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AUBURN — The West End is synonymous with theater in London. A local organization is hoping that will soon be the case in Auburn, too.

The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival has signed a lease on the auditorium at the former West Middle School on Genesee Street, said Lisa Chase, the festival's artistic director of youth theater and education. The festival's education division, which includes the long-running Merry-Go-Round Youth Theater program, will use the space itself and rent it to other local theater organizations.

The festival is leasing the 650-seat auditorium from Two Plus Four Management for the 2018 calendar year, Chase said. The Syracuse company purchased the school from the Auburn district after its closure in 2011, and is converting the building into almost 60 apartment units. About a third of them will be occupied by clients of human services agency Unity House of Cayuga County.

Chase said the auditorium will allow the festival to grow its educational programs and give them more visibility. To that end, the organization has named its space the West End Theater.

One of those programs, the Merry-Go-Round Youth Theater, brings touring theater productions to more than 100,000 upstate New York students in 70 districts a year. There's also the festival's All Access Series, which takes students behind the scenes of the professional theater organization's summer productions, as well as the Junior Stars training series for elementary-age children.

Performances, classes and other events are all possibilities for the auditorium, Chase said. For instance, the youth theater program will be able to invite local families to final dress rehearsals. Having previously operated out of the festival's office space at Westminster Presbyterian Church, which doesn't meet code requirements for public performances, the program couldn't do that until now.

Those themes of access and inclusion were foremost on the minds of the festival's leadership as the organization turns 60 this year, Chase said.

"We're excited what West End Theater offers us as an organization to ensure people have access to live theater experiences," she said, "but also access for other artists to do their work."

That second facet of the theater will see the festival offer it to other arts organizations in the community for use as a rehearsal and/or performance space. Chase said the Auburn Players Community Theater has already taken up the offer, as it will rehearse a new musical featuring students in grades four through eight there in February, and perform it there in April. Chase said Two Plus Four has leased the auditorium at a "negligible" rate, allowing the festival to rent it for "next to no cost" to organizations that might not be able to afford similar spaces in the area.

Though the festival still has to secure funding to install theatrical equipment like lighting, Two Plus Four has prepared the former middle school's auditorium well, Chase said. It has installed dressing rooms backstage and separated the lobby from the school, complete with its own bathrooms, which will distance the theater from the building's residents.

Though the festival's lease is for one year, Chase sees the West End Theater lasting much longer.

"I think the hope for everyone is that it'll work out and be mutually beneficial and we'll continue to move forward," she said. "We're investing in it as though this is going to be long-term."


If you go

WHAT: West End Theater open house with performances, family activities, tours, information and more

WHEN: 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 20

WHERE: 217 Genesee St., Auburn

COST: Free and open to the public

INFO: For more information about the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival and its education division, visit fingerlakesmtf.com or call (315) 255-1305

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.