The Lyric Theatre Three Years Later

By Mary Walrath of The Wedge

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When Sue Cotroneo purchased the worship building of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, located at 440 East Ave. three years ago, she was simply seeking a home for the prior transient Rochester Lyric Opera. As director, she thought it time the ensemble have a performance space to call their own. The grandiose pillared facade and cathedral ceilings of The First Church, that had once inspired Eastman Theatre’s architecture, screamed not “church” to her but “theatre.” However, opera is not necessarily a thriving business, Cotroneo says, and the new owners knew they had to look outside themselves and into the community to find means of sustaining the building and its operations. This is how the Lyric, purchased as an opulent space for fine performing arts, became a space that serves the entire community.

We had to look to other organizations to come in and use the building. Rent it, have events there,” says Cotroneo, “and it started out slow. We had events here and there. Did some opera. But now, we’re in a position where the theatre has something happening at least three out of four weekends a month.” With performers from companies like the New York State Ballet and Jazz Fest and rentals from places like The Chamber of Commerce and The Fringe Festival, the organizations and people who frequent the theatre are diverse and many. “It makes me happy that it can serve so many needs in the community. It’s not just a theatre,” says Cotroneo.

The space went from something the members of the opera revered with awe for its beauty to what Cotroneo says it was “supposed to be” — a beneficial venue for the community. And, surprisingly, this has been done without any major renovations, save for minor upgrades to lighting, stage size, enough here and there to give it more of a theatre feel. “I think when we first bought it, I thought that out of the gate we’d have to raise money to fully renovate this thing to make it a theatre,” says Cotroneo. “Once I let that go, I realized having to use the space as is has been a blessing in disguise. We realized it only needs A, B and C instead of A to Z.” After three years of making organic progress with the space and learning to use what it offered, the Lyric may soon be looking at starting a major capital campaign with the goal of renovating the main stage.

What has most defined the growth of the theatre from the beginning to now, however, has been meeting the community’s real need for a mid-sized space for local arts organizations. The Lyric has become a home for many organizations that might not otherwise have a downtown presence, whether it be because other venues are too big, too expensive, or too booked. By filling this void, the Lyric has stimulated its own growth and made its debut on the national circuit, hiring part-time manager Kim Martin to solicit national acts to visit the space. In spite of its success, the theatre remains a non-profit that relies on volunteers and independent contractors and has no full-time staff on payroll, including Cotroneo who considers herself a “steward to the building” before anything else.

This status doesn’t stop the Lyric from contributing to the community in even more ways, however. Beyond its enthusiasm to open doors to local arts organizations, it also hosts a youth education program, called Lyric Voices, in which middle school children can be part of an ensemble directed by Vince Salvadge and learn the finer parts of performing. Soon to be extended to high school students as well, the program allows youth the opportunity to perform in shows that come to the theatre, put on their own productions, and donate back fundraiser money to The Center for Youth. “That makes me happy because there are children involved in giving back to the community on a whole other level,” says Cotroneo, “they have a lot going on. It’s a complete spectrum of service.”

Ultimately, the journey of the Lyric thus far has been one of “learning times 100,” she says. A vocal professor at Nazareth College and a former opera singer, Cotroneo says learning to care for a venue has been a challenge she faced head-on. Along with her team, volunteers, and the support of her business attorney husband, Tony Cotroneo, she’s has been able to make the transition from performer to manager just as the Lyric has made its transition from worship space to community theatre. “Thank god I’m married to [Tony] because I couldn’t afford his council otherwise,” she says, laughing. “We’re all growing into it and growing with it. We’re getting good at what we do.” The future of the Lyric onward from its third anniversary is similar to its past — meeting the needs of any-and-all performing arts ensembles in the community, continuing to upgrade the space into a more state-of-the-art venue. “The future looks like the present,” says Cotroneo, “but hopefully just in some new digs that make what we do a little easier.”