NEW ALBANY • With the flick of a switch, the auditorium was awash in red, transforming the walls, stage and all 390 seats into a scene from an Argento film.
From behind small control panel in one corner of the balcony, Justin Bartlett’s voice echoed throughout the Magnolia Civic Center and Cine Theatre’s 73-year-old auditorium.
“If that’s too dark, we can change it,” he said. Suddenly, the room shifted colors, from red to pink, pink to blue.
“We have concert grade everything,” Bartlett said from above. “Pretty much anything that we can make the audience ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ about.”
When Bartlett took over as the New Albany nonprofit theater’s manager late last year, he already had a plan in place for the first five years of his leadership. His goal is to return the city-owned venue into a facility unlike any other in the area, complete with an array of technical wizardry that can carry audiences away or pull them in.
It’s that moment — when the theater walls, the seats, the audience disappear — that Bartlett lives for.
“When you get that reaction from the audience, it’s all worth it,” he said. “You know that you’ve done your job.”
Justin Bartlett wonders ‘what if?’
Standing near the balcony railing, Bartlett motioned toward the stage, still awash with color.
“I used to sit up on that stage in high school, and we would just talk about ‘what-if,’” he said. “What if we could do this in the theater or what if we could do that to the theater.”
He grinned, just slightly.
“You know what?” he said. “I’m in the position now. I’m going to do it.”
When Bartlett took over leadership of the Magnolia Civic Center in October, the theater was undergoing renovations. It had a new stage and curtains and traditional theater lighting.
Bartlett immediately set about expanding on those renovations while incorporating his own ideas of what a modern theater should be. With the approval of the theater’s board of directors, Bartlett had installed the equipment necessary to create what he called “4-D shows.” At the touch of a button, Bartlett and a small team of stagehands can summon snow or make bubbles rain down from above. They can fill the air with smoke and the scent of burning wood, shower the audience in confetti or bathe them in a sea of colors.
“I wanted to license us back to showing movies and that sort of thing, but I didn’t want to do it traditionally,” he said. “We already have a movie theater here in the city, so I wanted to do something a little bit different.”
Eventually, he wants to equip the auditorium for a relatively new trick in the world of showmanship: projection mapping, a growing technology that allows for images to be cast on different surfaces to create the illusion of change. Suddenly, a brick wall might crumble away or become frozen in a block of ice. Ivy may crawl along the stage or flames engulf the ceiling.
It makes everything more immersive, Bartlett said, and will set the Magnolia Civic Center apart.
“I don’t know of anybody else who’s using projection mapping right now,” he said. “Entertainment is entertainment; it’s just the level of professionalism that’s different.”
When it comes to that, Bartlett learned from arguably the best in the business
From Cruise Line to Civic Center
Much of Bartlett’s enthusiasm for showmanship comes from the 31-year-old’s previous work with Disney Cruise Line. Before joining the Civic Center last October, Bartlett spent three years entertaining guests in the way only the Walt Disney Company and its nearly 70 years in the theme park and live entertainment business can.
“I’ve worked at a whole lot of different places, but I’ve never experienced something so extensive,” Bartlett said of his time with Disney.
Once hired, his new employers sent him to school for a week to learn about Disney history — Disney University, it’s called — and instill in him four key tenets: safety, courtesy, show and efficiency.
Bartlett said he’s brought those tenets, and what he learned as a showman, to New Albany.
“They trained me and taught me very well,” he said of Disney. “A lot of the ideas come from, not just experiencing on the ship — But when you work for that company, they give you a mindset for how to develop that into entertainment.”
Although Bartlett may have brought Disney to the Civic Center, it was the Civic Center that brought Bartlett to Disney.
“I actually grew up in this facility,” Bartlett said, speaking of his time with the local school’s theater program. “I guess I was in ninth grade, 10th grade whenever I started. It was a long time ago.”
Although initially hesitant to a part of the theater program, Bartlett said he quickly fell in love with the magic of showmanship.
“I absolutely fell in love with theater. Fell in love with the production side of everything,” he said. “Performing was fun, but I fell in love with the special effects, the lighting, the audio. All that type of stuff. That’s kind of what led me to Disney.”
Like he said, it’s the “oos” and “ahs” Bartlett lives for.
“When you put an actor on stage, of course, they’re portraying their talent, their art,” he said. “But once you start adding those special effects and that lighting and that audio, it starts bringing the whole show together. That is what I like.”
The Civic Center’s past and future
If it weren’t for the community around it, there’s a good chance the Magnolia Civic Center would have shuttered long ago.
The building, now officially a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is funded through a combination of city allotted funds and donations.
“It’s the history of this place,” Bartlett said of the Civic Center’s ongoing support from both the city and individuals from the community. “When I speak to anyone of the older generation, they have a story to tell me about this place.”
That history that pressures Bartlett to push the Civic Center toward what he believes is its full potential as a venue. Along with a slate of programming for the coming year, ranging from 4-D movies to concerts to plays to a localized version of “America’s Got Talent,” the theater is also set to undergo a physical transformation.
He’d like to completely remodel the auditorium, giving it a fresh coat of paint, red panels on the wall, new audio equipment and brand new seating. He’d like for the balcony to serve as a sort of VIP seating area.
His plans don’t stop inside the auditorium, however. Bartlett wants to transform an empty space near the entrance — “the gallery,” he called it — into a sort of museum celebrating the Civic Center’s long history. Outside, the face of the building will receive a facelift, and the theater recently began utilizing a new online ticketing system.
“We are nowhere near completion. Not even close,” Bartlett said of his plans for the theater. “I would say, in the next six months, anyone who steps into the theater who hasn’t been here in a while won’t recognize the facility. It will be completely different.”
Magic through sight and sound
Countless stories have been told in the Civic Center’s auditorium. Thousands of people have laughed, gasped, cheered at performances on that stage. It’s a history that should be celebrated, even the venue grows and changes.
“You don’t want to necessarily take away all that stuff that people have worked for,” Bartlett said of previous changes to the Civic Center. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all those people.”
Despite his grand ambitions, Bartlett’s vision for the Magnolia Civic Center doesn’t veer far from those of his predecessors over the past 73 years.
Theater is meant to thrill. To delight. To create magic through sight and sound.
“When the lights come up,” he said, “or the film starts, or the very first special effect happens, and the kids go ‘oh’ and they get excited — I don’t care if I worked 200 hours on that show and I’m exhausted. It doesn’t matter. That’s the payback.”