Will This Tiny Theater Bring New Life to a Struggling Mall?

Apr 22, 2016

A mall in Concord may seem like an unusual place for the city's newest live-performance space.

The Steeplegate Mall is a poster child for the economic challenges facing malls across the country, struggling to compete with online shopping and a resurgent downtown.

But the opening of the Hatbox Theatre this month could mark a new beginning for the Steeplegate.

The theater is holding performances and concerts in a space once filled by a women’s clothing store that went out of business.

The theater’s founder Andrew Pinard said the unique space actually presented some immediate benefits.

“We converted the existing fitting rooms to dressing rooms,” he said, during a tour this week. “So we have five dressing rooms back here and you can actually write the names of the actors on the placards right next to their rooms. This has basically become the backstage area for the actors.”

The project started out with some equipment, some theater seats, and “a lot of experience in the people who partnered to pull it together.” The theater opened April 1 with a sold-out performance of the show '2 Across.'

“We came to the mall because we wanted to have easy parking, so make it easy for people to get to. We have to come to a place that reasonably affordable for us to work in, but also covered all of the codes, such as sprinklers and accessibility,” Pinard said. “We needed to find a space that covered all that because we really didn’t have the deep pockets. It’s not like this was a huge capital campaign.”

As Pinard points out, the theater is at the mall, not in the mall. It has a separate entrance, though its exterior still bares of the name of its former occupant, Coldwater Creek, something Pinard says will change soon with new signage.

“This has happened in lots of other locations. M and D Productions up in North Conway is in a strip mall. It’s not right downtown. We originally wanted to be downtown, but there was not a space that was available at the price point that we needed.”

“Times have changed. You have to roll with it. You have to try new things,” he added. “I have to give a lot of credit to the people at the Steeeplegate Mall for being open to doing something not quite traditional at a retail location.”

And, he adds, the location offers more convenience for the audience, who won’t have a hard time finding parking, which can be a problem downtown.

“We’re only three miles from downtown. It’s not like we’re out in the woods. And there’s a lot of activity around here.”

Pinard says he’s hopeful this could mark a resurgence for the mall, which he credits for much of the business that now surrounds it.

"Times have changed. You have to roll with it. You have to try new things." - Andrew Pinard

“Unfortunately, the mall is kind of the whipping boy of Concord,” he said. “But the mall when it came was the exciting new thing in the early 1990s. There wasn’t a lot of development here, the Heights was in decline. A lot of the development that happened here wouldn’t have happened without the development of the Steeplegate Mall.”

True to its name, the theater’s walls, designed to hold racks of clothing, are now decorated with hats that Pinard has collected from various theater productions.

“Actually, the name came from the notion of a black box theatre, which is a small, kind of intimate space that you can reconfigure into different shapes,” he said.

The theater has already hosted several concerts, and there’s a comedy night scheduled for Friday. Pinard says there are plans for burlesque shows in July, and a number of original theater productions.

“We’re really trying to create a community of artists, performers, and members of the audience to come together,” he said. “The benefit of our space is we’re four seats deep. You’re as close to the action as you can almost possibly be.”

And work on the venue is not yet complete.

“We still have more theater seats to install. We have some more things we hope to do in this space and make it look less like the former clothing store it was and even more like a black box theater.”

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