Johnson County’s Theatre in the Park could be in for major upgrades — here’s what the concept looks like

Theatre in the Park

An architecture firm's conceptual rendering of what a revamped Theatre in the Park could look like. A key piece of a proposed $26 million renovation would be to expand the stage and add an overhang and enclosure around the stage area and first tier of seats to make the venue more usable during inclement weather and the winter months. Image courtesy SFS Architecture.

A major upgrade that would allow Theatre in the Park to be enclosed during inclement weather, reconfigure and expand parking and address many accessibility issues at the outdoor venue has begun to move through the planning process at the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.

Park commissioners on Wednesday unanimously gave their permission for staff and Theatre officials to further develop concepts for a new Theatre in the Park along with a fundraising plan.

The proposed renovations discussed at the meeting would increase the number of patrons the theater serves each year by 215%, said Tim Bair, the theatre’s producing artistic director.

For this year’s season — which followed a year of no shows because of the COVID-19 pandemic — the total attendance was just over 32,300.

It would also address technical limitations of the aging outdoor theater, which has been in its current location at Shawnee Mission Park since 1980.

“It’s time to rethink and rebuild and yes, reimagine the cultural treasure that has been a part of JCPRD,” Bair said. “At forty years, our facility needs more than just repairing what’s there.”

Concept and cost

A new theater would require a substantial commitment above the $4 million already earmarked for fixing accessibility issues over the next five years.

A preliminary cost estimate by Kansas City-based SFS Architecture puts the project at just short of $26 million. About 80% of that would likely come from fundraising and private donations, said Erika Seward, development director at JCPRD.

The concept under discussion would keep the stage in its current location but move and expand parking from the current 350 spaces to 860. It would also substantially increase the size of the stage from 19,000 square feet to 33,000 and create a new entrance area.

But the biggest changes would be in how that space functions.

A rendering of a revamped Theatre in the Park complex at Shawnee Mission Park, with an expanded parking lot (to the left) and an enclosed stage area (in the middle.) Image courtesy SFS Architecture.

Expanded seating, weather protection

The theater’s current stage is open roofed and without weather protection for guests. The redone theater would put a roof over the stage and wings and add an overhang over some of the audience.

There would be about 250 fixed seats closest to the stage, followed by terraced lawn seating and open lawn seating further out, making total capacity 2,500.

The overhang and enclosed stage box also would come with a way to enclose the stage and a limited number of audience members. That would make it possible to offer shows for as many as 500 people even in colder or rainy weather as long as there’s no lighting, Bair said.

Eliminating those weather cancellations would also improve the theater’s revenue, he said.

Theatre in the Park officials say the proposed renovations could boost annual attendance by more than 200%, with productions and events able to be held in bad weather or in the winter. Above, a crowd gathers at the current Theatre in the Park venue. File image.

The extended season would also make it possible to have more educational programs for kids and would free up the Black Box Theater inside the Johnson County Arts and Heritage in Overland Park for more users.

The changes at Theatre in the Park would also leave open more time for music festivals, concerts, touring groups and art fairs, Bair said.

Stage technology in the current building also has become outdated, he said, making it more difficult to stage shows that need higher-tech lighting and production.

Making the space more accessible per the Americans with Disabilities Act also is a goal of the updates and would allow the park district to fix all 180 issues it now has.

The park board’s vote Wednesday does not commit them to specific building plans or financing. It does allow theater and park staff to begin fine-tuning the concepts and developing a fund-raising strategy.