A look at the renovated River Center Performing Arts Theatre, reopening this fall

Baton Rouge performing arts fans have a lot to be excited about this fall—and not just because pandemic restrictions have eased. After a three-year renovation, the River Center Performing Arts Theatre is finally set to reopen in September, just in time for a full slate of events.

The $16.2 million renovation project includes significant updates to the interior and exterior of the 44-year-old building, including a retooled façade and entrance plaza, an expanded lobby, improved acoustics and larger seats with center aisles that allow for better movement.

The refreshed performance hall will help the Capital City attract more touring acts. Its reopening also means local arts organizations that perform here can return to their home stage.

“We’ve been vagabonds for the last few years,” Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Eric Marshall says. “It’s going to be huge to be back in the facility.”

The symphony, which will kick off its 75th season in November at the theater, spent the last three years playing in smaller local venues, namely First Baptist Church in downtown Baton Rouge. Marshall says the organization was grateful for the chance to keep playing, but its musicians are clamoring to get back into the larger, more acoustically appropriate space.

Similarly, Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre had to find a temporary home for its signature annual event, The Nutcracker, A Tale from the Bayou, which was staged at the Raising Cane’s River Center Arena in 2018 and 2019. The performance was canceled last year due to COVID-19.

“We’ve had patrons tell us that it didn’t feel like Christmas to them without coming to see the show at the theater,” BRBT co-artistic director Molly Buchmann says. “We can’t wait to get back in. The audience is going to be much more comfortable, and the experience is going to be a lot more elegant.”

The theater’s former austere, utilitarian exterior has been softened by an overlay of glass and metal. There will be a new drop off lane on St. Louis Street for guests, and depending on the show, there could also be valet parking. The plaza surrounding the theater, formerly reachable by disconnected sets of steps, is now on one level. The new plaza design is intended to welcome patrons, and will serve as spillover space to the updated lobby.

A rendering of the new lobby. Photos courtesy Post Architects

The lobby, in fact, saw some of the biggest changes, says project architect and Post Architects owner Lisa Nice.

“One of the things I kept in the back of my mind throughout the process was I didn’t want anyone to wonder, ‘Was this here before?’” Nice says.

Inside the lobby, ’70s-style wood paneling has been replaced by painted sheetrock. Throughout, the color palette features cool grays and blues with champagne accents. Patrons will also find new flooring and finishes, updated and expanded restrooms and two public elevators, part of a thorough overhaul that has made every aspect of the building ADA compliant. Concessions areas—crowded chokepoints in the past—have been expanded to include 16 point-of-sale stations that include both full-service and digital kiosks.

The exterior facing the River Center Plaza was still under construction in June, opening up the mostly concrete entrance area to add plenty of glass panels and more natural light to the lobby. Photo by Collin Richie

By installing glass on the front of the building, and by shifting the front entrance slightly toward the Mississippi River and away from the City Hall building opposite the plaza, visitors will have a wider, more appealing view of Repentance Park, the Old State Capitol and the river itself, Nice says.

While the theater already had favorable acoustics for the symphony orchestra, it needed updating for other kinds of shows, like dramas, musicals and stand-up comedy. Grace Hebert Curtis architect Damien Job, who worked on the project’s auditorium changes, says acoustical wiring has been added along the walls of the performance hall to improve the sound clarity of these kinds of experiences. The wiring will be hidden behind fabric panels. Back of the house controls for the stage manager and tech crews have also been updated.

The former continental-style seating, defined by long, uninterrupted rows, has been replaced by seating punctuated by central aisles. This will make it more convenient for patrons to get up and move around when necessary, Job says. The seats themselves will be larger, a jump from between 17 to 19 inches to between 20 to 22 inches. There will also be new higher-end box seating with beverage consoles and easy access to concession stations, he says.

The River Center Theatre is the only local facility with around 1,800 seats, a “sweet spot” for attracting a big range of touring performers and shows, says Les Crooks, Regional General Manager of SMG, which manages the facility. By comparison, the Manship Theatre seats around 300, and the River Center Arena seats up to 12,000.

“Being open again gives us the ability to book acts that want to be in a space this size, and there are a lot of them out there,” Crooks says.

The River Center Theatre’s 2021-2022 season should feature more than two dozen different events this fall alone. The season also includes five Broadway shows, three of which have never been staged in the Capital City, Crooks says.

“We’re bullish on the theater and the business it’s going to bring,” he says. “Updating it is going to make it a lot easier to attract many popular acts to Baton Rouge.”

Check it out

While the River Center Theatre is set to reopen in September, some dates for performing arts events had not been made public by 225’s press deadlines. Below are some fall events previously confirmed for the venue. Find out more at raisingcanesrivercenter.com.

OCT. 9-10:

Paw Patrol Live,
“The Great Pirate Adventure”

OCT. 15:

An Evening with
C.S. Lewis, starring David Payne

NOV. 21:

John Crist’s Fresh Cuts
Comedy Tour

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue of 225 magazine.