the Beast, Jr. have been very successful. Full Operas have also been presented–Hansel and Gretel, Magic Flute, Die Fletermaus, Cosi Fan Tutte, Gianni Schicchi, Marriage of Figaro, LaBoheme, Carmen, Don Giovanni, and the Barber of Seville–with resident and guest artists singing the lead parts and choruses made up of local singers from the vocal apprentice camp. Musicians from all over the area have played in pit orchestras for both the Broadway shows and the operas, giving the performances the advantage of live accompaniment.
Other performances on Soo Theatre stage have included a bluegrass group, celtic duo, guitar virtuosos, barbershop shows, the Sault Symphony, popular contemporary groups, variety shows, and more. The auditorium has been used for singing competitions, seminars and shows from organizations renting the space. Classic films have been shown, and recent acquisitions of digital equipment will allow more movies. The first Soo Film Festival took place in 2014.
In November of 2006, Soo Theatre Project received an incredible windfall from the owner of Mackinac Crossings Theater when that theater was closed. The generous gift included seats, stage rigging, lights, sound equipment, costumes, props and sets (valued at nearly $400,000). During the summer of 2007 the seats from Mackinac Crossings were installed by volunteers and the audience was able to sit in the comfortable seats to view shows at the Soo Theatre. Basic rigging was installed by professionals in the winter of 2008, so curtains and scenery could be hung for the 2008 season, and the huge sound board from Mackinac was also installed. Wiring has been updated each year. By the 2015 season, more stage lighting and sound equipment were installed, and the projection booth is now able to handle spot lights and the new digital projector.
The Soo Theatre now operates with a part-time executive director who keeps the vision of the Soo Theatre Project alive. A bookkeeper, events coordinator and education coordinator handle the day-to-day details and report to him. Still much of the marketing, fundraising, sponsorship services and many other details are handled by volunteers, working with our small staff. The Artistic Director and Music Director are still volunteer positions. The technical director is a part paid/part volunteer position. As new Board members bring different skill sets, and trusted and newly recruited volunteers work with the organization, new committees form to move the organization forward. The huge Soo Theatre building is maintained by several volunteers working with the building committee. One volunteer, in particular, was able to fill many gaping holes in the walls of the lobby and, with the help of volunteer painters and a hired electrician, the visitors to the theatre saw a brighter and enhanced lobby in 2011. Although the need for cosmetic improvements is apparent in the building, much has been done to upgrade the infrastructure and keep it maintained.
In November 2009, Soo Theatre Project was selected among 90 arts projects in the U.S. to receive one of six Metlife Innovative Spaces Awards. The communication that came with the $10,000 award said it all. It recognized ”the incredible number of volunteer hours and community involvement it took to purchase the Soo Theatre and revive the neglected structure to become a cultural destination for the region” and the extraordinary work it took to create innovative, affordable, and sustainable artist space that positively impacts its community. The communication went on to say: “Soo Theatre Project and STARS exemplify how the development of affordable working spaces for artists can play a powerful role not only in the lives and careers of those artists, but in the communities where these spaces are located. It is an outstanding example of excellent programming, socially progressive real estate development and the ability to provide creative and economic sustenance in the community”.
Funding for Soo Theatre Project comes from tuition, box office, and individuals and businesses contributing to the annual fund, Belong to Something Big. Several fundraising events, benefit performances, and community clubs and organizations also help to raise money to keep the building operating and maintained. Grants from the City of Sault Ste. Marie and from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs have been awarded in the last three years. The importance of the arts in Sault Ste. Marie, indeed for the entire region, is being recognized.
In 2013, a former Board member donated the funds to hire a Michigan architectural firm to assess needs at the Soo Theatre building and help the Board of Directors develop a comprehensive plan for renovation and restoration. A survey of stake holders was completed and conceptual floor plans, a façade drawing and a budget are now in our hands. A restoration engineer has completed a needs assessment and projected budget for Phase I of a capital campaign – the entire outside of the building – to make the building more efficient and ready to continue with interior work. Phase I includes brick repair, new windows, doors, a restored façade and marquee, major roof repairs, to name a few components. A capital grant for $50,000 has been awarded by MCACA to repair and restore the six roofs on the building. A board member planned a series of concerts in 2016 to kick off the “Raise the Roof campaign” to raise money to match the grant.
Community groups and individuals are planning more fundraisers in 2017 to raise enough money to finish the roof restoration. A consultant has been hired to help the Board with a development plan to help the Board in determining how to move forward, as well as to help them organize their long-range
thinking and planning.
Soo Theatre Project is moving to the future, continuing to restore and renovate our historic structure, and continuing to grow arts programs needed to become the Community Arts Center for the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan.