Bonnie Monte’s Plan

Michael Farewell Designed the Theater

Design Restrictions

Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 10, 1998. All rights reserved.

For the Shakespeare Festival, a Bold Renewal

I have opening-night jitters," admits Michael

Farewell, even though Farewell is neither a playwright, an actor,

a producer, nor director. His offstage role is partner in charge of

design at the Mapleton Road-based architectural firm, Ford Farewell

Mills and Gatsch. And try as it may, the production of "Cyrano

de Bergerac" that opens the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s

36th season, Saturday, June 13, is less the attention-getter than

Farewell’s work — the festival’s long overdue new home, the $7.5

million F.M. Kirby Theater.

While the opening of the new theater represents the culmination of

a full decade of artistic commitment and growth by NJSF artistic

director

Bonnie J. Monte and managing director Michael Stotts, it also places

the spotlight on Farewell, the theater’s designer. It is Farewell’s

bold and audacious effort in the light of some formidable obstacles

that will stand tall alongside those of Rostand’s masterful play,

"Cyrano."

Farewell was eager to tackle the demanding criteria of this unique

308-seat, state-of-the-art theater that would include dealing with

such necessary esthetic considerations as the use of fabrics,

flooring,

textiles, and woods. Farewell also provided for the operation of and

access to a stage, with no seat to be more than 32 feet from its

apron.

During a pre-theater or intermission stroll in the two-story,

glass-enclosed

lobby, patrons get a spectacular view of the campus. If Farewell’s

cleverness is apparent in his environment-friendly spaces that include

an exhibition gallery and a VIP room with catering facilities, his

consideration for the handicapped can be seen in the ramps and lifts

throughout the building. British acting legend Sir John Gielgud has

already expressed his pleasure at having the Green Room named after

him.

However, the opening of the theater could not have happened without

the aggressive initiatives instituted by a team destined to turn

around

the failing fortunes of a 27-year-old company. As committed as NJSF

was to Shakespeare and the classics, it was also crying out for new

leadership. This it got in 1990. The diligence and perseverance it

took to reverse both the financial and artistic woes of the NJSF

proved

only a part of the problem that faced Monte and Stotts. Monte,

formerly

of the Williamstown Theater Festival, and Stotts, formerly of the

Manhattan Theater Club, had inherited a disintegrating facility.

The 88-year-old Bowne Theater, a former gymnasium on the campus of

Drew University, was crying out for help as it literally began to

crumble before their eyes. Perhaps Monte had a premonition of what

was ahead in 1990, the summer she saw the theater for the first time.

Looking for a new job opportunity after leaving Williamstown, she

wasn’t enthusiastic about taking on a problematic company.

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Bonnie Monte’s Plan

Perhaps it was Monte’s first visit to the theater set

among the graceful old trees and winding paths on the Drew campus

that made her nostalgic for the similarly pastoral setting of

Williamstown.

It was a beautiful sight. During the summer of 1990, when Monte saw

the last three productions staged under the aegis of NJSF founding

artistic director Paul Barry, she also realized that while the campus

is gorgeous, the theater should have been demolished years before.

In her naivete she concluded that, if she got this job, she would

immediately "fix the place up."

She got the job, but quickly realized the theater’s limitations when

she directed her first show, "The Tempest." How could Monte

know that her first traumatic, tribulation-filled season, "Brave

New Worlds," would do more than reflect the season’s dramatic

theme? It inspired Monte to embark on a course of action that would

lead the way eight years later to a new New Jersey Shakespeare

Festival

Theater.

That no one even perceived that there was a problem with the theater

was a jolt to Monte. There were those on the board who believed that

all theater was like this. Apparently no one had ever expected more

from this makeshift venue. It was now up to Monte and Stotts to change

the board members’ expectations. While the artistic expectations were

a given, it was the more basic functioning of a viable theater that

was at stake. That the theater functioned as well as it did for so

long is a miracle. Confronted with the limited space, the need to

design sets around a huge air-conditioning duct that ran up the back

wall of the stage, the running track that ran around the stage,

electrical

wiring that could barely deal with a 100-watt bulb, and no wing space

or access to it, Monte, nevertheless, persevered. But, she says,

trying

to produce quality work in this setting, almost drove her

"nuts."

Plans to deal with the theater’s gaping wounds and proceed with a

campaign to build a new home could come only after Monte was able

to strengthen the organization’s financial structure. For Monte it

became a burning issue after the third year of her tenure, a time

when she felt she had artistically proved herself. There were the

times of doubt when Monte and Stotts actually considered starting

a new company somewhere else. This, especially when people began to

get hurt. A chunk of the roof fell on actor Robert Lupone’s head as

he was taking the crossover during a performance of "As You Like

It." Was it worth staying at Drew? Was it worth trying to

negotiate

with the board about a major building campaign?

Monte says that she virtually willed this new theater into being by

relentlessly going after the board. In 1993 the board finally gave

Monte and Stotts the go-ahead. But the arguments persisted over

whether

a new site should be found for a brand new theater, or whether the

old site should be used for a dramatic rebuilding and restoration.

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Michael Farewell Designed the Theater

Out of the 20 or so architectural firms recommended and interviewed

between New York and Philadelphia, Monte and Stotts based their final

decision less on factual things than on instinct. "We wanted to

work with someone who was on the same esthetic wavelength," says

Monte. That person was Farewell.

The design itself, while fulfilling a vision created jointly by

Farewell,

Monte and Stotts, was ultimately restricted by the boundaries set

by the university. The university would not allow any additional

buildings

that would include administrative offices or workshops. This brings

Monte to state that another campaign for off-campus facilities is

already underway. A partnership between "a speedy paced arts

organization

and plodding academia" is assumed to be fraught with inherent

conflict.

Although frustrating at first, things moved more swiftly than expected

when, in 1996, Drew designated a special Shakespeare board to work

with Monte and Stotts. Feasibility studies, and the initial steps

to hire an architect were funded by the New Jersey State Council on

the Arts that contributed $2.5 million, the F.M. Kirby Foundation

that contributed $1.5 million, and the Hyde and Watson Foundation

that provided $150,000 in seed money.

While Drew, with a $1 million stake in the co-venture, was more

committed

to restoration than NJSF, Monte concedes that compromise was

necessary.

Drew insisted that two side walls be kept intact and that the theater

should not exceed the height of other buildings on the campus, thus

eliminating the inclusion in the plans of a fly-loft, an unfortunate

fact, says Monte. Replicating Bowne’s 100-year-old windows, using

a certain kind brick only made in Nebraska, and installing a piano

lift for the concerts that Drew will host, placed additional burdens

on the designers.

While the new theater represents a concerted team effort that included

input from Drew, theater technicians, and a special theater

consultant,

it was Farewell who took all the ideas and created the larger

mise-en-scene

that Monte calls "brilliant."

"Those guys were great," says Monte about the Farewell team,

which spent a year visiting theaters from New Jersey to Washington,

D.C., and discussing what they liked, what they didn’t, and what was

a mistake. "We discussed everything, from form to philosophy,

and what we expected for and from our theater." I asked Monte

if any other theater on the tour seemed to echo the situation at Drew.

Monte refers to the Center Stage in Baltimore, where they took a

peculiar

old building and imaginatively renovated it.

To stay within the budget, Monte and Stotts had to make many

concessions.

Maybe there won’t be a hydraulic lift at the loading dock, and the

ceiling in the rehearsal hall could have been a foot higher, but Monte

says it was comforting to work with a contractor, project manager,

and consultants from Prudential Realty who watched all the costs like

hawks. But most of all for Monte and Stotts was the joy of their

collaboration

with Farewell. It was for Farewell to turn what he termed "a

virtual

ruin" into a veritable showcase for plays and players.

Although Farewell says how extraordinary it may have been to have

theater going on in that dilapidated building, it was the exquisite

detail of the exterior that he says first captured his imagination.

Daunting as it was to create a new space within the shell of the old,

Farewell says he immediately had to confront the issue of the

interfaith

between the old and the new. The central architectural theme of

weaving

together the different "languages" is not unknown to Farewell,

whose firm works regularly on buildings in historic districts.

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Design Restrictions

The most confounding part of the structure and interior

configurations for Farewell was "the tight envelope" (meaning

leeway) he had to work in. Even though Farewell was permitted to

expand

the theater on two of its walls, that was a fairly narrow extension

to accommodate the proper sightlines and seating arrangements for

a theater like this. Also important to accommodate was the Queen Anne

style of the structure, which is placed very carefully among the shady

groves at the heart of the university. Farewell’s consideration of

the building’s exterior classical elements, including the roof

structure

(although the roof itself is new), have been re-pointed and repaired.

After submitting five different schemes, Farewell says that he does

not deny that constraints placed upon him made his work more

difficult.

After a final plan was approved, the work became, according to

Farewell,

"a wonderfully collaborative effort." This collaboration,

which meant bi-weekly meetings, often included among others, the

architect’s

project manager Michael Schnoering; general contractor Damon G.

Douglas

Company; their project manager David Ritchie, and site superintendent

Rich Passafiumi; and Frank Manella, who provided the cost estimates

as work progressed.

Demolition of the old is fast but construction of the new takes time.

During the summer of 1997, NJSF produced its five-play season at

various

venues, including the Community Theater, Playwrights Theater of New

Jersey and on a football field. Far from undermining the festival’s

audience base, attendance surpassed all previous seasons.

When I ask Farewell if there is anything that he would do differently

now that the job is completed, he replies, "I’d like to wait and

see the theater open and operational before answering that." When

I see Farewell at the opening, and if those jitters aren’t too bad,

I’ll be sure to ask the question again.

— Simon Saltzman

Cyrano de Bergerac, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival,

F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. Gala

opening

night for the production that continues to July 5. Regular admission,

$25 & $30. Saturday, June 13, 8 p.m. Continuing on the Main

Stage:

All’s Well That Ends Well, July 14 to August 2.

The School For Scandal, August 11 to 30.

King Lear, September 8 to 27.

Sweet Bird of Youth, November 3 to 22.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales, December 8 to 27.

On the Other Stage: Travels With My Aunt, July 7 to August

2.


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