SHARON, Pa. – When Area Community Theatre of Sharpsville (Acts) returns from the COVID-19 hiatus later this year, it will be in a building of its own in a prominent location in downtown Sharon, Pa.
The theater company is completing its purchase of the former Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, which it will convert into a 280-seat theater.
Renovations will begin this month.
“The building is in good shape. That is one of the things that drew us to it,” says Tom Perman, president of the Acts board of directors. “It’s so well maintained and already has access ramps for wheelchairs.”
A banquet hall with a commercial kitchen is located on the lower level. It will be available to rent for private events.
“The building gives us endless possibilities,” Perman says.
A corner of the banquet hall has already been redesigned as a 150-seat performance venue, with lighting and sound equipment.
“We’ll invite other local theaters to join us maybe once a month for an open mic night,” Perman says.
Acts has been leasing the building for the past 18 months, during which time it has had architectural plans drawn up. Contracts for the renovation work will be put out for bid this month, Perman says.
Acts will own the building in late spring, when the transaction becomes final. Perman would not disclose the sale price.
The theater company obtained grants from private foundations and community donors for the project and is seeking to raise the rest.
“We have a capital campaign underway to raise $200,000 for the first phase,” says Susan Piccirilli, Acts vice president. “We’re halfway there.”
Volunteers from the theater company have already done the preparatory work, including removing the pews. When the church was desanctified a few years ago, the Diocese of Erie removed all religious fixtures and the stained glass windows, which have been replaced by clear glass.
To transform the altar into a stage, a three-foot extension will be built along the entire front edge to add depth.
The stage will be 26 to 40 feet wide, with a depth of 20 feet of performance space. Two parallel curtain riggings, separated by several feet, will be mounted from the ceiling to facilitate scenery changes.
The former sacristy – a side room off the altar used to store liturgical robes – will be used as a dressing room and backstage area.
“This will be the biggest dressing room we’ve ever had,” says Piccirilli.
Beyond the sacristy is the rectory building, which will remain unused for the foreseeable future, Perman says.
The seating will be portable chairs; the board decided against installing fixed seats to make the space more versatile. Risers will be built to ensure clear sight lines in the rows furthest from the stage.
The choir loft will become a perch for spotlights.
While the ornate building is structurally sound, it will require some minor electrical work to add stage lighting and the heating and air conditioning system will require improvements, Perman says.
As is the case with any church building, the floor already resembles a theater. In fact, two other area theaters – The Hopewell in Youngstown and Stage Left in Lisbon – are housed in former church buildings.
Acts has been in existence for 11 years, performing its first 10 at the 165-seat Sharpsville Opera house.
Last year, the theater group performed at Sharon churches and the Buhl Park Casino, right up until last March when it had to shut down because of the pandemic.
Acts’ new home is in the center of the Shenango Valley, a landmark at the corner of State and Irvine streets. The theater envisions it one day becoming the Shenango Valley Performing Arts Center – a home venue for several groups who could rent space there, Perman says.
Acts is the primary theater group in the Shenango Valley and the only one that does musicals. It typically does four shows a year.
The opening date for the theater is not definite at this time because of uncertainty as to when theaters will be permitted to reopen at full capacity.
But the plan is for an October grand opening, says Perman.
“We’re trying to plan but not overplan with the COVID situation,” he says. Perman would not give details on the opening show other than to say it will be original.
Pictured at top: Exterior of the former Sacred Heart church in Sharon, Pa. The building will become the new home of Area Community Theatre of Sharpsville.