A Theater Grows in Buffalo

By Dorbian, Iris | Stage Directions, October 2003 | Go to article overview

A Theater Grows in Buffalo


Dorbian, Iris, Stage Directions


After a small upstate New York college closed one of its key theaters for safety reasons, a famous alum was determined to reopen it.

When Buffalo State College's Upton Theatre closed six years ago after the counterweight rigging system was deemed unsafe, the main hub of the undergraduate theater experience at this small upstate New York institution seemed suspended forever. The 400-seat proscenium had acted as an important laboratory for students to learn and hone their budding craft. But when the negative verdict on the equipment was passed down, rendering the facility unusable, students had no other recourse but to turn to the tiny 100-seat black-box theater in the theater arts building nearby.Though the space offered ample seating flexibility, it still did not provide the amenities of a traditional proscenium house. Consequently, students graduated without having any experience working in a standard venue. This deficit of knowledge was a source of concern to the school. Unfortunately, the budget was not enough to repair the rigging and renovate the theater. Limited funding had thrown Buffalo State College theater's department into a hopeless catch-22 situation.

Then, one day, local native and Emmy Award-winning television producer Tom Fontana ("St. Elsewhere," "Homicide: Life On The Streets" and "Ox"), an alumnus of the ""school's theater program, showed up at commencement and discovered that the space he had cherished as an undergraduate had been shut down. Finding this unacceptable, Fontana discussed remedying this situation with Donna Eskew McCarthy, chair of the theater department, who shared his dismay.

"He said, 'let's try and do some fundraising,'" recalls McCarthy, "because the school just did not have the money set aside for that kind of capital improvement [needed to re-open the Upton Theater]. We would have needed over $100,000 to replace the counterweight system." Determined and undeterred, Fontana approached another of the school's illustrious alums, Diane English, the Emmy-winning producer of "Murphy Brown," to help him spearhead the fundraising drive for the theater. Through their efforts, which consisted of soliciting hefty donations from media titans like HBO, CBS and Warner Brothers, the campaign garnered $250,000. Unfortunately, the sum was still not princely enough to overhaul the Upton Theatre. Yet it was a grand beginning.

Forging on, the fundraising team put together "a proposal to the SUNY Construction Fund for a matching grant," recounts McCarthy, "and at that point, the renovations were budgeted at $1.2 million." Not only did they receive the bounty they asked for, but also additional funding from the school, bringing the tally up to $1.9 million.What seemed like a distant pipe dream was finally crystallizing into reality. "It just took forever," says McCarthy, who has been working at Buffalo State College for 27 years. "We'd all be excited that someone sent in $100. So whenever there was a big donation, that was a real landmark for us. But it took a while."

With this phase completed, the next step was to make the repairs to the dormant facility. Hiring Curtis Kasefang and Benjamin Boltin from Public Assembly Consultants, the theater department hammered out a vision of what they wanted the streamlined Upton Theatre to look like after its long-sought renovations.What was ultimately decided, aside from the obvious choice (replacing the rigging), were the following: modify the existing architecture, upgrade the lighting, redesign the sound systern, build a new catwalk and sound control rooms and include 400 new seats. …

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