LIVINGSTON, NJ — At the urging of members of the Arts Council of Livingston (ACL), the mayor and council have agreed to provide funding to conduct a feasibility study that will determine the potential of renovating part of the Livingston Senior and Community Center (LSCC) to develop a mixed-use community theatre.
Speaking on behalf of the ACL was former mayor Ellie Cohen, who explained why the township is in need of a venue for artists, musicians and other performers to showcase their talents and why the LSCC might be a feasible location for it. By the end of the conversation, the council unanimously agreed to provide $9,000 to conduct the study through an architect who is familiar with such projects.
“This is the first time we have come to the council and asked you for one penny,” said Cohen as she explained the need for these funds. “You may not adore and love the arts the way I do and the way some people around you to, but we are a community of many things. Not only are we here to make sure people are safe and to make sure that we live in a great town, but part of being a good town is offering everything to everybody.”
Cohen explained that in 2011, the group began forming a list of what the dream venue would look like, and it included not only a performance space with enough seating for full-length productions, but also an area for artists to work, storage spaces for costumes/sets and more. However, the study conducted at the time determined that the dream space would cost “anywhere between $10 and $12 million,” she said.
“I'm involved with a New York Museum, and the New York Museum is having trouble raising $7 million—so we did not know how to do it in Livingston,” said Cohen. “We established a list of names of people who we felt might be donors and then we went around trying to figure out how to present this because you can't go raising money if you do not have a rendering and cannot show people what their money is going toward...All we had at the time was the money to render the proposal."
In addition to the cost at the time, Cohen said there were various other factors at play that also caused a delay in this project.
“When I was on the council and we were going through this whole thing, I had always wanted to have a theatre,” she said. “At the time, we were building the senior community center and I said we should put a theatre in there...but at the same time, we were also building the library and we were building Okner field. So it was a tremendous time with lots going on, but the art center kind of got lost in the shuffle."
According to Cohen, members of the ACL believe that there could and should be up to 30 Livingston-oriented performances per year, but there is currently nowhere for the various local groups and individuals to present their work. She noted that to it would be "overly ambitious" to build a theatre from the ground up, which is why the discussion has come back to the LSCC as a potential location for a theatre.
"The community center make sense because where that stage is inside the building is on a common wall; there are places to put costumes; there is a lot of parking in the rear; not a lot of infrastructure needs to be done; people can walk in and use the bathrooms; etcetera,” she said. “It becomes a less-grandiose project, but a feasible project.”
Although some of the dream items might have to be taken of the list, the proposed project still includes a theatre with a ceiling that is high enough for stage settings and enough space for a full orchestra as well as an area for a concession stand and ticket office.
“We want what we think we should have,” said Cohen. “I've been in this town a long time, and I've worked on many projects. I've seen Okner field go in, I've seen the [Madonna Drive] field go in, I've seen everything of that nature. The seniors got their community center because that was important for them and it's important for our community, but it's now time for the arts. It's time for the people in this community to notice that they can go to that wonderful civic smorgasbord and go to a table where they can be served the arts."
Cohen reiterated that the ACL is only currently asking for funds to have an architect conduct a feasibility study “to see what it would look like at the community center.”
Councilman Michael Vieira chimed in to agree that the community is “ripe for the arts and an art center at this point."
"It's not just paintings and drawings,” he said. “We have actors, we have musicians, we have people in Hollywood right now that have come out of Livingston…This is a great town and we produce a lot of great things."
Council member Ed Meinhardt also agreed, but suggested speaking with more than one architect in order to see the difference in estimated prices before moving forward once the feasibility study comes back to the council.
"This is going to be a number that we are going to spend, and I think that for this council to fulfill its judiciary responsibility to the town, we should get a couple of different opinions," he said.
As a former council member, Michael Silverman—who sat in on the recent discussion on behalf of the ACL—stated that he saw both sides of the issue, but was confident in the architect selected to conduct the initial study.
“He’s the perfect guy with all of the background information to get this done in the next two months," said Silverman. “Where we go after that, I couldn't agree with you more—it absolutely has to go out to bid. Not only for construction, but for architectural work and everything else."
Mayor Al Anthony concluded that the community theatre is something that the council has been trying to accomplish for a long time, but that has been a matter of the “price tag.” He also reiterated that the goal is not to have something as grand as nearby venues like the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark or the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) in South Orange, but to have something small that is “for our own town.”
"We are all a 100 percent for a performing arts center,” Anthony said to the ACL members in attendance. “Every time we give out an award, I always say that not every kid is into sports, so you have a captive audience with the council.”
With the support of the council, the ACL intends to return with a rendering of the project and recommendations in the next two or three months.