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Four years after it was completed, the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center is a thriving complex that has become home to at least six established Utah arts groups while offering public stages to dozens of smaller ones.

The sparkling $12 million building, centerpiece of a restaurant-filled 300 South block that's now one of the most vibrant in Salt Lake City, is booked almost every weekend. And in recent months, use of its three theaters has skyrocketed.

Through April, the center played host to 150 events, a 33 percent increase over the first four months of 2004. The Rose Wagner is on pace to host well over 400 events by the end of the year - more than its higher-profile brethren, Abravanel Hall and the Capitol Theatre, combined.

"You go there any day of the week and it's alive with activity," says Roger Benington, artistic director of Tooth & Nail Theatre, which stages its plays at the Rose Wagner. "There are performances, rehearsals, weddings. There are kids going to dance classes, adults going to dance classes. It's an incredible asset to our city."

The Rose, as it's informally known, confers legitimacy on any arts company that performs there. The building provides inexpensive theater space to small groups that cannot afford to rent larger venues such as Kingsbury Hall. Some emerging arts groups say they could not survive in Salt Lake City without the space and stability the Rose provides. The Rose Wagner also hosts benefit galas, weddings and even monthly naturalization ceremonies for immigrants.

But the center is fast becoming a victim of its own success. Arts groups say they are finding it harder to book rehearsal time there. The Studio Theatre, the smallest and least expensive of the center's three public venues, is in constant demand, forcing theater companies to jockey for two- or three-week windows during popular months.

"You can't just walk in the door and get space anymore," says Jerry Rapier, producing director of Plan-B Theatre. "You have to be aware of the calendar."

Utah Contemporary Theatre found this out the hard way. UCT staged its first play, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," in the Rose's Studio Theatre two years ago. But when the fledgling company tried to reserve space there for a production next fall, it discovered the theater was booked.

"That is a very, very popular size," says UCT co-artistic director Kurt Proctor of the 75-seat Studio venue. A check of the Rose's event calendar reveals the Studio Theatre is booked 50 of the next 52 weekends. Nancy Roth, executive producer of Pygmalion Productions, says she asked for Studio Theatre space months ago and still doesn't have all her 2006 production dates.

Arts groups already are trying to reserve the theater for 2007.

"Everybody tends to want to perform during the same months of the year - fall, spring and winter," says David Barber, production manager for Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, which operates the Rose Wagner.

Barber points out that the Rose is a public building where anyone who can afford the rental fees can book rehearsal time or a performance space. He believes the Rose Wagner's growing popularity is a testament to its value as a civic asset.

"It's a functional and beautiful space," he says. "The citizens of Salt Lake got their money's worth."

Making best use of space: The Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center was born in 1989 when a coalition of modest-sized Utah arts groups identified the need for a performing and rehearsal complex with theaters that seated fewer than 1,000 people. The Performing Arts Coalition (PAC), as the group was called, saw the potential building as a democratic space that would give voice to undersized arts companies.

"We wanted this space to have no cultural barriers . . . to be affordable and accessible for smaller, emerging groups," says Repertory Dance Theatre artistic director Linda C. Smith, a PAC member. "A lot of people said, 'You need a 3,000-seat theater.' But we stuck to our guns."

After considering many sites, the coalition settled on a former restaurant-supply warehouse on 300 South. The site formerly held the boyhood home of businessman Izzi Wagner, who became the project's major private donor on the condition that the arts complex be named for his late mother.

The first phase of the center - built with public and private funds - was finished in January 1997 and included the 199-seat Black Box Theatre and several dance rehearsal studios, one of which eventually became the Studio Theatre. The building's second phase opened in March 2001 and contained the 500-seat Jeanné Wagner Theatre, named for Izzi's late wife.

After years of performing to crowds of 400 to 500 in the 1,875-seat Capitol Theatre, RDT and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company were thrilled to move into the more intimate Jeanné Wagner, where audiences could see the sweat on the dancers' faces and where 400 people felt like a capacity crowd.

Ririe-Woodbury, RDT and the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation also moved their offices into the Rose Wagner, making them the center's first and only resident companies. This marked the beginning of an unofficial Rose Wagner hierarchy, under which the three resident companies get first priority at reserving performance space. After the residents come a handful of established tenants - financially viable arts companies that stage all their performances at the Rose Wagner.

The list of current Rose Wagner tenants is an exclusive one: Plan-B Theatre, SB Dance and Odyssey Dance Company. Tooth & Nail Theatre and Pygmalion Productions have applied for tenant status but have yet to be accepted by the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts's 13-member advisory board. When booking space, tenants get preference over the third tier: everyone else.

For nomadic arts groups that had never had a proper or permanent home, the Rose Wagner is a godsend. Before it relocated there in 1997, RDT had moved its offices five times in two years. Plan-B Theatre staged plays in basements, bookstores, classrooms and coffeehouses before moving into the Studio Theatre in 2002.

For grass-roots arts groups, affordability is one of the Rose Wagner's big draws. A nonprofit can rent the Jeanné Wagner Theatre for $650 a night or the Black Box theater for $250. The smaller Studio costs $125. These fees include use of the theaters' lighting system. By contrast, the nightly not-for-profit rental rate for the Capitol Theatre is $1,500.

"These venues in other cities would be much higher priced," says Rapier of Plan-B Theatre. "The entire [Rose Wagner] facility is so affordable. It's really the key to all of our survival."

"Where else in the country could you pay [$125] and get lighting and a front-of-house staff?" asks Tooth & Nail's Benington. "It's why I'm in Salt Lake."

As the Rose hosts more and more shows, attendance at the complex is booming. Last year the Rose Wagner attracted a record 57,853 patrons. Through this April, it already has played host to 31,524. More than three dozen Utah arts groups use the center at least once a year.

But the Rose may soon reach capacity. What to do?

Philip Jordan, new director of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, says he may cap the number of Rose Wagner tenants to preserve theater access for the center's most favored occupants. Jordan also is considering limiting arts groups' rehearsal time at the Rose, which would free more dates for shows. If a troupe needs three weeks onstage for rehearsals and another three weeks for performances, that's six weeks when nobody else can use the theater.

"We need to make sure we're booked with shows [instead of rehearsals]," Jordan says. "I feel very confident we'll be able to work through these booking issues."

Jordan and almost everyone else interviewed for this article agree that Salt Lake City needs another 100-to-200-seat performance space - not a 2,700-seat venue like the old Utah Theatre on Main Street, which may be renovated and reopened. But where? The Rose Wagner could be extended into the parking lot east of the building. But such talk is probably premature.

"I don't see us expanding this space for a while," Barber says. "We're certainly not maxed yet. There are still plenty of dark days in the Black Box and the Jeanné. And even if there was a demand, I don't think the economic climate is conducive to that right now."

Biography of a building

Completed: 2001

Cost: About $12 million

Venues: The Jeanné Wagner Theatre, 500 seats

The Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre, 199 seats

The Studio Theatre, 75 seats

Three rehearsal studios

Residents and tenants: Repertory Dance Theatre

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company

Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation

Plan-B Theatre

Odyssey Dance Company

SB Dance

Daily rental fees: $125 to $850

To book an event: Call 801-297-4227 or 801-297-4228