It was perhaps the most perfect weather imaginable for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. And yet, storms and flooding were at the forefront of this celebration as leadership from South Orange Performing Arts Center, Cinema Lab, the township of South Orange Village, and South Orange Downtown gathered outside of the entrance of SOPAC to mark an extraordinary moment for the venue.
“We’re so proud of the new look of our theater and our new renovations, and that we don’t have any storm clouds overhead. We’ve had enough of those.” says Dee Billia, Executive Director of South Orange Performing Arts Center.
Billia was referring to the frightening storm clouds of September 1, 2021, when Tropical Storm Ida flooded the streets exactly where she was speaking. The storm waters flowed into the performing arts venue to cause enormous damage.
While the town and surrounding communities reeled from the physical and emotional damage caused by Tropical Storm Ida, SOPAC would suffer long-term consequences as the venue was forced to shut down the lobby, the mainstage performance space, and in-person box office for six months in order to repair the damage.
The organization was able to resume mainstage performances in February 2022. And on May 25, 2022, a ribbon-cutting celebrated the complete renovation of the space.
Of course, Ida’s damage comes after a pandemic shutdown that left this arts and cultural centerpiece of South Orange unable to host live shows. Yet even in the throes of the most despairing moments of the pandemic, SOPAC leadership made it clear that they had a plan.
“We have a good board, a thoughtful board, and they are working on financial issues that will come,” said Billia, speaking with the Village Green in March 2020. “This is a very fiscally responsible organization. We have strategies, but right now we’re dealing with the immediate future.” At the time, Billia was serving as Acting Executive Director. In the summer of 2021, the “acting” was dropped from the title as she took on the role of SOPAC’s Executive Director.
In addition to a new stage and orchestra pit, the renovations extended far beyond the refurbished Jennifer & Tony Leitner Performance Hall. Freshly painted walls and modern carpeting can be found throughout all three floors of the building, including The Herb + Milly Iris Gallery and Cinema Lab movie theaters. In addition, the administration offices have been rehabilitated.
“During our 23-month ‘break,’ the SOPAC Board of Governors brought in Cinema Lab to operate the movie theater housed within SOPAC,” said SOPAC Board Chair Paul Bartick. “Cinema Lab is a phenomenal community partner bringing South Orange first-run Hollywood blockbusters and the best independent films.”
“Our two entities have meshed so beautifully, both in the amazing new interior design, but also in the approach we both take towards the community in our programming, outreach and special events,” added Luke Parker Bowles, Chief Executive Officer of Cinema Lab. “We feel blessed to be a part of South Orange.”
SOPAC boasts an impressive set of performers, musicians, dancers, and comedians throughout 2022. “We’ve been very intentional about trying to have a very balanced season, bringing in more diversity. We have some things that are very popular and then other that are a little bit mission-based,” said Billia. “We had the ‘Resistance Revival Chorus’ and The Moth here [recently] – things that are a little bit different. And we have Peabo Bryson coming in September. That’s a huge get for a theater like this.”
In August 2021, Cinema Lab celebrated the reopening of five screens previously operated by Bow Tie Cinemas. Cinema Lab CEO Luke Parker Bowles said that they were recently granted a liquor license for their theaters. “There’s nothing better to do this weekend than sit and watch ‘Top Gun’ with an ice cold beer,” he says. “We’ve also just been certified by Green Places. We are the first movie theater to be certified — and Green Places is all about being carbon neutral. Every single thing we have here is compostable — plastics, the straws, any containers. And that’s a mandate for us. To have that, to have the alcohol, and to have these great films coming out — and to see people coming back. It’s amazing.”