Harper Joy Theatre to undergo major renovation

Nate Lessler

Harper Joy Theatre is about to get an overhaul thanks to a decision from the Board of Trustees last month to approve a $7-7.5 million renovation. Construction: which will include a new black box theater, costume shop, rigging system and faculty offices: will begin this summer.

Harper Joy was built in 1959 and renovated most recently in 1984. The upcoming renovations, which will last 15 months and are projected to be completed in time for the fall 2011 semester, are being completed by THA Architecture, the same firm that designed Penrose Library and The New Theatre for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

Thomas Hines, chair of the theater department, says the new round of renovations are needed.

“Our facility is aging and incapable of supporting new trends in producing theater,” he said. “A major renovation in 2010 is not only justified as required maintenance, it is required for the continued success and growth of a traditionally successful Whitman program.”

While serious talks of renovations have been going on for roughly three years, concerns about the current facility and requests for improvements have been voiced for almost a decade.

“We have long needed a new black box theater,” said Hines of the current Friemann  Stage, which seats no more than 80.

Because of the small capacity of the current black box, tickets for shows in this performance space, such as the One Act Play Festival, often sell out within one or two days of going on sale. The new black box theater will seat about twice as many people, while the current black box will become an acting classroom called “the acting studio.”

The renovations will also address the lack of office space in the current facility. Professors with offices that were formerly used as backstage storage or that are presently located in Olin Hall will receive new offices.

Other changes include new audience seating for the Alexander Stage, a larger lobby, a new costume shop and an additional rehearsal space for students.

Many students have expressed excitement about the planned renovations.

“Renovating the theater gives us an opportunity to do more and explore more ways to do art,” said junior theater major Raisa Stebbins in an e-mail. “On the technical side, it gives us leeway to do things safely . . . In addition, the current theater’s structure limits exactly how much we can move and fly. We’ve reached a point where we can’t put more weight on the building, so renovations are seriously key.”

Senior Mimi Cook, who wrote a one-act play for this year’s One-Act Play Festival, also expressed excitement.

“I think that the renovation is a very positive thing,” she said in an e-mail. “Unlike many of the buildings on campus, the physical space and facilities in Harper Joy are used practically to teach. So improving and adding to the space really adds to theater students’ learning experience; it isn’t just aesthetic.”

But not all students believe the renovations to be fully necessary.

“I think the renovations have their strengths and weaknesses,” said a theater major who asked to remain anonymous. “A lot of money is being poured into this project and there is no doubt that the theater is going to look a lot more regal, but I kind of like the rustic charm of the current theater building. There are some safety standards that are being addressed, which are essential and have been overlooked for years, but some of the cosmetic measures being taken seem slightly unnecessary to me.”

While most students think the renovation will be an improvement, not all believe it is the best use of money.

“Harper Joy is a great theater already,” said senior Lindsey Witcosky in an e-mail. “I think that the college should be spending more money on student scholarships and recruiting: and keeping: great faculty.”

The exact budget for the renovations, which will not be finalized until May, will include alumni gifts and grants.

“The Development Office is still raising money for the project,” said Associate to the President Jed Schwendiman in an e-mail. “Incoming gifts and grants are still important, and the total cost of the project is still being worked out as bids are coming in.”

Despite the general excitement towards the renovations, construction will interfere with next year’s classes and shows.

“We plan to use our facilities here for next season and have a full season of eight shows,” said Hines. “But second semester next year it is possible that the last two productions will be held in a location other than Harper Joy. This location is still unknown.”

Because of construction, Harper Joy Theatre will also not be used for acting classes next year. Most acting and directing classes will take place in Sherwood, where some theater classes are currently taught. However, design and technical classes will continue to take place at Harper Joy.

For Hines, it will be worth the wait.

“The opportunity for our students to have better classroom space and acting space will do nothing but improve their experience at Whitman,” he said.