All the Things We Cannot See
A high-tech makeover gives audiences even more ways to believe in the magic of the theatre.
For theatre-goers, there is plenty to love about the newly renovated Elsie C. Brackett Theatre in the University of Oklahoma Fine Arts District. Fresh paint, new carpeting and a luxurious grand drape provide visual pow at first glance. Regulars will notice that the cushy new seats not only feel more comfortable, they no longer squeak like the shower scene from Pyscho. But what’s most impressive to fine arts faculty and students are the improvements behind the scenes.
Sleek and modern when it opened in 1965, the former Rupel J. Jones Theatre had been relying on much of its original equipment through decades of musicals, operas, dance productions and stage performances.“Safety is a primary concern,” says Tom Huston Orr, James Garner Chair and director of the Helmerich School of Drama. “We had updated the dimmers, but we were using the same wiring, the same fly system, the same hydraulics as when the theatre opened. It was all functional, but it was all 50 years old and in need of serious repair. ”
The original wiring in the building had been pulled and stretched for decades and sometimes even rained on from roof leaks, now repaired. The back stage communication system among technicians and directors was in a similar state, fritzing out on a regular basis. “There’s a whole show going on backstage that the audience is unaware of,” says Orr. “And that infrastructure had really deteriorated. I’ve run performances talking with our tech students on cell phones because the system’s headsets no longer worked.”
Theatre patrons and OU supporters Betsy Brackett and her husband, Gregg Wadley, came to the rescue with a lead gift that not only brightened the front of the house, but also addressed the aging mechanics. Every inch of wiring has been replaced, and crews have an integrated communications system that reaches backstage, downstairs, the green room and the lighting and sound booths.
One piece of theater equipment the audience may have noticed, but only when it went awry, was the ancient fly system used to lift scenery, lighting instruments and sometimes people, above and across the stage. The system relied on strong arms pulling heavy mechanics hand over hand through a system of ropes and pulleys.
“Every once in a while during a performance, the rigging got stuck and decided not to move,” says Orr. With as many as 300 different lighting instruments literally hanging on the integrity of the stage rigging that could be a problem.
All of the pulleys, cables, battens and counterweight systems have been replaced. Five of the batten lines are mechanized, and operate with the touch of a button. Orr says the new fly system is “a wonderful blend of cutting-edge technology combined with age-tested mechanics.”
From a wall panel backstage, one person can control most functions of the theatre—raise the curtain, change the stage lighting, turn on the houselights or create different moods onstage with a host of pre-sets. “Everybody loves it,” says Orr. “The actors, the stage managers, the designers—it’s user-friendly.”
Lighting design student Zakary Houara agrees. “OU strives to give students a world-class education,” he says, “And we are now working with state-of-the-art equipment at industry standards, which gives us a leg-up on our peers.”
A new sound board in the auditorium is the centerpiece to a dramatically redesigned acoustic system. “Running that board is like flying a plane,” Orr says. “No, it’s more like a starship. The learning curve on ‘Ragtime’ was a bit steep, but the soundscape in the space is fantastic. It’s amazing.”
The last thing the audience would ever want to see, says Orr, was the original hydraulic lift system underneath the stage. “It looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie or the bowels of a huge ship, and it failed regularly.
“My favorite part of the old system was that sometimes in the middle of a show, the lip of the stage would slowly sink about three inches, and then the hydraulic pressure would kick on and it would rise back up again. It happened all the time. Actors got used to it.”
The new lift mechanism looks like a piece of modern art and is both smooth and silent. Not only can it elevate the lip from 17 feet below to nine feet above the stage, it can also tilt, offering directors, actors and designers a greater range of experience for university theatre.
“We have put ourselves in a wonderful position for the future,” concludes Orr. "Personally speaking, we all could use a facelift after 50 years.”
Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre presents the Tony Award-winning musical comedy "Thoroughly Modern Millie," April 8-17, Elsie C. Brackett Theatre. Box Office (405) 325-4101.
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