A Theater of Infinite Possibilities New performance space at Center Stage has built-in versatility


These days Stan Wojewodski Jr., Center Stage's artistic director, likes to quote Pablo Picasso: "A good piece of work is the revelation of a discovery, not the demonstration of a plan."

The statement applies on several levels to the theater's new fourth-floor performing space, the Head Theater. Named in honor of the local sports equipment innovator, Howard Head, and his wife, Martha, the theater opens Saturday with previews of Eric Overmyer's "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin," which receives its world premiere here. The play officially opens on Feb. 20.

On the most obvious level, the quote refers to the "found space" the new theater occupies -- the former auditorium and library of the building's original resident, Loyola College and High School. Instead of following the seemingly obvious plan of "just plopping some new space in the court-yard," as Mr. Wojewodski puts it, "we asked the building to suggest where this new space might be, and this is really the building's response."

That response led to the creation of a theater rich in turn-of-the-century architectural details. The most striking of these -- in terms of theatrical use -- are the five arch-shaped windows on the east wall, which will allow lighting designers to incorporate natural light, a feature several say they haven't seen before; it will be tried out for the first time in "The Heliotrope Bouquet."

The Picasso quote also applies to the discoveries that will be made each time a production is staged in this possibly unprecedented flexible-seating space, whose capacity can stretch from 100 to 400 seats.

What makes the flexible seating unusual is that it takes the form of eight two-story, 18-seat towers that can be rearranged for each production. "You have to redesign the theater every time," explains Hugh Landwehr, who is designing the set for the second production in the space, Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep" (April 26-June 16).

Together with the found space and the inclusion of the windows, these flexible seating towers represent a blend of old and new that makes this a unique performance area; its importance has already been recognized by a cover story in the December 1990 issue of the technical theater magazine, Theatre Crafts.

From groundbreaking to completion, construction took 17 months and cost $5.9 million -- $1 million more than originally budgeted; the difference was made up by additional fund-raising. Beside the theater itself, the cost includes construction of a new two-story scene shop, a paint deck, a prop shop, hoistway and two elevators, as well as renovation to create two rehearsal halls, dressing rooms for the Head Theater and support facilities including a lobby, coatroom, restrooms and a lounge, located in what was once the college chapel.

But distinctive as the physical plant may be, it is the uses to which it will be put that will determine its lasting significance. And the first two Head Theater productions offer an excellent indication of its range.

For "The Heliotrope Bouquet," a thrust stage will be located against the windowed east wall that fronts Calvert Street. The seating towers will be lined up on either side of the stage, and a raked seating platform will be situated in front, for a total of 279 seats.

Christopher Barreca, "Heliotrope's" set designer, says he and Mr. Wojewodski, who is directing both Head productions, "spent most of our time deciding on the relationship of the audience to the space. What's interesting is that you can take a simple thing like the towers, and by not putting audience members in front of the towers, it creates a certain mystery, a lonely, dream-like quality." That quality seemed especially well-suited to "Heliotrope," a dramatic poem in which the collaboration that produced the ragtime composition of the title is used to examine creativity and immortality.

Mr. Barreca says the primary factor determining the location of the stage was the opportunity to use the windows. Their most dramatic use should occur in the opening moments, when dawn breaks on the set, according to Richard Pilbrow, the production's lighting designer, who is also the principal consultant on the theater's design.

"We want dawn to come up through the window. The trouble is, there's a building across the [street]," he explains. The solution -- though he's hesitant to discuss it before it's been tried -- is "to hang a mirror on that building and shine powerful lights [at it] from a room at the top of our building."

The set for "The Mystery of Irma Vep" will highlight another aspect of the new space -- the tension created by placing a 20th century, state-of-the-art theater inside a turn-of-the-century building. "The Ludlam play, even though it's a modern piece of writing, is among other things an exploration of a 19th century orientation to the stage," Mr. Wojewodski says of the spoof on 19th century penny dreadfuls in which two actors portray eight characters.

There will be about 300 seats for "Irma Vep," which will be performed within a proscenium frame on the elevated west end of the theater. The towers will be arranged in a horseshoe, surrounding a small orchestra section of seats. By creating this traditional format within the non-traditional Head Theater, the intention is that of deliberately "keeping an audience off-balance," says Robert Wierzel, the production lighting designer.

"This kind of play fits the space very well," he explains, "because it is so theatrical. It is about the workings of the theater -- that wonderful ambivalence of watching and being moved by the moment and knowing that the moment is being created."

If the Head Theater evolves in the manner in which its creators intend, "Irma Vep" won't be the only production to toy with the spectator's expectations. The theater is destined to shatter expectations each time audiences walk in the door.

For starters, the fact that it is a second theater doesn't mean it's small. Although the number of seats will vary, the space itself has the same basic dimensions as Center Stage's 541-seat Pearlstone Theater, located three floors directly below.

In addition, while the Head Theater shares some similarities with so-called "black box" theaters -- characterized by movable seats in an empty room -- it also differs considerably, primarily because of the seating towers and the retention of existing architectural details.

"It isn't an amorphous black box," Mr. Pilbrow insists. "It's an atmospheric outer shell within which there's a very strong theatrical framework represented by the towers."

But the biggest departure is probably the status Center Stage is granting the Head Theater. It is definitely not being treated as a little upstairs hideaway for experimental work.

As Mr. Landwehr puts it, "The splendid aspect of the arrangements made for the use of the space is that these productions are dealt with on the same level as the mainstage productions. What one finds so frequently in these second spaces throughout regional theaters is that second space means cheap."

Furthermore, flexible seating is only part of the conceivable variety. Mr. Wojewodski envisions staging enormous productions -- Shakespeare's "Pericles" or Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," perhaps -- using both the Pearlstone and Head theaters. Scenes with a traditional orientation would be presented downstairs, and more open, abstract scenes would be mounted upstairs, with the audience moving between the two during intermission.

Depending on the demands of the script, Mr. Pilbrow can foresee setting up two different stages within the Head Theater -- one for each act. And Mr. Barreca is tempted by the notion of altering the seating configuration between acts.

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