The Waterhouse is reinvigorating theatre arts by way of a new venue, differentiating itself as a unique artistic force in the community.
It’s an exciting time to be in downtown Peoria, with new business and development reshaping the landscape. As owner of the Waterhouse, Andrew Driscoll has long been a pioneer of the downtown—first on Water Street, and now in the MAXAM building—where his banquet and catering facility has thrived for well over a decade.
But Driscoll never forgot what led him to the Waterhouse: his love of the theatre. As the business continues to grow, he has turned his attention to a unique space inside the Waterhouse—the Broadway Lounge—as his key to reinvigorating theatre in downtown Peoria.
A Theatrical History
Born and raised in the Peoria area, Driscoll caught the acting bug as a high school freshman, when he portrayed Daddy Warbucks in the Community Children’s Theatre production of Annie. As he approached graduation, he planned to attend college for aeronautical engineering—before his casting as Joseph in Eastlight Theatre’s annual production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat made him realize where he really belonged.
“What I felt called to do was to perform: to sing, to act and to entertain,” Driscoll explains. “I decided not to pursue the engineering route and instead, accepted a scholarship at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy… and a few days before my 18th birthday, moved to New York City.”
After completing the academy program, Driscoll struggled for a year and a half to find performance work. He finally caught a break when he was cast in the chorus of Miss Saigon on Broadway. “That was amazing—everything I’d been hoping for,” he says. “I was so grateful for that opportunity, as I was able to live in New York and do something that I loved.”
But after three years, Driscoll found himself growing restless. He left the show and began auditioning for his next Broadway gig, while performing for concerts, CD recordings and cabarets. Before he could determine his next move, however, the events of 9/11 fell upon the city he now called home—and shifted his outlook. “It changed a lot about where I wanted to be,” he explains. “[Current ambitions] didn’t hold the same appeal when things are put in perspective… how quickly things in life can change. I started looking at ways I could still be involved in theatre and performing, but not in [the New York] market. And I felt the calling to reacquaint with Peoria.”
In 2002, a decade after leaving the Midwest, Driscoll returned to Peoria and started an equity theatre company, bringing professional actors from across the country to perform at the Apollo Theater on Main Street. He ultimately discovered this wasn’t the right path for him, so he retired the company to seek out his next venture in the theatre world… finding an unexpected ally in the form of entrepreneurship.
From Wheelhouse to Waterhouse
When he purchased the year-old Waterhouse in 2004, Driscoll planned to shift its focus from banquets to theatrical events. With this in mind, he founded the Peoria Cabaret Theatre and put on a number of performances in the single-room space, including a radio show, a jazz music revue, and naturally, a cabaret series. But after a year, he opted to return the Water Street facility to its original path, putting his theatre plans on hold.
“My standard joke is, ‘I’m not opposed to making money,’” Driscoll laughs. “I quickly found that the space was going to be more lucrative as a private event facility. The atmosphere was very niche: the brick walls, the wood floors, the cedar beams—it’s a large part of it.”
Over the next decade, he built the Waterhouse into a reputable venue, hosting some 70 to 80 events a year. As the business continued to grow, Driscoll knew it was time to expand. After touring several downtown locations (including the building that’s now home to Running Central), he purchased space a few blocks away, at the MAXAM building on Washington Street. At the end of 2013, the Waterhouse moved to the new location, holding its grand reopening on New Year’s Eve.
Today, the banquet and catering facility spans multiple rooms on two floors. Upstairs, the Ballroom is an elegant option for formal receptions, while the Distillery Room’s industrial chic is well suited for midsized occasions. But the “cherry on top” of the new space, Driscoll says, was a single room on the ground level—a former restaurant and dance club featuring a stage and a full bar. Eventually it would become his ticket for a return to his theatrical wheelhouse… named, fittingly, the Broadway Lounge.
Out of the Woodwork
With its exposed brick walls, wooden beams and hardwood flooring, the Broadway Lounge offers an intimate space in which to bring Driscoll’s vision to life. With numerous vantage points for the audience, the stage area is backed by floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing Washington Street, while stage lights and a sound booth provide options for all kinds of entertainment. “I knew I had something really special with the first-floor space,” he says, imagining “a unique mixture of a nightclub and a supper club that would produce a variety of acts—from theatre to comedy to live music to magic—as well as serve food and drinks.”
Over the past year, Driscoll and his team have begun to realize this vision, bringing a diverse range of performers to the Broadway Lounge, including The Great Work Begins Theatre Troupe and “Howlin’ on Water,” the popular dueling pianos event. As part of his revival of the Peoria Cabaret Theatre (PCT), Driscoll commissioned his banquet and lead events manager, Nyk Sutter, to start up a cabaret series. “Nyk’s Outrageous Cabaret” features local talent presenting songs from musicals, movies and pop culture, with a new theme at each performance. According to Sutter, it has helped to show all that the Broadway Lounge has to offer. “It’s really just trying to get our presence out there,” he explains. “We’re trying to get things in here that you’re not going to see or find anywhere else in this city.”
Spreading the word hasn’t always been easy. With Peoria’s expanding arts community, Driscoll and Sutter have found scheduling to be an issue, as their events often collide with other arts activities they seek to support around town. But as performance slots fill up and new acts come out of the woodwork, Sutter says the Broadway Lounge is beginning to differentiate itself as a unique artistic force. “We can go with more of that ‘blue’ adult humor,” he explains. “So we can have a little bit more fun with it and get the audience engaged more. It’s open, it’s leisurely, you can move around… We’re not afraid to be different.”
Prospects on Broadway
With a full schedule of events to round out the year, Driscoll has high hopes for the Broadway Lounge. That includes the PCT’s return to the spotlight after a fruitful 2016, which included February’s Murder in Vieux Carré, a Mardi Gras-themed mystery dinner, and August’s The Lebanese/Redneck Wedding, an interactive “wedding” dinner and show. In December, the PCT will produce a local rendition of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged), a comedy about three men desperate to put on a holiday pageant when the real actors fail to appear. Driscoll hopes the performances will serve as catalysts for future events. “I’m incredibly excited about the prospects we have here in the Broadway Lounge,” he explains. “The December show [in particular] is going to tell us a lot about what the audience is looking for, and ways we can enhance their experience here.”
And while the Waterhouse is more than a stone’s throw away from his early career on Broadway, Driscoll says the last 10 years have felt more natural than he anticipated. “What I found was a way that I could find fulfillment in a very similar way that I did by performing on stage,” he explains. “I was ‘playing the role’ of a banquet facility entrepreneur. I ‘cast’ many local people in the roles of banquet server and banquet bartender, and I ‘blocked’ [assigned] them to their positions… I realized that I was quite happy doing this.”
With the Broadway Lounge beginning to take off, Driscoll is excited to discover just how the venue can fill a unique niche in Peoria’s theatre community. “I think Peoria is a fantastic place to live,” he says. “This is what I want to do, not what I backed into. I didn’t expect… 12 years later, to be in this position. But I’m glad that I am.” a&s