Magazine article Stage Directions

Renovation as Education

Magazine article Stage Directions

Renovation as Education

Article excerpt

A historic theater is brought back to vivid life-and theatre students benefit

The enduring spirit of a time-honored theatrical space always serves to inspire-and there's no better example of this than the Sun Theatre in St. Louis, Mo. A glorious house dating back more than 100 years that had fallen into terrible ruin, the Sun now has a new lease on life, thanks to a full restoration. What's even better: the newly renovated theatre is now fully accessible to the Grand Center Arts Academy, a grade 6-12 performance-based school, which uses the Sun's space for performances, classes and rehearsals. The building's history is now helping to inform and educate a new generation of theatre artists.

The Theatre's Trajectory

The Sun, originally known as the Victoria Theatre, began its lauded life back in 1913, as a venue exclusively for German language productions. The playhouse flourished until WWI, when it closed due to a strong anti-German sentiment thanks to the war. It stayed closed until 1943, when it opened as the Hi-Hat club, though eventually that shuttered as well. It reopened as a movie house known as the Liberty after the war in the 1940s. Throughout subsequent decades, the theatre morphed into a burlesque house, then a church meeting space, eventually a gentlemen's club, until its doors finally shut in 1969. Sadly, this classically designed jewel of a space became a complete wreck once it was abandoned-its walls caved in, its roof was full of holes (and eventually collapsed), and its gorgeous façade and interior were vandalized on numerous occasions.

All was not lost, though. The Grand Center Arts Academy moved into facilities on the same street as the Sun in 2010. Administrators at Grand Center had the brilliant idea to raise money to renovate the theatre for their students' benefits as well as for the community at large. The Lawrence Group, a highly respected design/construction firm, welcomed the challenge of taking on a massive renovation/restoration. "When we looked at the project, using the whole area of the building, the school using this space to perform and teach was a very interesting idea," says Aaron Bunse, lead designer/project manager for the Lawrence Group. "Working on it initially, we got some very good input from the school, regarding things, for instance, like house seating capacity."

With an $11.5 million dollar budget raised with the help enthusiastic supporters from the community the restoration of the Sun began in earnest in January 2013. The goal from the very start of the project was to resurrect the Sun's original beauty in perfect detail. The venue was to be improved with state of the art installations such as new technical equipment, classrooms actually built into the mainstage house itself, spacious rehearsal rooms and a completely restored building façade.

Minding the Details

As the project began, the restoration team noted that the bones of the building were actually in fine shape-the building's cosmetic aspects, however, needed very extensive and specific work. Their first priority: respecting the historical aspects of its design.

"The challenge with this space, I think, was identifying the historical aspects we could afford to keep," Bunse explains. "We worked with local historical offices here in St. Louis in order to do this accurately. Once we identified the things we wanted to preserve in this way, the next challenge became, how do we carry it out?"

To help with carrying out the stagecraft portion of things Bunse and The Lawrence Group turned to iWeiss and the head of their Chicago office, Russ Dusek Dusek worked with both entities to create a timeline for the renovation and keep everything on track "No installation ever goes exactly like it looks on paper," jokes Dusek "With a building of this age, sometimes there's all kinds of different surprises inside the wall once you get going." The original scope of iWeiss involvement only included a motorized fire curtain, a traveling main curtain and a valance but as they proceeded their scope widened to include masking curtains, a rear traveler and a eye And soon some of the challenges involved in working with an old building became clear. …

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