Imagining A Theatre Anywhere
Mitchell, Kevin M., Stage Directions
Three Companies Get Creative Turning Churches Into Marvelous Spaces
[The Atlantic Theater Company isn't the only theatre to make a church their home. We wanted to write about theatres in non-traditional locations, but when we asked around, churches were far and away the most popular spaces to remake into theatres. Here's the story of three theatres making it working in sacred space, -ed.]
For many self-described theatre-geeks theatre is their temple. For these three theatre companies it's literally true. And interestingly, all of these are sharing their spaces with religious groups active in the space.
Challenges? Sure, there are plenty - starting with how to hang lights to seating to codes to lack of back stage or wing space. But with good gear and smart technical direction it can be a done, as these case studies prove. For those eyeing a house of worship for his or her theatre home, Gary Bell, artistic director of Stray Dog Theatre in St. Louis, says, "It's all about the relationship. Our motto has that it has to be win/ win, both sides have to be happy."
Bell, who lived in New York City for 20 years, could never have guessed he would end up in St. Louis in a church. He and his partner Rob Ogden ended up buying a house in south St. Louis that was a deal because of its unusual history and proximity: it was a former pastor's home and office right next to what was originally a German Evangelical Church "with a European-flavored designed" that was then run by the United Church of Christ.
"Then they were down to nine people attending and started a conversation with us." The conversation ended a year later in 2006 with the beautiful church becoming home to Bell's Stray Dog Theatre company, which was founded in 2003 but had previously floated around town, sharing a dance studio, etc.
"We saw we could transform it into a theatre space, but it was a mess," Bell says. "One part was home to pigeons, it had moldy carpet, and putting in a lighting system would be challenging, but we liked the idea of a church ... it was kind of kitschy."
They first raised the altar to improve audience sightlines. "And there was a huge pipe organ inside the proscenium with pipes going up 25 feet." They removed it and found another home for it in a church in another part of town. They had to remove nine pews to meet fire code.
The lighting system involved getting into the attic and "screaming down below to be guided on where to drill the holes." From there they have relied on donations and good financial management (provided by Ogden), and they have since purchased additional lights every year.
There was a lot they didn't do: "We kept the big beautiful stained glass windows and a lot of the artifacts, plaques of former members and pastors. It was important that we honor the building."
The space has no wings, and only one stage entrance, but that doesn't inhibit Bell. "With creative placement of flats and the magic of theatre, it appears that there are more than one during a show." Bell has always been a proponent of using the back of a theatre as an stage entrance, with cast members coming in from behind the audience. He still does it in the church, but it means actors have to go out the back door, into the alley (and the elements), to run around the front and enter there.
And the sound? "Audio was a problem," Bell admits. "We experimented with sound panels, which we put at the top of the proscenium. There's an echo, but we've learned the more things we have on stage, the more it helps. We don't use mies, so actors need to speak clearly and to the back of the room." An Allen & Heath ZED 436 soundboard is used for music and effects, and in the case of the recent music Urinetown, they had Peavey monitors for the actors on stage and it worked beautifully.
"The mix is created by our technical genius, Justin Been." Been also works lights at the same time, using a Colorirán Innovator 48/96 board. …