Roughly 30 young performers equipped with shovels and hard hats last Saturday were at the center of the ceremonial groundbreaking for the future home of Triumvirate Theatre. Coming more than two years after the company’s previous space in Nikiski was destroyed in a late-night fire, the event marked the start of construction for a new facility in Kenai, expected to open in late 2024.
At the close of the ceremony, those young performers each grabbed a shovelful of dirt — and a couple of handfuls — from a pile deposited in front of the eventual site of construction. They stood before a sign that read “It’s showtime! Future Home of Triumvirate Theatre,” and they tossed that dirt into the air with a cheer.
Before any ground was broken, at nearby Daubenspeck Family Park, Triumvirate President Joe Rizzo introduced speakers representing local, state and federal governments. They described Triumvirate Theatre as an asset to the local community, a place for children to grow as individuals, and a creative force that extends far beyond the walls of any one building.
Some called the start of the construction a “rebirth,” while others said it’s just the start of the next chapter for the theater.
Cora Frazier, an actress who’s been in several Triumvirate productions, said “This moment is more than just the start of a building. It’s the start of making something magical that will last a generation.”
The future site of Triumvirate’s new playhouse is roughly 2 acres in size and was donated by the City of Kenai in summer 2022. The city earlier this year approved the theater’s conditional use permit for the site, which allows them to construct the new facility.
The playhouse design describes a $4.7 million facility that is two stories with an audience capacity of 150 people. There would be about 60 parking spots and one driveway access along Daubenspeck Circle near Beacon Occupational Health.
Rizzo during a chamber luncheon held in Kenai last week said that Triumvirate has, to date, raised about $3.2 million for its rebuilding efforts. Of that, $800,000 has come from local donors and small foundations, $1 million came from the Rasmuson Foundation and another $1 million came from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski through federal appropriations.
Rizzo during the same luncheon called the fire that destroyed Triumvirate’s Nikiski location “potentially an extinction event” for the theater, and that early intervention by the Rasmuson Foundation was crucial to subsequent funds raised.
“All of those things are basically a miracle,” he said. “Triumvirate Theatre’s not a large organization. We affect a lot of kids, but in the big scheme of things, we’re not a very big organization. So for a little organization like us to be able to raise $3.2 million, and $800,000 of which came from this community … My only explanation for it is that God wants this to happen because there’s no other explanation for it.”
For every ticket purchased for a community theater production, Rizzo said, about $31 of economic activity is generated in that community. He pointed to Ashland, Oregon, as an example where community theater has surpassed other local industries as one of the city’s largest economic drivers.
“They are the prime driver of the economy in that city,” Rizzo said of Ashland. “This has all the potential to be a huge economic driver in the city of Kenai. Triumvirate Theatre could be that.”
Rizzo said that they hope to start building “with earnest” soon and that their goal is to have the building complete by December 2024. The federally designated money, he said, comes with “a lot of red tape.”
“I think this is going to be fantastic for the City of Kenai,” Mayor Brian Gabriel said during the groundbreaking.
He called the city’s decision to donate the land a “no-brainer.” He also commended the community for driving fundraising and seeing the project to the eve of construction.
“Everybody was willing to open up their wallets and say ‘hey, I’m going to donate to make this happen,’” he said. “The blood, sweat and tears that went into that was absolutely astounding to me.”
That community support was a common thread in the words of many of the dignitaries on Saturday.
Mike Navarre is a member of the Rasmuson Foundation — a group behind several large grants and other support the company received toward the rebuilding effort. He, too, credited tenacious community engagement with driving financial investments by larger entities like the foundation.
“It makes it easy to support a project like this,” he said. “We’re happy to participate in a project that has so much ground-swelling community support.”
Early in the ceremony, Jesse Tauriainen played guitar and sang a song that he wrote for “The Show Must Go On,” a feature-length documentary about the fire and the fundraising effort that premiered last fall.
“Let’s take it from the top,” he sang. “I know the walls got all shook up, but the foundation never moved.”
That idea, of an enduring foundation, appealed to Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“You are the foundation,” she said. “This community, this area, you people are the foundation that doesn’t move.”
Murkowski said that buildings “come and go.” She said it’s the people who “make the magic happen within” that matter. The Triumvirate Theatre isn’t its theater — it’s the people who brought that theater to life.
Also a key theme of speeches delivered Saturday was the value that the art of theater — and the Triumvirate specifically — brings to the central Kenai Peninsula and its children.
Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, has performed in Triumvirate productions.
“This is my group. I love all of you guys,” he said. “Theater means so much to me … When you can have people from all different walks of life, very different political backgrounds, religious beliefs, ways of looking at the world, and you come together for one thing. That is to produce art — to bring your community together.”
Ruffridge said the loss of Triumvirate’s previous location left a hole in that community. The day of the groundbreaking, he said, was “a very exciting day.”
The fundraising effort, Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, said, was “a great opportunity that came from something pretty awful.”
“Growth comes from pain, and we’re able to overcome that and create something even better than what we had before,” Bjorkman said. “I really believe that’s what we’re looking at here, with Triumvirate Theatre.”
Bjorkman said he spent over a decade working down the hall from Rizzo and from Carla Jenness, another long-time Triumvirate collaborator. In that time, he’s seen the work it takes to put on a show — the value the young actors take from the experience.
“I hope folks are able to grab onto this model that Triumvirate Theatre has so basically provided,” he said. “Create something that is good, and that is valuable and that people love.”
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche — who also has made appearances in Triumvirate performances — said that Triumvirate, and specifically Rizzo, have taken “hundreds of kids out of their shells” and given them confidence that lasted into adulthood.
“That’s what Triumvirate means to me,” he said. “Helping them realize what they can do. That’s what theater does.”
Closing out the ceremony was another musical performance, by Triumvirate actress Sariah Henderson. She sang “Tomorrow,” from “Annie,” a song that Rizzo said “is rather appropriate for this moment.”
“Tomorrow, there’ll be sun.”
For more information about Triumvirate Theatre, visit facebook.com/triumviratetheater or triumviratetheatre.org.