How the Coppell Arts Center was pushed by COVID to improvise, even improve
Reconnecting after a year of separation and loss is a work in progress. KERA and The Dallas Morning News are collaborating to document how the pandemic has changed the arts and culture scene in North Texas. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports from Coppell on how COVID delayed — but also helped — a new arts center there.
A milling crowd at the Coppell Arts Center filled the lobby with chatter. This night was an invitation-only event: The North Texas “hootenany string band,” the Bodarks, were playing in the venue’s 440-seat main hall. Actually, the concert was also devised as a sneak peek, an opportunity for the center’s patrons to experience the place before its grand opening this fall.
And it was even a trial run for the center’s latest catering service. That’s because the Coppell Arts Center was supposed to open back in May — more than a year ago.
Of course, six weeks before that, everything shut down. COVID-19 left the center in limbo: Its ambitious first season had already been announced, singer Kristin Chenoweth was set to help open the place — and the center had to postpone all that. Then postpone it again last fall because COVID-19 wasn’t going away.
“And then with our caterer, we had just signed an agreement in February of 2020,” Alex Hargis, Coppell Arts Center’s managing director, recalled.
“But by December, they terminated our agreement, and we had to find a new partner.”
So that’s what Hargis’ team and the arts center’s board have been doing the past year: getting replacements as needed, finding ways to finish out the building’s construction, rejuggling the schedule and giving the public the general impression the center is active.
Not fully open, perhaps, but far from closed.
“It’s about keeping a pulse, right?” Hargis said. “Because when you’re opening a venue, you are also launching a brand and any part of brand awareness in the beginning is just getting eyeballs on your product. And that means getting people in the door.”
Arguably, perhaps, this past year of headaches and brainstorms actually made the new center better.
Surviving pandemic problems
Hargis has had experience with fresh, new venues. While working for the AT&T Performing Arts Center, he managed the Wylie Theatre in the Dallas Arts District.
But this time, COVID presented unprecedented struggles — like major supply-chain disruptions. Deliveries of building materials and theatrical equipment were delayed for months.
“You saw all that hardwood in there?” he said, indicating the lobby and the main hall. “Well, it all came from factories in Ohio — and those all shut down. Then all the curtains that you see, coming out of New York, those all got closed up. "
The wood paneling and the curtains aren’t just for show — they help with the acoustics in both the main hall and the 120-seat, black-box theater. Mastering those acoustics is vital. You can practically see DFW International Airport from Coppell. A low-flying jet roars directly overhead, on average, every 45 seconds.
For people familiar with the Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District, the new building looks familiar — like a smaller version of the Moody. There’s a connection: Coppell’s arts center was designed by Dallas-based Corgan, which was the architect of record for the Moody, designed by Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
But the center was also created to increase business traffic for an area in Coppell called Old Town. It’s mostly a cluster of restaurants and storefronts around a park, a pavilion — and the new Arts Center.
“When the arts center was being built, I was questioning what does this mean for my business?” said Kate Shema. “Is this competition?”
Shema owns Createria Studios. It’s an arts school that’s been in Old Town for more than seven years.
She credits the center with shifting gears quickly after the shutdown to bring people in — safely. Drive-in movies went up in the parking lot, yoga and dance classes were held outdoors. They presented groups like the Arathi School of Dance during the Indian festival of Holi.
Shema even collaborated with the arts center to devise one of its series: the Paint & Sip art class.
“They dove in right away to be a part of all of our efforts to bring people down here,” she said. “And the merchants were happy to see it — in that maybe this could be like an arts district.”
What Coppell has planned for future
In fact, becoming something of a “regional” suburban arts district is what was in store for the facility. The first season was going to showcase Dallas performing arts groups — as a way for Coppell to stand apart in what has become a competitive market for suburban venues.
Hargis did present Dallas Black Dance Theatre — in a socially distanced performance this March. But the pandemic interrupted his plans to bring in the Dallas Symphony and Theatre Three as well. Theatre Three’s recent traveling, outdoor version of The Music Man played at the Coppell Senior Center. But it was originally devised with the Coppell Arts Center in mind.
Hargis hopes to pursue that kind of “local touring circuit” in the future.
“We’re not trying to pull people from downtown Dallas here,” Hargis said. “But if you live in Farmers Branch, Carrollton, Highland Village, this could be a place for you.”
All this improvising and rescheduling over the past year actually led to some improvements for the center — like having time to fine-tune the acoustics. Working relationships were formed with merchants and community arts groups. Many of the events that they scrambled to invent during the quarantine will continue as regular series.
And remember the caterer? The one they lost? The center went with their second choice — a local one. J. Macklin’s Grill is a nearby restaurant, and its parent company has a catering service.
“I’m just so happy that we’re able to give a local business a chance to grow,” said Penelope Furry, president of the arts center’s foundation. “They’ve got a super loyal following, so our community is excited that they are here.”
Furry says she likes to view this past year at the Coppell Arts Center as just a long — very long — soft opening. And there’s even some more time for tinkering, if they wish.
That’s because Kristin Chenoweth will now be coming to help open the center — officially, finally — in September.
Photographer Keren Carrión of KERA is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.