Blue Theatre

Burned but not beaten

Austin firefighters survey the damage after drowning the blaze that threatened the Blue.
Austin firefighters survey the damage after drowning the blaze that threatened the Blue.

One word you never want to hear associated with theatre: fire. It's laid waste to too many stages throughout history, from Shakespeare's original Globe Theatre to Esther's Follies' original Pool. So when news spread of a fire at the Blue Theatre on July 27, many feared that the 10-year-old warehouse space would be the element's latest theatrical victim – which would be a particularly devastating blow to Nicole Portwood and Jenny Gravenstein, who took over the Blue less than a year ago and would be out of a theatre before they'd really made it their own.

In this case, however, the black clouds of smoke rising from Springdale Road contained a few silver linings. For one, the fire didn't originate in the theatre but in a storage shed that sits between the Blue and the neighboring warehouse occupied by Blue Genie Art Industries. For another, Gravenstein, who serves as operations manager, was still at the theatre when the fire broke out and was able to get firefighters on the scene before it could spread to the Blue itself and before anyone could get hurt. Also, the building is insured, which will help to some extent with repairing what damage there was: mostly fire damage to the south wall of the building's exterior, along with some smoke damage to the interior. And last but not least, the Blue team had previously scheduled a fundraiser for the following Sunday – originally intended to raise cash to replace the currently on-loan lighting system – and this allowed them to solicit some support from the community regarding fire repairs while the catastrophe was still fresh in everyone's minds.

Portwood, who serves as executive director, reports that around 50 people showed up for the Blue Light Special block party Aug. 1 and that sufficient funds were raised for a new light board, which was enough to make the event a success in Portwood and Gravenstein's estimation. But what has impressed the two even more has been all the additional support they've received from throughout the community, from donations that are still coming in through the Blue's website (a secure PayPal link at to the Blue Genie crew offering to paint a new mural on the outside of the building.

That said, numerous challenges still face the Blue Theatre team. Since the south wall is where the electrical connections are located, the Blue has been without power since the fire, forcing Gravenstein to clear the calendar and reschedule a number of workshops, meetings, auditions, rehearsals, and classes. Having received approval from their insurance provider for one electrical bid, Portwood thinks the lights may go back on late this week or early next. What's crucial is that they be on by Aug. 15, when the next rental production, Tutto Theatre Company's I Witness, is set to load in. Beyond the power problems are repairs to the building that need to be addressed. The back wall of the stage was burned badly enough that it has to be scraped, resurfaced, and repainted, and every surface inside the Blue will have to be detailed to remove smoke damage. Insurance will cover that kind of harm, but Gravenstein and Portwood are responsible for the costs of repairing or replacing anything that's not part of the structure, which includes the old curtains throughout the space that will almost certainly have to be replaced.

If this were something other than a stage space, the people who manage it might be inclined to shut the doors and swallow the loss. But corny as it is, theatre people really subscribe to the dictum that "the show must go on." And Portwood and Gravenstein are evidently show folk through and through. "We're not discouraged, just focused on all the great programming we've done so far this year and on the needs of the artists and productions booked for the rest of the season," writes Gravenstein. "We're getting lots of help from folks right now and we're feeling real optimistic about getting everything taken care of soon."

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Blue Theatre, Nicole Portwood, Natalie Gravenstein, Blue Genie Art Industries, Tutto Theatre Company, Esther's Follies

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