SDSU wants to build a performing arts district on campus

Project, funded by $37 million from state, will renovate main theater and create new facilities


With $37 million in state funding in hand, San Diego State University will begin work next year on creating a modernized performing-arts district on the site of its aging theater venues.

The project will involve both gutting and renovating the existing Don Powell Theatre, and building a new second stage that can open up on one side to create a third, flexible indoor/outdoor venue.

Another new structure, dubbed the amenities building, will house such facilities as a ticket office, concessions and gender-neutral restrooms.

The granting of state funds to make the Powell Theatre and associated spaces compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act was the main impetus for the project, said Peggy Shannon, dean of SDSU’s College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts.

But “modern performance is much more reliant on state-of-the-art technologies that are quickly developing,” Shannon said.

So because the $37 million from the state is earmarked for the ADA-compliance work, “we are hoping to raise another $15 or $20 million to really equip these performance venues” with sophisticated sound and visual equipment, in a manner that “will help us lead the way in how technologies are being utilized for live performance.”

At least some of those funds will come from naming opportunities for the new facilities.

That includes the main-stage Powell Theatre, which opened in 1967 and took its present name in 1987 to honor a longtime SDSU faculty professor and drama-department chairman who had pushed for the theater’s construction. (Don Powell died shortly before the official renaming.)

Shannon said the new project, to begin construction in 2021, will involve “gutting the lobby and the house” of the present Powell Theatre.

“Everything from the proscenium out, basically,” said Shannon, a veteran administrator and educator who has directed theater around the world. “The sight lines and the rake and the accessibility will be emphasized in the rebuild. And it will go from 500 to 350 seats. It should be great for music, theater and dance.”

The project, designed by HGA architects, also involves building a venue that for now is dubbed the Second Stage. It will seat up to 150 people (making up for the capacity lost in the main house), and will sit a short distance down a path from its larger neighbor.

One side of the Second Stage will open up to an outdoor space that can serve as a third venue, potentially hosting lunchtime and evening concerts and other events. A grassy area there should be able to seat up to 400 people.

“The idea is that it will be an animated, programmable space,” Shannon, who joined SDSU last August, said.

The new amenities building will sit between the main and second stages; the existing “black box” space known as the Experimental Theatre will remain as a place for classes and other purposes.

“We’re going to work on making that space ADA over time,” Shannon said, “so in the meantime we just won’t be selling tickets” for events there.

Of the timeline, Shannon said that “we’re going with the idea it’ll be about an 18-month project once it starts construction,” which would put completion around the end of 2022.

She added: “We’re calling it a performing arts district because we want to connect these buildings together, instead of just having siloed buildings. So we’re all very excited about that.”