When the School of Drama’s production of Our Town opens March 4, the venue will be familiar and yet new. The play is the first to be performed in the Playhouse Theater — now called The Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse — since its renovation.
The theater’s gala opening isn’t until fall, but the drama school wanted a chance to iron out any kinks before that festive occasion. “Our Town is our shakedown show,” said the school’s general manager Anne Stewart. “We needed a chance to be in here and find out how everything works.”
And Our Town is the perfect show for such a situation. Written by Thornton Wilder (it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938), the play calls for minimal scenery, freeing the technical staff to focus on the theater’s built-in systems.
The playhouse is a historic building that started life as a tile factory and has been a theater since 1930. During the Depression, as the Seattle Repertory Playhouse (a private theater unrelated to the current Seattle Rep) it played host to productions of the Federal Theatre Project. It has served the drama school well since 1951, but hadn’t had a major renovation since 1968, when it was changed from the traditional proscenium to a thrust stage orientation. Since then its infrastructure has deteriorated.
“The heating and ventilations systems were horribly antiquated,” Stewart said. “The plumbing was a problem too. And the way the lights were hung was a serious safety issue. We were spending a lot of time trying to bring a building up to code that was no longer a very good theater laboratory for the students. It didn’t offer the students what they need to learn in the tech area.”
The building renovation is part of the University’s “Restore the Core” effort that concentrates on issues of basic infrastructure and earthquake retrofitting. But a donation from Floyd Jones in memory of his wife, Delores, allowed the drama school to do more than that. It allowed them to literally raise the roof and make the playhouse a two-story building.
The change made a number of things possible. The dressing rooms were moved upstairs on a private corridor away from the audience, which allowed the restrooms in the lobby to be enlarged. The audience seats have been more steeply raked to allow better sightlines, and there are now “vomitory” entrances — routes to the stage through which actors can pass under the seats and therefore largely out of view of the audience. An elevator has been installed to provide easier access for disabled patrons.
One of the best changes, from the point of view of the technical crew, is the installation of catwalks above the stage that allow them easy and safe access to the stage lights. “Our lighting people would tell you they were able to hang this show in a portion of the time that they have in the past,” Stewart said. “When you’re using ladders and going up and down over and over, it takes time.”
Although both faculty and staff at the drama school have been involved in the renovation, Stewart has been the “point person” since construction started in the fall of 2007. From then until contractor work was completed last October, she was on site every day, making what she calls “a thousand small decisions” about how things would be done. Since then she’s been there about twice a week, as the drama school staff move their equipment into the building, test it, are trained on new equipment and do the many other things involved in getting the building ready.
Asked how she keeps track of the details, Stewart said, “I write everything down. And I keep all the records. I have a file on the playhouse that last time I checked was about 1,700 e-mails.”
And she has been through this before. She was with Empty Space Theatre when it moved from 919 East Pike to the Merrill Place Project, and in her 24 years at the UW she’s seen the move of the Penthouse Theatre from one location to another.
“It’s been an enormous amount of work but it’s been very satisfying,” Stewart said of the playhouse project. “The architects listened to us, they gave us what we wanted, they worked with us to find solutions. And the construction people were colleagues; they cared what we thought, about doing the job right. It’s a small enough project that you can really invest in it.”
Technical rehearsals for Our Town began this week in the playhouse. Directed by Drama Professor Andrew Tsao, the play features 20 undergraduate actors in the timeless story of two families in the fictional but recognizable Grover’s Corners, NH.
“Every generation of Americans can see themselves through the abiding truths in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town,” Tsao said. “The play remains timeless, but the voices and ideas presented are decidedly of our time. It is like no other production of Our Town you may have seen before. Students are employing various digital technologies, including video production, to help tell the story.”
Preview performances are on March 1 and 3. The play runs through March 15. Tickets are $15 for regular performances. UW faculty and staff pay $13, seniors $12 and students $10. Previews are $8 for everyone. Tickets can be purchased from the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880 and at www.drama.washington.edu.
Once Our Town closes, drama school faculty and staff will hold a postmortem to evaluate how well the playhouse’s systems worked. And they’ll have plenty of time to make any needed changes. There will be no further productions in the building until its grand opening and building dedication in October, when alum Burke Walker will return to direct Shakespeare’s The Tempest.