RALEIGH — It's been a rough two years for the University Theatre and the Crafts Center at N.C. State University while the venerable Frank Thompson Hall that houses them has been going through a $16.8 million makeover.
Theater-goers have had to look for the alternate venues where the university's plays have been staged, and those audiences as well as student and community crafters have had to trek to a satellite location near the State Fairgrounds for the few classes that could be offered.
Now, with the Craft Center's opening last month and University Theatre's first production opening on Friday, things are back in full swing. George Thomas and John McIlwee, the directors of the two programs, couldn't be happier.
"This building offers everything anyone would expect and want in a cutting-edge arts facility," said Thomas, formerly the Craft Center's assistant director and since June 1 its director.
Although neither program leads to a degree, both are popular enough with students that they voted a major increase in their school fees to cover two-thirds of the renovation costs (the rest came from partnerships between NCSU and private citizens, businesses and alumni). The students' funding helped save architect Hobart B. Upjohn's beautiful columned archways, delicate decorative work and soaring windows.
The building was constructed in 1925 as the school's athletic facility. Wolfpack basketball games were played there until 1949, when they were moved to the larger Reynolds Coliseum. In 1961, the physical education program moved to the newly built Carmichael Gymnasium.
The Crafts Center, formerly housed in the old student union, relocated to the basement of Thompson in 1963. That same year Thompson Theatre was organized, holding its first production in 1964 in the renovated gym. Despite some improvements, the building's original purpose had limited its current use, along with increasingly stringent safety codes.
The lovingly restored outer frame has been carefully merged with modern elements. A fanlike glass awning over the building's main entrance caps the glass-enclosed outer lobby housing the new theater box office.
The Craft Center's entrance on the building's west side, formerly a drab doorway, is now an inviting portal, also sporting a glass awning. Windows formerly blacked out are now gleaming invitations into the brightly lit interiors, and they double as craft displays.
"Students are now finding their way inside and liking what they see," Thomas said on a tour of the building.
On the theater level, two-story Palladian windows have been uncovered and gloriously restored, allowing floods of natural light into the newly created theater foyer on one side and classrooms and offices on the other.
The biggest changes, however, are inside the two programs' workspaces.
The Crafts Center gave up its permanent gallery for additional classrooms with the latest equipment for making jewelry, pottery and stained glass, as well as areas for weaving, photography, woodworking and paper arts. The spacious new central lounge accommodates movable exhibits (the current ones are tributes to the center's two previous directors, potter Conrad Weiser and photographer Jim Pressley).
Upstairs, the mainstage theater (now named the Titmus Theatre) has been turned 90 degrees to face east, with a new lighting booth, riggings (including the theater's first draw curtain) and closer exits to dressing rooms. It seats 192 with comfortable, wider seats, some in separate areas reminiscent of box seats. The walls behind them have a Tudor-like crossbeam pattern.
"I think the theater has more of a European look," said McIlwee, head of University Theatre since 1990. "We wanted something a little bit different than anyone else had."
The studio theater (now renamed the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre) has been moved parallel to the main stage and shares the same lobby entrance. The 108-seat facility also has new equipment and proper backstage amenities, a vast improvement over its former make-do arrangements.
"We finally have a green room, a rehearsal room, and a proper loading dock," McIlwee said. He is eager to show off the two theaters with the opening of the costume drama "Amadeus" on Friday on the main stage, and a piece about Charles Darwin, "Re: Design," in the studio theater in November. Thomas and McIlwee are particularly excited about a new teaching technology. The Crafts Center pottery classroom has a digital camera positioned over the teacher's potting wheel.
Now, instead of having to crowd around the teacher to watch a particular technique, students can stay at their wheels and watch the demonstration on a large monitor on a nearby wall. In the theater's classrooms, wig and makeup demonstrations can be similarly observed.
The two directors hope the new facilities and technologies will help them attract more students to the extracurricular programs. Thomas is encouraging student use by reconfiguring the lengths of classes and the times they are scheduled, and by offering space for engineering and design students to build models of projects.
McIlwee said he previously could only offer one class per time slot, but with so much space now there are three or four.
For now, their immediate challenge is getting used to all the changes in the building."It's as though the house has landed and we must find our way back to Kansas," Thomas said.
"I'll let you know in December if I've lived through all this," McIlwee added.