A Theater of Infinite Possibilities New performance space at Center Stage has built-in versatility

February 10, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

These days Stan Wojewodski Jr., Center Stage's artistic director, likes to quote Pablo Picasso: "A good piece of work is the revelation of a discovery, not the demonstration of a plan."

The statement applies on several levels to the theater's new fourth-floor performing space, the Head Theater. Named in honor of the local sports equipment innovator, Howard Head, and his wife, Martha, the theater opens Saturday with previews of Eric Overmyer's "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin," which receives its world premiere here. The play officially opens on Feb. 20.

On the most obvious level, the quote refers to the "found space" the new theater occupies -- the former auditorium and library of the building's original resident, Loyola College and High School. Instead of following the seemingly obvious plan of "just plopping some new space in the court-yard," as Mr. Wojewodski puts it, "we asked the building to suggest where this new space might be, and this is really the building's response."

That response led to the creation of a theater rich in turn-of-the-century architectural details. The most striking of these -- in terms of theatrical use -- are the five arch-shaped windows on the east wall, which will allow lighting designers to incorporate natural light, a feature several say they haven't seen before; it will be tried out for the first time in "The Heliotrope Bouquet."

The Picasso quote also applies to the discoveries that will be made each time a production is staged in this possibly unprecedented flexible-seating space, whose capacity can stretch from 100 to 400 seats.

What makes the flexible seating unusual is that it takes the form of eight two-story, 18-seat towers that can be rearranged for each production. "You have to redesign the theater every time," explains Hugh Landwehr, who is designing the set for the second production in the space, Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep" (April 26-June 16).

Together with the found space and the inclusion of the windows, these flexible seating towers represent a blend of old and new that makes this a unique performance area; its importance has already been recognized by a cover story in the December 1990 issue of the technical theater magazine, Theatre Crafts.

From groundbreaking to completion, construction took 17 months and cost $5.9 million -- $1 million more than originally budgeted; the difference was made up by additional fund-raising. Beside the theater itself, the cost includes construction of a new two-story scene shop, a paint deck, a prop shop, hoistway and two elevators, as well as renovation to create two rehearsal halls, dressing rooms for the Head Theater and support facilities including a lobby, coatroom, restrooms and a lounge, located in what was once the college chapel.

But distinctive as the physical plant may be, it is the uses to which it will be put that will determine its lasting significance. And the first two Head Theater productions offer an excellent indication of its range.

For "The Heliotrope Bouquet," a thrust stage will be located against the windowed east wall that fronts Calvert Street. The seating towers will be lined up on either side of the stage, and a raked seating platform will be situated in front, for a total of 279 seats.

Christopher Barreca, "Heliotrope's" set designer, says he and Mr. Wojewodski, who is directing both Head productions, "spent most of our time deciding on the relationship of the audience to the space. What's interesting is that you can take a simple thing like the towers, and by not putting audience members in front of the towers, it creates a certain mystery, a lonely, dream-like quality." That quality seemed especially well-suited to "Heliotrope," a dramatic poem in which the collaboration that produced the ragtime composition of the title is used to examine creativity and immortality.

Mr. Barreca says the primary factor determining the location of the stage was the opportunity to use the windows. Their most dramatic use should occur in the opening moments, when dawn breaks on the set, according to Richard Pilbrow, the production's lighting designer, who is also the principal consultant on the theater's design.

"We want dawn to come up through the window. The trouble is, there's a building across the [street]," he explains. The solution -- though he's hesitant to discuss it before it's been tried -- is "to hang a mirror on that building and shine powerful lights [at it] from a room at the top of our building."

The set for "The Mystery of Irma Vep" will highlight another aspect of the new space -- the tension created by placing a 20th century, state-of-the-art theater inside a turn-of-the-century building. "The Ludlam play, even though it's a modern piece of writing, is among other things an exploration of a 19th century orientation to the stage," Mr. Wojewodski says of the spoof on 19th century penny dreadfuls in which two actors portray eight characters.

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