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Torn Space gets big grant; renovation and more on tap

Torn Space Theater, headquartered on Buffalo's East Side, has received the largest grant in its history.

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation has awarded Torn Space $310,000, which will be used by the theater company to finish the exterior renovation of its performance space in the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle.

"The Wilson grant concludes stage one of the project," said Dan Shanahan, Torn Space's artistic director and co-founder with Melissa Meola, the company's associate director. "We are grateful and humbled by the generosity the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation has shown Torn Space Theater and the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle."

The grant will allow the completion of a new theater entryway, new windows, restoration of the front facade – including replacing vinyl siding with plank wood – and a small outdoor cafe. Work is expected to begin this summer on the exterior of the Mickiewicz building, part of which is leased to the theater.

Lavea Brachman, vice president of programs for the Wilson Foundation, praised Torn Space for its cultural importance and value to its Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.

"The broad base of support that Torn Space Theater has received for this project demonstrates the important role that local cultural assets can play in improving quality of life and supporting neighborhood economic growth," Brachman said in a statement.

Brachman said the foundation considers Torn Space to be "an anchor" in the neighborhood. While the Wilson Foundation doesn't generally provide grants to arts and cultural groups, it will do so when a group fits in with the foundation's community and economic development strategy.

The capital campaign has now raised $1.3 million, about half of which was used to create a design and production studio next door at 608 Fillmore Ave. The space is being used for dressing rooms, a conference area, as a green room and for set construction and load-in space. It opened last November in a long-shuttered gas station next to the theater.

The stainless-steel building is also a work of art in itself.

[Related: Real-life security guards star in experimental Torn Space show]

Some 72,000 holes peer through the cladding between misaligned inner and outer layers of 4-inch perforated panels. The metal-clad surface gives off a shimmering, appearance at night from beams of light projected from below. A burned imprint of the original Gas Mart sign was achieved through a photograph that was put through a computer system and incorporated into the perforated holes.

"The design studio has eased a lot of space issues we had," Shanahan said. "It has given us a real designated place to have our design meetings, for instance, and allowed us to have adequate space for performers to prepare and get ready prior to the performance. Before, all of these different facets folded in on themselves in the back hall."

Space can also be used to create the elaborate sets and lighting effects the company employs.

The new entrance way will connect the design studio with the theater. It will be designed by Christopher Romano, who also designed the Rigidized Metal Corporation's cladding on the building's exterior.

[Review: The future is now in riveting Torn Space's "Far Away"]

Shanahan said the theater company is considering new performance possibilities presented by the creation of an enclosed outdoor courtyard, landscaping and green space behind the studio. Torn Space has been staging original theatrical performances and new interpretations of contemporary plays at the Adam Mickiewicz Library since 2003.

"We will look at reconsidering the actual performance space, and how an indoor-outdoor performance space could become part of what we're doing," he said. "We have a significant amount of land since we have begun renovating."

Torn Space has created site-specific summer productions at Silo City since 2012. The company is now applying that knowledge to how it might transform its home space with a similar approach, including ways in which could have a larger impact in the neighborhood.

"I don't want to overstate it and say this is the end-all, but I think we are becoming an important component in driving more interest and hopefully more investment in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood," Shanahan said.

The new design studio has raised Torn Space's profile in the community – and certainly its neighbors' curiosity, Shanahan said.

"The biggest thing we've noticed is that we're just getting more noticed, and people are asking what goes on here, and what we do as an organization," he said. "There are the positive comments about the building's appearance, and the most basic comments about how we took an eyesore and transformed it into something beautiful."

As Torn Space looks to the second phase of its master plan, it plans to pursue a state grant set aside for renewed investment in economically disadvantaged areas, which includes the Broadway-Fillmore district.

The theater company also received a grant from the University at Buffalo Creative Arts Institute to bring in significant artists from outside the area for a residency.

In October and November, 600 Highwaymen, which performed at last year's RESPONSE festival produced by Torn Space, will take up residence to devise a new project working with the theater company and UB.

The performance will be premiered in its first incarnation at Torn Space before taken on tour.

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