Since The College of William and Mary began using the Kimball Theatre as the main production and instruction facility for its theater and music departments in 2017, local performers and their fans have looked for other venues in town to accommodate them.
One such venue has been the Scotland Street library auditorium. Williamsburg Regional Library representatives said they have worked to fill the gap created by the changing use of the Kimball Theatre, but it has put added stress on a facility already doing more than envisioned when it was built.
In July 2017, Colonial Williamsburg closed the Kimball as part of a foundation-wide restructuring and cost-saving plan. The historic theater had lost money for CW every year since 1999, according to a past Virginia Gazette report. Shortly afterward, William and Mary stepped in and signed a three-and-a-half-year lease to take over and operate it.
The college uses the Kimball for theater and music instruction and as the main production facility for its Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance during the renovation of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall and the construction of its new music building, William and Mary spokeswoman Suzanne Seurattan wrote in an email.
Renovations at PBK Hall were expected to last two and a half years at the time of its closure in June 2018, according to a William and Mary news release announcing the renovations.
“These academic purposes remain our focus,” she said. “As a community partner, we do rent out the facility and accommodate other groups’ requests for use of the space as university programming allows.”
As part of the changes, William and Mary productions take priority when booking theater dates. Film screenings also have ceased at the theater.
Library fills the gap
Those changes left local performers and Kimball Theatre regulars at a disadvantage when looking for an arts venue in the city, Opera in Williamsburg founder and artistic director Naama Zahavi-Ely said. She said local performing groups have since flocked to the Scotland Street library and local churches.
Williamsburg Regional Library representatives said they’ve seen a jump in performers inquiring about using the library’s auditorium since 2017, but admit that it’s been difficult to meet the demand for performance space because of existing bookings.
“Some of the types of performances that the Kimball has hosted could not be hosted at the library because we don’t have a big enough stage and we don’t have the ability to handle some of the larger orchestras or theater groups, so there are limitations with this theater,” WRL Director Betsy Fowler said.
“Part of it was timing, the theater itself is almost always booked to capacity,” said Barry Trott, WRL special projects and technical services director.
Fees for outside groups to book the library theater vary depending on the type of group and performance needs, Trott said. For outside performers looking to use the library theater and charge admission, WRL charges $125 per hour with a $375 minimum, according to a theater rate schedule.
Attendance at the library theater has seen an uptick since the Kimball Theatre was handed off to William and Mary in 2017, Trott said, but the library was unable to meet the demand for venue time from former Kimball regulars. In fact, the number of programs offered at the library theater dropped by 23 from fiscal year 2017 to 2018.
Opera in Williamsburg has performed in the Kimball Theatre since 2012, and while it still holds two full opera performances there each year, the group also holds smaller performances at the library theater.
The library’s 268-seat auditorium is smaller than the Kimball, which seats 400. Zahavi-Ely said space constraints at the smaller venue, along with high demand from other performers and existing bookings, have made it difficult to use the library theater.
Attendance at the theater increased modestly from 43,107 in fiscal year 2017 to 43,687 in fiscal year 2018. Trott said underwriting from the Friends of WRL Foundation allowed the library to offer tickets for its popular Dewey Decibel Concert Series at a lower rate, which was also a big reason for the theater’s increased popularity.
Another way the library has sought to fill the gaps created by changes at the Kimball was through the creation of its Cinema at Scotland Street monthly film series, which showcases independent and art films.
“We know that there was a lot of concern when the Kimball closed from people in the community who liked the independent films and art films that were being shown there, so we consciously started this Cinema at Scotland Street monthly art-film series,” Trott said.
From its inception in January 2018 through March 2019, the series has had a total attendance of 770 people with an average attendance of 42 people per showing, he said.
Library is over capacity
Although the theater is one of the most unique and widely praised aspects of the library, Fowler said other factors, including an inflexible layout, limited parking and increasing popularity among city and county residents, have led the building to strain at the seams.
“We’re beyond capacity for the population that we’re serving, so that impacts the entire spectrum of library services, whether it's the theater, collection room, seating, parking, programming, staffing and desks,” she said. “There just isn’t the people space in that building.”
During a presentation to the city’s Planning Commission in March, Fowler explained that the 40,000-square-foot library is popular among city and county residents, but that the aging facility cannot adequately support the level of usage it has received — and is likely to continue to receive in the coming years. In her presentation, Fowler estimated the Scotland Street library will get nearly 375,000 visits this fiscal year. In comparison, WRL’s library in James City County is expected to receive 166,176 visits.
At 33,000 square feet, the Croaker Road library is smaller, houses a smaller collection and is in a less urbanized area than the Scotland Street library, which is near the center of the city. The majority of circulation also occurs at the Williamsburg library, Fowler said.
A library system serving a population the size of Williamsburg and James City County should offer one square foot per capita, according to the Library of Virginia’s Standards for Virginia Public Libraries. Williamsburg Regional Library offers 0.75 square feet per capita between its two libraries, she said, leading the library system to receive a single A rating based on square footage, the lowest possible score.
While there’s an overall need for more space at the library, Fowler said that the majority of outside performances at the library theater take place while the library is closed on Friday and Saturday evenings, which alleviates some pressure that would otherwise be caused by a lack of parking.
As Williamsburg and James City County officials continue to weigh the best path forward for a new or renovated library in the city’s downtown, Fowler said that maintaining and possibly expanding the theater at the library on Scotland Street is a high priority.
“If we did have the opportunity to have a new building, I think we would be very interested in having a larger performance space because we realize the untapped potential in having a variety of acts and the interest locally in attending these types of performances,” she said.
Meanwhile, WRL also has its eyes on an outdoor performing space to supplement the theater.
The regional library system recently applied for a $150,000 grant from the city’s new Tourism Development Fund Grant Review Committee, which would transform the library plaza into a gathering place with furniture, activities, musical performances and more, Fowler said. If funded, a portion of the grant would be spent on a portable outside stage that could be used at the library.
“We would be able to have another venue in addition to the theater to put on shows out on the plaza,” Trott said.
Library theater by the numbers:
» Fiscal year 2016 (July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016): 547 programs, 38,778 total attendance
» Fiscal year 2017 (July 1 2016 to June 30 2017): 577 programs, 43,107 total attendance
» Fiscal year 2018 (July 1 2017 to June 30 2018): 554 programs, 43,687 total attendance
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.