Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center opens this month after decades of planning, anticipation

By : Scottie Campbell
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Orlando – This month, the theatrical landscape of Orlando will change thanks to the grand opening of the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The $514 million complex with two (eventually three) theaters that sets regally on downtown’s main thoroughfare Orange Avenue—directly across from City Hall—is inarguably an impressive feat.

But what makes the new building different from its predecessors?

Backstage in the center’s administrative offices, in a sleek conference room with natural lighting—yes, you read that right, natural lighting backstage—Watermark sat down with Kathy Ramsberger, president of Dr. Phillips Center, and members of her staff, less than one week from the Nov. 8 grand opening. Despite having the lofty title of president, Ramsberger’s nametag simply says “Kathy” and therein is a clue to why this go at a performing arts center may become Orlando’s—if not the country’s—most successful: accessibility. Above Kathy’s name, the nametag is emblazoned with the organization’s wavy, vibrant orange logo, below her name is their motto: Arts for Every Life.

“That business model drives the building,” said Ramsberger, referring to the slogan. “Not the other way around.”

In developing the project, the Dr. Phillips Center team looked at 37 performing arts centers around the country and found, more often than not, the approach had been to build a “monument” instead of crafting a place artists want to perform in, a place where people want to go. This made finding an architect willing to let the vision propel the project a bit of a challenge.

The challenge in creating a performing arts center for “every life” is there are so many different ideas of what it could be. Researching included thousands of surveys, community outreach, presentations at Kiwanis Clubs and neighborhood associations, and the creation of something called the Circle. A stroke of brilliance, the Circle was formed from “loved leaders” from the community who then invited other leaders; this group kept communication alive with the community throughout the project.

“One of the things I’ve noticed, on all levels—employees, board members, donors, and even the Circle—gay people are involved,” said Scott Bowman, director of marketing.

Pat Norris states his primary directive when he took the role as director of human resources was to craft a staffing plan reflective of the community. Candidates for employment are vetted for three particular qualities: empathy, graciousness, and kindness.

“We all share this common link to want to be part of this once in a lifetime experience,” he said.

Set on nine acres of land the City began consolidating during Mayor Glenda Hood’s administration in the ‘90s, the building is fronted by the welcoming Seneff Arts Plaza. Programming will occur in the plaza—a free Sheryl Crow concert on Nov. 8, for example—but it is also a place to hang out, bringing to mind big city concepts of “owning” a space complete with moveable chairs that can be arranged in any manner a citizen wishes.

Entrances to the facility function as normal doors, but can also be fully opened allowing a more expansive, inviting feel.

Ramsberger pointed out the first thing people will see when they enter says community. The Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater, referred to as a community theater, is a 300-seat black box style theater with multiple levels that can serve multiple purposes from proscenium arch productions to parties. To the left of the Pugh, rich purple carpeting leads into the Walt Disney Theater with 2,700 seats, which will primarily be used for Broadway shows. Amazingly, the goal making this large capacity intimate has been achieved.

The outside drum of the Disney Theater dominates the lobby area, itself a work of art that can be lit many different colors. Attention to place-making is throughout lobby with touches like drink rails, people can see and be seen in various spots, encouraging social interaction. A 60-foot bar will insure an expeditious libation experience during intermissions, always a sticking point in theaters. Patrons may find the chic lobby experience enjoyable enough to arrive earlier.

A few floors up, the breathtaking DeVos Family Room overlooks the plaza and has a wonderful view of City Hall and downtown, through massive sliding glass doors.

Bearing the name of one of state’s biggest anti-gay contributors, Rich DeVos, at first blush it is hard not to think the center’s inclusive philosophy has hit a stumbling block. Doing some background research, it helps a bit to know his dollars wound up here as a quid pro quo political move to make the Amway Center a reality; it helps a lot to imagine the room will doubtless become the site of some gloriously gay events.

Throughout the building there is an admirable attention to detail. Unlike most donor rooms which are normally tucked away, this one is in the front of the building with windows onto the entrance where donors can witness the arrival of patrons, proof their generosity was worthwhile. The center’s educational area includes windows looking into backstage, so students can witness the real work of the arts as they happen.

Good-naturedly, Ramsberger related an old Chinese proverb: “A good house is never finished.” There are plans to have a rooftop beer garden, a hope to one day have an iconic fountain in the plaza, and of course there is “stage 2” of the project, a 1,700-seat acoustic theater in an area along South Street currently occupied by pieces of sod puzzled together.

Even with much work to be done, there is so much more to celebrate. Thanks to Walt Disney, Orlando has often approached things with an “if you build it, they will come” attitude. Standing in the theater named after that same man, looking up at its canopied sky ceiling that recalls Baron Munchausen dancing on air with Venus, it is easy to answer the question of whether they will come, now that it has been built, with an optimistic, resounding, “Yes!”

For a full schedule of events and shows and details on grand opening celebrations at the new center, visit DrPhillipsCenter.org.

Photos by Jake Stevens and Patrick O’Connor. 

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