August 2015 | Quick-Change Artists

Masking and risers convert a studio at Motion Pacific Dance Studio into a stage equipped for aerial dance. Left photo by Crystal Birns, Right photo (insert) by Christina Neilsen

Masking and risers convert a studio at Motion Pacific Dance Studio into a stage equipped for aerial dance. Left photo by Crystal Birns, Right photo (insert) by Christina Neilsen

How schools make studio spaces double as theaters

By Irene Hsiao

A dance studio seems the simplest of rooms—at its most minimal, nothing more than an empty floor with walls around it. Yet dancers treat their studios like a cross between a blank canvas and a temple—a sacred space in which they submit to daily practice, a creative space to be filled with potential order, a communal space to be populated by little girls in their first tutus dipping and swaying to Chopin, budding pre-professionals honing their technique, and full-fledged dancers exploring their artistry.

While many dance schools may set out folding chairs in a studio for informal student showings, some school owners have transformed their educational spaces into performance-ready theaters. While an in-studio performance space may sound like an ideal alternative to expensive theater rentals and seems to offer the flexibility of holding shows whenever the recital bug bites, building and maintaining a studio theater come with a variety of challenges and rewards. The owners and directors of five dance studios with convertible studio theaters provided a broad range of perspectives on the costs and benefits of an in-house performance space.

Company Ballet School and Performing Arts Center

Jonna Maule, owner/director of Company Ballet School and Performing Arts Center in Spokane, Washington, explains that she had always envisioned a theatrical space in the studio she founded with nothing more than $1,000 in savings. With a vision that inspired parents and volunteers to help her renovate a former tanning salon into a dance studio, Maule was able to draw on her community again to install theatrical equipment on a shoestring budget with the same civic spirit.

Permanently installed lighting equipment and seating allow for quick changeovers in a studio at The Dance Complex. Photo by Bill Parsons

Permanently installed lighting equipment and seating allow for quick changeovers in a studio at The Dance Complex. Photo by Bill Parsons

“I express a dream to them, and people step up. I’ve built my school on nothing but a tax return. I’ve relied on word of mouth,” she says, noting that parents have contributed their efforts in every aspect, from the labor of electrical wiring and building bleachers to sewing costumes and painting sets.

Though Maule concedes that her space is “somewhat jerry-rigged,” she relies on the enchantment of the theater to camouflage elements that may not be what they seem. “The back curtains look fantastic, but they’re made of felt,” she says. Other components were rescued from the rubbish heap, such as the luxurious heavyweight burgundy front curtain scavenged from a church.

Turning the space from studio into stage is a simple process of hanging wings and a back curtain. The lights and sound system remain in place year-round. Single-handedly acting as stage manager and theater technician, Maule operates the curtains and the lights from an office space overlooking the stage.

The impulse to create magic out of thin air was instilled in Maule as a teenager. “I had an amazing high school theatrical director,” she says. “All the parents volunteered and built sets and made these fabulous costumes. I came from that culture and wanted to pass it on.” She tells other studio owners with scant funds but big dreams, “You don’t have to have a large pocketbook to do the things you want to do. You just have to have a mission and share it—if you build it, they will come.”

New Bedford Ballet

New Bedford Ballet, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, is another studio and theater that emerged with the help of massive community effort. “We built it from scratch,” says board president Teresa de Medeiros about renovating an old building seven years ago, creating three small studios and a larger one that can be converted into a theater. “It was falling apart. We had only one electrical outlet!” Yet from an initial donation of $10,000, New Bedford Ballet’s studio thrives as a school and a performance space for its youth ballet company.

Company Ballet School and Performing Arts Center's studio functions as a theater, complete with curtain, lighting, and a sound and light booth. Photo by Mathew Staben

Company Ballet School and Performing Arts Center’s studio functions as a theater, complete with curtain, lighting, and a sound and light booth.
Photo by Mathew Staben

When it’s showtime, the large studio converts into a stage in about 75 minutes: mirrors dividing the studio roll away, wings come down, and a black curtain is strung across a metal rod to cover the barres. Most time-consuming and laborious are the platforms used for staging chairs at different levels. Usually stored off-site, the platforms require six workers and a truck to be transported and set up. “The biggest issue is getting people to help, but they say, ‘What an experience it is to see how this is all put together!’ ” says artistic director Rebecca Waskiel-Marchesseault.

New Bedford Youth Ballet performs several times a year in the studio theater, which accommodates an audience of 110. “It is a very personal experience,” says Waskiel-Marchesseault. “It’s up close, and I think that benefits the dancers and the audience. We definitely cater to a younger audience for The Nutcracker. The kids are able to really see the dancers.”

Performing in their home studio has many benefits for the dancers, who have more time to get used to music, spacing, and lighting choices. “They know the floor—they’re not going to slip,” Waskiel-Marchesseault says. She adds that because a studio theater has a smaller capacity, the dancers of the youth ballet perform more often. “That gives them strength and boosts their confidence.”

The Dance Complex

The Dance Complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts, provides a model for a community-based arts organization that runs its studios as a cooperative. Founded in 1991 in a former Odd Fellows headquarters dating from circa 1884, The Dance Complex houses six studios, one of which converts into the Julie Ince Thompson Theater; a seventh studio is being renovated into a downstairs storefront theater.

Dance Mission Theater's 140-seat performance space does double duty by accommodating daytime dance classes. Photo by Stacie Powers

Dance Mission Theater’s 140-seat performance space does double duty by accommodating daytime dance classes. Photo by Stacie Powers

Executive director Peter DiMuro estimates the initial cost of installing lighting and sound equipment in the studio theater at $15,000 in the 1980s, an investment that transformed The Dance Complex’s Studio 1 into a downtown loft theater. It became a central hub for local and touring choreographers, hosting an annual residency by Mark Morris Dance Group and shows produced by Dance Umbrella, a presenter of contemporary and multicultural dance in New England.

Because the studio space is bustling and the theater is in demand, conversion between the two is necessarily rapid. The risers and lights are permanently installed, so “close a few drapes, put a row of chairs in, and we’re good to go in about 45 minutes,” says DiMuro. “We can put in flats, but I don’t like to use them because I like to see the raw space. It’s a historical building with dark woodwork and stained glass that the street lights shine through.”

Yet the historical building poses unique challenges for any kind of renovation. “We’ve just uncovered a fresco that’s been hidden for 70 or 80 years,” says DiMuro. “If we wanted to hang a grid on there, we’d be breaking code. You have to comply with the city’s recommendations and pass inspections. It takes longer than you think it will. With a dance studio, you always want to be safe, but for a hall of assembly, you need to consider emergency exits.”

Like other studios, The Dance Complex heavily relies on its volunteer work–study force to turn the lobby into a theater while others are still in the building rehearsing or taking class. “We’re bohemian; we’ll never be The Joyce,” says DiMuro. “But put a little lipstick on things and they’ll look better.”

Motion Pacific

When Abra Allan took over Motion Pacific dance studio in Santa Cruz, California, in 2009, she saw it as a perfect opportunity to combine presenting dance with dance education. The studio already offered a broad palette of dance classes for youths and adults, and when it moved to its current location in a former warehouse in downtown Santa Cruz in 2011, the renovation plans included a studio that would convert into an intimate theater with a house that seats 100 and that presents artists from all over California.

“It’s been a gradual process,” says Motion Pacific’s technical director, who goes by his first name only, Chip. “We built the risers out of two-by-fours and plywood, and each show we add a little more. We bought the dimmers for the lights on eBay.”

This portion of a studio at New Bedford Ballet holds platforms for audience seating when the space is used for performances. Photo by Kathleen Synnott

This portion of a studio at New Bedford Ballet holds platforms for audience seating when the space is used for performances. Photo by Kathleen Synnott

The main issue for a studio space that becomes a theater is the natural conflict between the physical requirements of studio space and performance space. “You want a performance space to be dark so you can control lighting as much as possible,” Chip explains, “whereas in a dance studio you want as much natural light as possible.” However, he says, this challenge has been “really fun from a design standpoint.”

Black fabric to cover the mirrors and windows, dark-stained plywood risers, and black chairs darken the space nicely. Movable risers allow flexibility in the use of the space. “Eighty percent of the time, we set it up in a certain orientation, but we’ve had events in the round or set the room up cabaret style,” Chip explains. They store chairs and risers out of sight. “Abra was very clear,” he says, “ ‘When it’s not a theater, I don’t want to see the theater stuff.’

“The thrill when people walk into the theater is really validating,” Chip says. “Two hours ago, this was the most beautiful dance studio in town, and now it’s the most beautiful theater.”

Dance Mission Theater

Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco, California, is as well known for its energetic classes for youths and adults as it is for its active 140-seat black box studio theater. Serving a diverse blend of cultural communities, its purpose, as Dance Brigade artistic director Krissy Keefer describes it, is to provide a nurturing environment for these communities to develop a sense of harmony through the arts.

Keefer spearheaded the conversion of the main studio into a theater in 1998, salvaging equipment donated from other presenting organizations in the Bay Area. The combination of multiple studios and a studio theater allows Dance Mission Theater to create a symbiotic relationship between dance education and performance. “It’s hard to run just a theater—they have to charge a lot of money every week,” says Keefer. “But here the school subsidizes the theater.”

“We’re able to charge half of what other theaters cost, and half of that money goes to personnel,” adds theater/adult program manager Stella Adelman. However, running multiple programs simultaneously in the same space entails compromises—there’s no night space for the class program, and all set pieces and props must be removed from the theater before classes resume in the morning.

“In order for us to make it this inexpensive and this available to people, we all have to cooperate with each other,” says Keefer. “People develop community in making it work. Our aim is for everyone to be supportive in a nonjudgmental way.”

“People like doing their shows here because they rehearse here,” says Adelman, explaining that the setup gives performers a sense of pride and familiarity in a home space. Nevertheless, both Adelman and Keefer point out that the theater doesn’t have the capacity to host recitals by the youth program.

“It’s really for more experimental work, because it’s intimate,” says Keefer. “But because we have multiple studios, there is so much collaboration. People work together because they’re in the space together.”

For more information:
[icon name=”external-link”] Company Ballet School and Performing Arts Studio, Spokane, Washington

[icon name=”external-link”] New Bedford Ballet, New Bedford, Massachusetts

[icon name=”external-link”] The Dance Complex, Cambridge, Massachusetts

[icon name=”external-link”] Motion Pacific, Santa Cruz, California

[icon name=”external-link”] Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, California


Irene Hsiao is a San Francisco Bay Area–based writer, dancer, and photographer. Her book, Letter from Taipei, was published in 2014 and her short film, Mad Rush, was screened at the 2015 Tiny Dance Film Festival.