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
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,
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,
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
During a pre-theater or intermission stroll in the two-story,
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
However, the opening of the theater could not have happened without
the aggressive initiatives instituted by a team destined to turn
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
only a part of the problem that faced Monte and Stotts. Monte,
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.
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
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
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,
wiring that could barely deal with a 100-watt bulb, and no wing space
or access to it, Monte, nevertheless, persevered. But, she says,
to produce quality work in this setting, almost drove her
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
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
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.
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
Monte and Stotts, was ultimately restricted by the boundaries set
by the university. The university would not allow any additional
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
and plodding academia" is assumed to be fraught with inherent
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
to restoration than NJSF, Monte concedes that compromise was
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
it was Farewell who took all the ideas and created the larger
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
old building and imaginatively renovated it.
To stay within the budget, Monte and Stotts had to make many
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
with Farewell. It was for Farewell to turn what he termed "a
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
between the old and the new. The central architectural theme of
together the different "languages" is not unknown to Farewell,
whose firm works regularly on buildings in historic districts.
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
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
(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
After a final plan was approved, the work became, according to
"a wonderfully collaborative effort." This collaboration,
which meant bi-weekly meetings, often included among others, the
project manager Michael Schnoering; general contractor Damon G.
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
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
F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. Gala
night for the production that continues to July 5. Regular admission,
$25 & $30. Saturday, June 13, 8 p.m. Continuing on the Main
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