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September 13, 2001

Major renovation underway for Pitt theatre's main stage

Pitt theatre arts chairperson Attilio "Buck" Favorini beams when he describes it.

"This is a dream I've had for 30 years," he says, referring to the major restoration of the department's mainstage and lobby area in Stephen Foster Memorial.

The $2 million project — the most ambitious in the theatre's 64-year history — is expected to be completed in November 2002. A fund-raising campaign, now in the quiet phase, has raised close to half of the cost. The public phase will kick off at the end of next month with the announcement of a major gift from a donor for whom the theatre will be named.

"There has never been a comprehensive upgrading of the theatre space. Never," Favorini points out. "There have been piecemeal approaches to it over the years, a couple of them significant, like new seats and air-conditioning. Mostly, it's just had add-ons that attempted to take a space that was designed as a concert hall and turn it into a full-fledged theatre.

"There was no stage manager's booth, for example, so we stuck one in the balcony; no lighting position to light the forestage, so we built a lighting truss across the forestage. The theatre had no proper angle positions for lighting, so we built towers in the balcony to give it the right 45 degree angles for lighting. All of those were piecemeal and, quite frankly, they weren't pretty."

The renovations include removing the makeshift stage manager's booth and "hiding" a new one together with a new lighting booth behind a fa?ade wall at the back of the balcony, and replacing the lighting towers with more architecturally harmonious lighting fixtures.

"In effect, we will be gutting the main stage theatre and auditorium both," Favorini says. "We're taking out the seats and refurbishing them. We're stripping the stage. There will be a completely new rigging system and counterweight system. We're re-building and re-configuring the stage floor. We're taking down the lighting truss and re-configuring it and we're going to light the theatre's vault. We're re-doing the lobby, getting rid of that ugly, institutional lobby furniture and replacing it with kiosks that will allow for people to buy their concessions and pick up their tickets."

The proscenium theatre's capacity will be reduced from 600 to 500 as a result of building a larger stage space and losing a couple rows of seats in the balcony to the fa?ade wall.

During the 14-month project, mainstage productions will be held at the recently completed Henry Heymann Theatre in the building's basement.

Favorini says concerns over the Foster theatre's safety conditions as well as outdated equipment and chronic Band-Aid solutions spurred the project. "We felt there were longstanding problems both with efficiency and with safety. We recommended that a safety consultant come in and look at the theatre," he says.

"About two years ago, Randy Davidson, a well-respected theatre consultant from the Midwest, spent two or three days here with his team and they looked at Stephen Foster. In a nutshell, what Randy Davidson said was, 'Shut it down!'"

Favorini laughs at that severe recommendation now in light of the restoration project. "Well, we anticipated it, because we knew there were a lot of problems and we knew that the only alternatives were to continue to go about it piecemeal, as had always been done, or to really face up to it. I wrote a memo immediately and I said I accept the report and we should close it down and develop a comprehensive plan and that's what we took last year to do."

Pitt hired architects WTW and theatre consultants Fisher Dachs to develop a program to solve the safety problems, including fire code and faulty wiring concerns, and to bring the theatre's technical capabilities up to state-of-the-art.

"At the same time, we wanted to address the longstanding problem with the exterior of the building, which is that it is totally anonymous. If you stop people and ask them 'Where's the Stephen Foster Memorial?' they can't tell you. And if you then tell them it's right there, I've had people say, 'Oh, no, it isn't. There's no building there. That's part of the Cathedral of Learning.'"

That's because the building's architect, Charles Klauder, designed it to blend in with his design of the Cathedral, Favorini says. "However, there's no visual excitement. It fact, it looks more like a mausoleum, which, in a way, is what it was supposed to be — a kind of monument to Stephen Foster — rather than a theatre.

"So, along with the interior restoration there will be a renewal of the exterior that will involve architectural lighting, and for that we've already engaged a lighting firm; signage, and 'soft goods': banners and so forth. So that 24 hours a day, people who drive or walk by will know that this is a theatre and something exciting is about to happen there."

Raising the entire $2 million needed for the project is not a done deal, Favorini acknowledges. "Right now, I'm not bursting with confidence. We'll raise $1.5 million pretty clearly. But the last $500,000 is the hard part."

Favorini says fund-raising success depends in part on whether the project receives a Kresge Foundation challenge grant, which he will learn in December.

"I'm very gratified, because the University only puts forward one Kresge project a year and this is it. And, I've said in many forums and I'm happy to say again, that the University administration has done a 180-degree turn in support of the arts and especially the theatre arts on this campus in the last three or four years.

"I can say that one of the things that's made my own fund-raising a lot easier is that I have been able to go to the corporations and foundations and go to individuals and say, 'The University is putting its money where its mouth is.' The University is contributing a portion, a significant amount of money towards this project and I can sit across from someone at a table and say, 'The University is putting this up; I guarantee that if you put this amount up, they'll put that amount up.' "This has been particularly persuasive, not only in this project, but with endowments. We've been very successful in raising endowment money in the past few years with the administration's help. In some cases it's been the dean's office and in some cases it's been the provost's office, where we've sat down with a donor and said 'How can we help make this happen? If you give the salary, we'll give the fringe benefits.' "It's what swung the Henry Heymann Theatre. I was able to go to Henry and say, if you give X, they'll give X. He did and they did," Favorini says.

If the full amount is not raised, some of the restoration plans will be postponed. Regardless, theatre arts at Pitt will be much better positioned as a result of the Foster Theatre project, Favorini says.

"We'll be on tremendously better footing in two respects: One is, you read what [Pitt football coach] Walt Harris says in the newspaper, and he says 'When I'm recruiting students, I take them over to that shiny new complex on the South Side and I take them over to the new stadium….'

"Well, that works for us, too. We get parents visiting in the summer with kids who are thinking about coming to Pitt and now I'm going to be able to say: We have three state-of-the-art theatres: Stephen Foster, our Studio Theatre and the Heymann Theatre, and that's going to be very appealing.

"Also, with three theatres, it gives us the opportunity to welcome onto the campus some of the other theatre operations in town, which do not have a permanent home, and we've been in discussions with various groups about the possibility of their sharing spaces when they aren't in use. We wouldn't displace our own students, but here's an opportunity to build a strong theatre community."

A strong theatre arts program is good for Pitt and the city, Favorini says.

"I have operated under a philosophy in the 30 years I've been here. And that philosophy has to do with the absolute need for a theatre to serve its community. We've developed many programs over the years that do that. The documentary dramas that we did: 'Steel/City' in 1976 and later 'Hearts and Diamonds,' and the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, the Shakespeare-in-the-Schools program and so forth.

"I once said to the late Wes Posvar, 'You know, Wes, we've got 24,000 people every summer coming onto this campus to look at the arts in this particular building. They come here and see the University operating as a university. And I believe that is good for everybody.

"There's a lot of talk in this city about keeping young people in town and we do it two ways: Our graduates come back; they may go away for a while and get seasoned, but then they come back because while they were here they saw a model of how a theatre and a community can work together. And then, of course, we're making a contribution to the cultural amenities that keep people in Pittsburgh."

Most important of all, Favorini says, is that the theatre improvements will benefit Pitt's theatre arts students.

"The key thing to remember is that the University theatre is a laboratory for our students. It's just as important as the chem lab is to chemistry students or physics experiments are to physicists or the labs you need for biology. And, frankly, this is a lab that's been in the Bunsen burner era for too long. This restoration project is really bringing us into the 21st century."

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 2

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