SOPAC cuts ribbon on renovated space, reopens main theater after flood damage

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A week before the South Orange Performing Arts Center was set to reopen after a year-and-a-half–long COVID-19 closure, the weather had other plans. The remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through the Northeast in September 2021, flooding Essex County and leaving parts of buildings underwater. South Orange Avenue was under 7 feet of water at one point during the storm; that water rushed into the SOPAC parking lot and building.

After a monthslong renovation, the performing arts center in the village is back and open for business with new and improved stage, flooring, carpets and seats in its main auditorium. Staff and residents gathered at SOPAC on May 25 to cut the ribbon.

“It was devastating,” Executive Director Dee Billia said about the flooding in an interview with the News-Record at the event. “Never having been flooded like that, it was crazy. We didn’t know what to do. There was a very steep learning curve for a lesson that I never want to learn again.”

According to production and operations manager Dan Stankus, who was at SOPAC the night of the flood, the water came in from the parking lot and into the front lobby. It made its way into the theater and down the sloping floors, right to the orchestra pit and stage. Water also came in through the loading dock at the back of the stage and left rooms behind it underwater. Stankus’ and special events and rentals manager Rich Spector’s cars were both totaled in the parking lot.

“We have a new stage and all new carpeting,” Stankus said in an interview with the News-Record at the ribbon-cutting.

SOPAC had to cancel performances in the immediate aftermath of the flood, and then, as renovations got underway, had to make do with the upstairs gallery and loft space. The staff kept in touch with performers and the local community, hoping they would support the center when it reopened.

“It took longer than I thought it would,” Billia said. “But we had the loft still open, so we could have some performances. We kept in touch with the community, and showing pictures of the progress that was happening was helpful.”

Having to close for eight months after already being forced to close because of the pandemic wasn’t ideal. But Billia said she and the rest of the staff have been able to make the best of a tough situation.

“We always kept up with the sound system and the technology, but this gave us a chance to do more,” Spector said. “It’s a rebirth, in a way.”

SOPAC had never before had the opportunity to do as much work as it had to do after the flood.

“So there are silver linings,” Stankus said. “It gave us an opportunity to future-proof the building.”

They have flood bags now to mitigate any future flooding and are potentially purchasing a hydraulic lift that will slow down any water that gets in the building. But Stankus said that nothing is foolproof.

“If water wants to get somewhere, it will,” he said.

Now that the theater is open again, SOPAC has a full slate of shows coming up. South Orange native and E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg and his band will be returning on June 9, singer Joan Osborne will be there on June 10, trumpet player Bria Skonberg’s quartet will be playing on June 11 and guitarist Jesse Cook is performing on June 17. A full schedule can be found at www.sopacnow.org/events.

“People are loving that it’s back and they can do what they love, which is see live theater,” Billia said. “The joy of creating happens there. The greatest thing anyone can do is come and buy a ticket. That’s what makes it a vibrant place.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic

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