Jeff and Julianna Blake had often talked about finding an old building and turning it into a theatre. Next month, that dream comes true.
After years of off-and-on occupation, the building at 145 N. University Ave will have a new tenant: Echo Theatre. On March 8th, the theatre will open its doors for the first time.
“Jeff had passed by [the building] before. He started asking if any of these buildings were for sale,” said Matt Boulter, Jeff’s brother-in-law. “There was graffiti everywhere, holes in the wall…but we looked around, saw potential and said ‘Let’s go for it.’” Blake and Boulter worked out a deal with the owners: they would clean the place up and make it presentable in exchange for a rent-free run of their first show.
“The opportunity just fell into our lap in a very good way,” Blake said.
The Blakes have been married just over a month and have spent most of their honeymoon stage working on the Echo. All renovations took place over the course of three and a half weeks, with friends and family members volunteering nights and weekends to get the old building ready for opening night. The atmosphere in the theatre is one of friendliness and community; people coming and going, volunteering what time they have. Breaks are taken to play fetch with the theatre’s resident dog, Josie, and for improv games.
Boulter’s wife, Nicole, feels that Echo fills a deep-seated need in Utah Valley. “People make time for what the community needs, and this community needs a venue for people who enjoy theatre, people who do theatre, people who love the arts. [Echo] can do what other places can’t—like change its face in a matter of weeks,” Nicole said.
“I would not recommend getting married and then two weeks later starting a theatre,” Jeff said, jokingly, “Luckily I have a wife who’s extremely passionate and wants this dream as much as me.”
The staff’s desire was for the theatre to bring back turn-of-the-century theatre, and for the space to be a starting point for future echoes of creativity.
“You hear the word echo and it has obvious connotations to it. When I think of echo, I think of memories for one,” Jeff said, “I grew up on a street named ‘Echo Ridge’ and that name always inspired creativity in my mind.”
For the Echo’s debut presentation, Jeff chose the play “Woman in Black” by Stephen Mallatratt. Jeff chose it to coincide with the recent film release of the same story. “I heard really good things about the play. It intrigued me. I’ve always loved ghost stories,” Jeff said. “I thought it would be good to show people the difference between a theatre event and a movie event.”
In some ways, he says, the play was a little too close to home. “We came into this theatre and it was scary. It was dark. It was abandoned and abused and we’re doing a play about a guy who goes into a house that’s scary and abandoned. I was terrified I was going to run into the Woman in Black.”
The Blakes and Boulters want Echo to be for the whole community, not just a private theatre troupe.
“We’d like to make this a community center for the arts that’s approachable—where people can come in off the streets and say ‘I want to do this’ and we can do it and it won’t cost them an arm and a leg,” Jeff said.
When asked what message they would like to send to Utah Valley about the Echo Theatre, Julianna promptly responded, “Come see the shows. Come out and do something. If there’s something you really want to do, give us a call and let’s find a way to make it happen.”
What happens after ‘The Woman in Black” wraps up?
“We sleep for 18 hours,” Jeff chuckled. “Hedda Gabler” will be performed in April, and an unnamed show after that. The Blakes assure that there will be plenty of opportunities for those who want use the space. The Echo staff also plan on transforming part of the building into a recording studio and a prop shop for production companies.
Nicole summed up Echo’s mission easily. “It’s about taking something ugly and making it beautiful.” Julianna agreed, “Everyone can create, they just need a place and the opportunity. Here’s the place, the opportunity is up to you.”
By Nathan Evans
Photography Gilbert Cisneros