CHAMPAIGN — The sad reality for Jaclyn Loewenstein began to settle in on Tuesday as she held one of her final acting classes at SoDo Theatre in downtown Champaign, which will leave several theater organizations without a home when it closes today.
“I think I’m appreciating it more and more now that I know I’m losing it,” said the owner of Class Act, which educates actors. “Honestly, it’s been great to have so much space and a little stage but still big enough for the size that I have. ... It’s been ideal for the size program that I like to run. We have an office full of storage that’s packed with costumes and props.”
The building’s owner, Thomas Shay Jr., recently signed a long-term lease with Savage e LLC, a bar and ax-throwing venue, meaning SoDo would cease to exist. The theater housed Class Act performing arts studio, Zoo Improv, Prompting Theatre and Twin City Theatre Company, among others.
As she spoke upstairs from the theater, Loewenstein sat on a couch next to Shay, and the two made it clear they didn’t harbor any animosity toward each other.
“I wanted to make sure Tom didn’t seem like the bad guy,” she said.
The reality of the situation is clear to Loewenstein, who is involved with several local theater companies: The value of building space in downtown Champaign is on the rise. Local nonprofit theater companies, meanwhile, can’t pay steep prices and are hurting for space.
“These are nonprofit theaters who don’t have a budget to rent space,” Loewenstein said. “I happen to be involved with about every theater company in town, so I know that we’re all having the same conversations.”
SoDo Theatre, named for “South Downtown,” has operated for the last 11 years in the same space.
The building certainly was never perfect for a theater. Its wide-open space, floor-to-ceiling columns and paneled ceiling make it look more suited to an office setting or a store. That’s exactly what it was when Shay’s family bought the building in 1972 to house Shay Office Equipment. The building then housed The Music Shoppe and Central Illinois Conservatory of Music for 10 years before becoming SoDo Theatre.
SoDo tenants shared the space with Christ Community Church until the church left three years ago. For the last few years, Loewenstein and others worked to rent out the space to other organizations for short periods of time.
Around the time the church left, the value of Shay’s building received a shot in the arm when plans for The Yards, a major development on the southern end of downtown that would house a possible Illinois hockey arena, a conference center and an expansion of the Illinois Terminal, began to evolve.
In 2018, a feasibility study said that hockey would “flourish” at Illinois and recommended that Illinois continue to pursue the downtown site. In November, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District received a $17.275 million federal grant for the development. It would be about a block away from Shay’s building.
“The day that they announce, if they announce that the university is going to play Division I hockey here, all bets are off in terms of what happens in south downtown,” Shay said. “But until that happens, it’s kind of a holding pattern. But there are people that want to buy buildings in this part of town already because they realize that it will appreciate and it’d be a prime venue for apartments and whatever. It’s picking up steam, but only because there’s a good chance.”
For small local theater companies, finding spaces that are the right size and cost will be the next step forward. Even the Station Theatre, which has existed at its current location in a small former train station in Urbana for 48 years, needs space to rehearse and house equipment, Loewenstein said.
The dream, Loewenstein said, would be to build a building that could house local theater companies. Until then, though, they’ll make do with whatever space they’re able to come up with.
“I was raised in a theater community where it was very bare bones,” Loewenstein said. “Just give us a classroom, and we’ll make theater. I have that ingrained in me. I just need a space and enthusiastic people who need theater training. When it comes to performances, we’ll make it happen.”