Road Less Traveled Productions has found a new home on a well-traveled stage, in the heart of what may soon be a bustling neighborhood.
The company announced plans Wednesday to move from its 90-seat space in the former Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre into the cavernous Forbes Theatre at 512 Pearl St. in time for the opening of its 2015-16 season in September.
The one-year deal between Road Less Traveled and building owner Ellicott Development comes five months after city officials announced the sale of the Market Arcade to an Amherst investment group with plans to convert it into an eight-screen AMC Theatre.
Road Less Traveled’s move also is the first public phase of an ambitious development plan for the neighborhood that Ellicott Development CEO William A. Paladino hinted would involve several of the company’s properties on the edge of the Theatre District. Paladino said the company would officially unveil its plans in the next month for the neighborhood and the building.
The building, which also includes a roller rink and pool, was formerly owned by the Buffalo Christian Center, which sold it six months ago after estimating that it needed about $5 million in repairs. Though the building is structurally solid, there are signs of water damage on the ceiling of the auditorium where whole swaths of paint have peeled off.
“I’m very grateful to Bill for even considering having us, because we’ve been looking for a while and this is not an easy time,” Road Less Traveled co-founder and Artistic Director Scott C. Behrend said, noting that the cost per square foot in the Theatre District area has already become prohibitive for many smaller organizations.
For Paladino, the initial reason for purchasing the building had less to do with its innate charm or adaptability than it did with its adjoining parking lot.
“That was our main motivation originally, but then as we got into the building more, it’s pretty unique,” he said. “We thought, with some other ideas we have, which we’re going to announce probably in the next 30 days, this building would fit in very well and be a very complementary component to what we do here.”
Paladino said he talked with several theater companies and other businesses about anchoring the space before settling on Road Less Traveled, praising the company for its 13-year track record.
“They’re very passionate and driven about what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re organized, they’ve been around for a while, and hearing all that means that they could readily evolve into this space and take themselves to another level. … Some of the other people we met with, they just didn’t seem like they had that type of structure in place.”
Behrend said company members are relieved that eight months of uncertainty for the theater have ended.
“It’s like being in a weird form of purgatory for a long time,” Behrend said. “It’s the question that everybody gets asked every day: What’s happening? Where are we going?”
The second question may have been answered, but the first one is still up in the air.
Road Less Traveled, founded by Behrend and Buffalo playwright Jonathan B. Elston in 2002, has developed a small but loyal following for its mix of local plays, American classics and contemporary hits. Its move from a 90-seat theater to a gigantic, two-tiered auditorium that can seat more than 450 will pose logistical and programming challenges.
And while Behrend said the company doesn’t plan to alter its programming, the move will require an upfront investment to create a more intimate space inside the auditorium. What’s more, in order to make their occupancy economically feasible, the company will have to figure out how to raise revenue by programming larger events outside its core season.
There are no specific plans yet for either of those goals, but Behrend and Paladino said they would work together over the next year to create a workable system. After a year or 18 months, they said, they’ll re-evaluate whether to continue their partnership.
“In order to be successful, they’re going to have to see themselves evolving into something a little larger than they are right now,” Paladino said, adding that he remains open to ideas from the community about how to utilize the space when Road Less Traveled isn’t using it. “There’s a certain cost to this space that we need to achieve and we’re going to work with them and others to try to achieve that.”
As for Behrend and his staff and board, the news comes with a mixture of relief and anxiety about their future in the Forbes Theatre.
“My board chair, Ellen Hassett Cahill, who was instrumental in connecting this deal together, she wanted to go out and party after our board meeting Wednesday night to celebrate the good news,” Behrend said. “I said, ‘It’s too bad. I’ve got to go to work.’ ”