By the end of this week, the roof will be off of the old Playhouse Theatre on University Way. The Playhouse, which started life as a tile warehouse and became a theater in 1930, is undergoing a major renovation that will make it safer and more useful to the University’s School of Drama.
“The project got under way officially Aug. 15, but the work until recently has been inside and not very visible,” said Sarah Nash Gates, drama school director. “They had to deal with some asbestos removal and were working on getting the walls seismically upgraded.”
Making the building safer in the event of an earthquake is one of the reasons for the renovation, Gates said. She said the building’s walls were formerly unreinforced brick. Having the brick was a blessing in one way, however. The wall behind the stage was exposed brick that was painted over and over and often used as part of the scenery. Now, Gates said, wood salvaged from the old roof will be placed horizontally on the back wall in between the steel uprights being used for bracing.
“The boards will camouflage the seismic reinforcement and at the same time give us a unique background,” Gates said. “And of course, it’s an opportunity to recycle materials.”
The major change that the renovation will bring, however, is an extra level to the building. The roof is being raised, allowing for better lighting angles and access to lighting positions via a catwalk. Seats will be more steeply raked and there will be “vomitory” entrances — routes to the stage through which actors can pass under the seats and therefore out of view of the audience. Dressing rooms will be moved to the second level, allowing more lobby space and larger restrooms.
Under the current plans, the building will be under construction until September of 2008, after which there will be a several month period of what Gates calls “commissioning,” which means that theater crews will learn to operate the new equipment in the building, and various technicians around campus will learn about its systems, such as heating and lighting. There will also be a check to make sure the building meets criteria for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
School of Drama staff expect to be in the building by January of 2009. Gates said they had originally planned a gala opening for the spring of 2009, but current thinking is that that celebration won’t take place until October.
However long it takes, Gates said, it will be worth it. “We’re going to have a much better theater when the construction is done.”