Live theater opening at Steeplegate Mall may be unique – a sign of desperation?

  • Riteway Carpet subcontractor Perry Eaton installs carpet in the future Hatbox Theatre at Steeplegate Mall in Concord last week. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Andrew Pinard talks about Hatbox Theatre as construction continues in the background at Steeplegate Mall. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Seat cushions wait to be assembled at the future Hatbox Theatre at Steeplegate Mall in Concord on Thursday, March 24, 2016. When all audience sections are completed, the theatre will have 92 seats total. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Sunday, March 27, 2016
When live theater opens in a former clothing store at Steeplegate Mall on April Fools’ Day (“no fooling!” insists the promotional material), it will vault Concord to the front of a national experiment about how that most American of retail environments – the enclosed mall – can thrive in the internet era.

“I’ve worked in plenty of malls, but I’ve never heard of a theater in one. That’s unique,” said James Burner, manager of Chico’s clothing, which is next door to the Hatbox Theatre moving into the former Coldwater Creek space. Despite the novelty, Burner says he’s happy to see Hatbox arrive: “Anything to bring in people.”

Howard Davidowitz, chairman of New York-based retail consulting and investment firm Davidowitz & Associates, who has been watching the industry for three decades, agrees that Hatbox Theatre seems unique.

“I haven’t heard of that (live theater) anywhere else, but it doesn’t surprise me. Malls are doing almost anything – skating rinks, car dealerships, churches, medical facilities,” said Davidowitz. “Middle-level malls, they’re getting massacred! Their reason for being no longer exists. So you see things in malls today that you’d never see before.” 

Things like Hatbox Theatre, which as a cooperative theater that will host plays, comedy shows, cabarets and rock concerts seems more suitable to some funky location downtown, or the 11 giant inflatable bounce houses that occupy almost 25,000 square feet in the former Old Navy store, now VI Party Rentals.

Since the start of the year, the bounce houses and related items like laser tag and inflatable sumo-wrestler suits have been luring shoppers who think their day could be improved by a session of leaping and tumbling and whacking their friends, a group that includes adults on their own as well as the expected demographic of families with little kids and clusters of hyperactive teenagers.

“We get all sorts. People come in carrying Victoria’s Secret bags,” said Dan Caouette, owner of VI Party Rentals. 

Caouette opened the business at the start of year, across from his seasonal Christmas shop, and uses it both to advertise his rental business as well as to generate income.  “It’s been very successful. I’ve already booked some rentals due to being in here.”

Bounce houses may not be expected alongside clothing shops and food courts, but Cauoette said they’re part of a trend for malls to supplement retail with experience. The Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester, he noted, now has indoor glow mini-golf, and Caouette says he has been approached by mall owners around Boston to create bounce house operations there.

In New York, Davidowitz says there’s a simple reason that mid-level malls like Steeplegate are branching out: Their traditional tenants, especially fashion and clothing stores, are going away. Such brands as American Eagle, Aeropostale and Abercrombie & Fitch – all of which used to be in Steepelgate but have departed – are retrenching in the face of online sales, a shift in shopping habits back to downtown areas and economic inequality that has reduced the number of middle-class shoppers. 

“They didn’t do it before because it wasn’t consistent with fashion, but the fashion guys are quitting so (owners) don’t have to worry about them,” he said. “The Gap would say, ‘How could you put a medical facility in here – that’s crazy!’ Well, now Gap is gone, they’re all gone, and if you’re a mall owner, you’ll look around.”

Industry observers estimate as many as 30 percent of the nation’s enclosed malls are losing money and facing a bleak future. Steeplegate Mall, built in 1990, has had a rocky financial time in recent years, with former owner Rouse Properties defaulting on a $47 million loan payment and turning ownership of the Loudon Road shopping center over to the bank.

About 17 of its retail spaces, depending on how you count them, are empty or filled with such things as the Concord School District’s art displays, and while its anchor department stores seem vibrant enough, their parent companies are struggling. 

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania-based Bon-Ton Stores froze salaries for its executive staff after posting a $57 million loss from its 267 stores in 27 states, while Sears, the bellwether of American department stores, is stagnant at best. The brightest spot is J.C. Penny, a chain that almost went under in 2013 but has since rebounded, although it is far from out of the woods.

That’s why the arrival of Hatbox Theatre is so intriguing: It shows promise of drawing an audience that doesn’t regularly go to a mall. 

“There are some people who won’t drive this far – we are 3 whole miles from downtown,” said founder Andrew Pinard, with a bit of sarcasm, taking a pause Thursday amid a team of friends and contractors building the control booth, seating and stage.  “But if you watch the amount of traffic that goes into and out of the mall, and the non-mall properties here, we’re going to get people we would never get (downtown).”

Pinard is a veteran of the state’s theater scene, dating back to his days working with community theater while attending Pembroke Academy. Although he makes his living as an up-close magician, his main impact in theater isn’t performing. He has built scenery and stages, directed and ran the business side of theater productions throughout the region.

Hatbox Theatre will be a cooperative theater rather than a production company, splitting the gate with the company or performers, who will be responsible for paying for licensing, costumes, posters and paying performers.

“We’re going to provide a home for groups that don’t have a home currently,” Pinard said. 

They’ll start Friday with a one-act romantic comedy about two people who meet via crossword puzzles, called 2 Across, put on by a relatively new traveling troupe called Lend Me a Theatre.

The small space and low cost will make it possible for risky productions or shows that thrive in the close-up experience. “People that want to do powerful, intimate performances, with the audience and actors breathing the same air,” Pinard said.

In May they’ll have a pitch session, at which production companies will present their ideas for shows, with plans to have at least 13 three-week productions.

Low cost is key. Pinard would not discuss details about rent, but said total overhead for the 4,500-square-foot space, including such things as utilities, will be no more than $30,000 a year, which he said would be cost for rent alone for a smaller space in downtown Concord.  

“If we get 50 people a week at lowest ticket price, we can cover our overhead,” he said. “That’s what I’m all about: Getting butts in seats.”

Pinard said the facility has a 15-month specialty lease, which allows it to be booted out on short notice if a richer tenant comes along.

The former Coldwater Creek store is the only one at Steeplegate Mall that can’t be accessed from inside the building: It has a separate entrance at the Sears end of the mall. This is an advantage for Hatbox Theatre, said Pinard, because it means they can stay open later than the mall itself – although they do have to be finished before 10 p.m., when the mall turns off lights in the parking lot. “We won’t be doing any 10-hour productions of Long Day’s Journey into Night,” he joked. 

Pinard admitted that all things being equal, he’d rather have Hatbox Theatre as part of the downtown scene, but added that having live theater in a retail location isn’t as unusual as it may seem. 

“M&D Productions in North Conway started in a strip mall. Winnipesaukee Playhouse, now in Meredith, also started in a strip mall,” he said. 

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)