Paramount Theatre Prepares a New Stage

The creative minds behind this Aurora landmark are at it again, as they cook up a new setting that fully immerses the audience in the theatrical experience.

(Paramount Theatre photo)
Jim Corti

Something special happens when you put a group of people together in a room. Jim Corti, artistic director for Paramount Theatre, 22 E. Galena Blvd. in Aurora, can tell you about it – and the 2023 study from University of Bern that explored breathing rhythms among audience members.

“An audience’s heartbeat will synchronize,” he explains. “It’s an incredibly gratifying social event.”
Corti knows a thing or two about social events. Since 2010 he and Tim Rater, Paramount’s president and CEO, have been raising the bar for theatergoers in Aurora. They’re raising it yet again this year as they embark upon the latest extension of Aurora’s premier performance venue.

Scheduled to open this summer, Stolp Island Theatre is a new live performance destination with a 98-seat theater at 5 W. Downer Place. The 4,600-square-foot space is more than an intimate venue. It’s a flex space that can be rearranged for every production.

“The audience and the performance space will be in different configurations depending on the show,” explains Corti.

The new theater provides fresh takes on staging and set design while also switching up the business model for America’s largest subscription theater. Unlike Paramount’s beloved Broadway and BOLD Series which each contain multiple shows per season, Stolp Island will offer open-ended show runs, something of a unicorn in the professional theater world. Corti expects the premiere show, the jukebox Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” to run for at least a year.

“It’s very rare for a subscription-based theater to have a venue with open-ended runs,” he says. “We’ll see how that catches on.”

Once the doors are open, “Million Dollar Quartet” will put the new theater’s flex space on full display. Corti’s plan is to put the audience right in the studio with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. The entire theater, not just the stage, reflects a re-creation of Union Street in Memphis, Tenn., as it appeared on Dec. 4, 1956, the day when a real-life jam between four rock ‘n’ roll icons took place.

“The little restaurant next to Sun Studios, Taylor’s Good Food, will be part of it and there will be holiday decorations on the street,” says Corti. “You go in through the doors of Sun Studios where there will be dramaturgical items depicting the event and the players. Then, you go into the studio where the show will take place.”

Corti sees this experience as a natural extension of his goal when directing a show.

“It’s a lot more three-dimensional because you’re sitting on both sides of the room,” he says.
Once “Million Dollar Quartet” wraps, Stolp Island Theatre will be transformed once more.

“If the next show happens in a bar, it will a bar,” says Corti. “It can be turned into whatever the writer comes up with.”

Transformation is nothing new for either Corti or Rater, who both joined Paramount Theatre in 2010. The success they’ve enjoyed is due, in no small part, to its Broadway Series. These Broadway-caliber musical productions have netted the Paramount team numerous awards, a loyal following and a busy calendar of events at the 1,885-seat Art Deco auditorium.

Paramount has expanded its reach several times in the years since. The team now manages performances at Thomas J. Weisner RiverEdge Park, a popular outdoor concert venue at 360 N. Broadway in Aurora. In 2019, Paramount opened its own School for the Performing Arts next door to the theater at 20 S. Stolp Ave. Then, there’s the newly renovated Copley Theatre, across the street from Paramount at 8 E. Galena Blvd., which stages small-scale productions with Paramount’s BOLD Series.

“It’s a complimentary set of shows to the Broadway Series,” says Rater. “It’s a more intimate experience with a more adventurous lineup.”

For Corti, the goal of the BOLD Series is to produce works that stick with the audience long after the curtain closes.

“It’s about the conversation after, how we see ourselves in these characters and how we see our stories in these stories,” he says. “The golden age of musicals had happy endings. There’s something about contemporary work that leaves questions at the end.”

The conversations are sure to continue with the upcoming season of BOLD Series, which launches this fall and features “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “An Act of God” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Corti just finished co-directing the closing production of this current season: Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Corti believes the rehearsal process for the production, which closed April 21, was a life-changing experience.

“Everyone’s ideas have been instrumental in what has distinguished this production from others,” he says. “Everyone’s life experiences, professional and personal, have come together to reflect on the human condition. It’s been a remarkable process.”

Corti enjoys staging productions in the 165-seat Copley Theater, a more intimate space than the Paramount.

“I love the scale at the Copley,” he says. “There’s something about working at that scale that lets you get to that really frank truth telling. There’s no aesthetic distance. It’s all happening to everyone in the same room. You have to be genuine.”

Paramount’s corner of downtown Aurora has become a pretty busy place over the past decade-plus. When its Broadway Series debuted with “My Fair Lady” in 2011, the show ran three weeks, with eight shows a week – on a calendar that competed with a range of traveling performers.
Now, Broadway shows run for seven weeks, sometimes longer, with only a handful of traveling performers taking the stage in between.

All told, performances at Paramount have increased more than ten-fold since Rater and Corti came aboard.

“Prior to Jim and me, Paramount was successfully doing 40 to 50 performances per year. Last year we had 500 performances between all the venues.” says Rater. “With adding Stolp Island Theatre this year, we’ll be over 700.”

And by this time next year, he hopes to reach 900 shows, once Stolp Island Theatre is at full steam.
“We’re chipping away at the goal of having 1,000 performances a year,” says Rater. “That’s what’s driven our growth.”

Rater believes Paramount’s success is due not only to the venue’s team and lineup but also to the symbiotic relationship that exists between the theater and the city of Aurora.

“Having worked in nonprofit theater my whole career, I’ve not seen a community that is more supportive,” Rater says. “They have, from the very beginning, seen the type of impact the Paramount has on the pride of the community and the development of the downtown. It’s fun to see the positive momentum.”

For Corti, the way Paramount and the community have come together isn’t so different from the way an audience bonds during a live performance.

“No matter how different we are from each other, when we all sit together in a space and watch a story, we become unified,” he says. “We find our basic humanity and we find what we have in common.”