The Season On Stage

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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 10,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Raising the Berlind Curtain

An actor dreams of holding an audience in the palm

of his hands. So, too, does an artistic director.

Emily Mann, who arrived in Princeton in 1990 to become artistic

director

of McCarter Theater, described her vision of a theater that actors

and audiences could share in intimacy to architect Hugh Hardy of Hardy

Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, designers of the new Roger S. Berlind

Theater.

"I cupped my hand and pushed them towards Hugh," says Mann,

"and I said, `I want the audience to feel that they are in the

same room as the actors.’"

The result is a brand-new space — already charged with that

"stage

magic" — in which the performers can address the audience

as one.

The Berlind Theater opens its first season with the 2003 Pulitzer

Prize-winning play "Anna in the Tropics" by Nilo Cruz,

performed

by a high-profile cast. Previews began on Tuesday, September 9, and

opening night is set for Wednesday, September 17. The drama runs to

October 19.

"I’ve wanted a second stage since I arrived 13 years ago,"

says Mann. "And it was Roger Berlind who made it all happen. He

put the pieces in place." Mann emphasizes that the Berlind

Theater,

now emerging from a five-year planning period, is not a "second

stage" but a second mainstage.

Roger Berlind, the man whose name has just been affixed to the front

of the theater in brass lettering, is an eminent theater producer

and winner of more than a dozen Tony Awards. A member of the Princeton

Class of ’52 and an alumnus of its Triangle Club and Theatre Intime,

he got the new project under way in 1998 with a $3.5 million gift.

The Berlind’s two-and-a-half year design process was completed and

approved in July, 2001, and groundbreaking took place on September

20, 2001. Over the course of the project the cost of the theater was

revised upward from an estimated $8 million to $14.1 million, and

its opening date moved forward from early 2001 to 2003. Funding came

equally from Berlind, Princeton University, and McCarter’s fundraising

campaign that included 1,800 individual contributions.

Even now, a few days before the Berlind’s celebratory September 8

"curtain-raising," the theater’s streetscape is still a major

construction zone. Managing director Jeffrey Woodward explains how,

working with the borough, the university is reconfiguring the wide,

often lawless expanse of University Place, narrowing it for a calming

effect on traffic, and placing a new crosswalk with a

pedestrian-controlled

light between the Berlind entry and the Dinky station.

The Berlind, which can seat between 350 and 380 patrons, is not a

conventional proscenium, because it does not have a proscenium arch;

it is called an end-stop stage. Its banked seats are all placed

directly

in front of a low, spacious stage. The Berlind complements McCarter’s

historic 1,100-seat mainstage, renamed in September, 2000, the Marie

and Edward Matthews Theater, or "The Matthews," as it is now

known.

"McCarter’s 1,100-seat house is awfully wide and awfully long

and the stage itself is awfully high," says Mann. "It’s an

old-fashioned Broadway house, but the stage is even deeper than most

Broadway houses. I do love it and we’ve done great work there and

will continue to." Among the intimate dramas that Mann has

successfully

presented in the behemoth Matthews stage is Harold Pinter’s

three-person

drama "Betrayal" and Nilo Cruz’s "Two Sisters and a

Piano."

The original McCarter Theater was built in 1929 with a $250,000 gift

from alumnus Thomas N. McCarter, Class of 1888. Its original function

was as a permanent home for the university’s lively Triangle Club.

The club, still going strong as it enters its 113th annual season,

opened the custom-built theater in 1930.

During the 1930s and ’40s, McCarter’s 1,000-plus seats,

central location, and good production facilities made it a favorite

for pre-Broadway tryouts and post-Broadway tours. Thornton Wilder’s

"Our Town" and William Inge’s "Bus Stop" both had

their world premieres at McCarter. In 1973 the university terminated

its direct operation of McCarter, which re-emerged as a separate

non-profit

corporation.

The Berlind represents a new partnership between McCarter and the

Princeton University Program in Theater and Dance, directed by Michael

Cadden. Heading a department that is housed in the old Princeton

Elementary

School at 185 Nassau Street, Cadden was instrumental in working with

Roger Berlind on upgrading the department. They shared the notion

of making Princeton’s performing arts department more competitive

with its traditional rival, and a much-vaunted training ground for

American theater, Yale University. The Berlind will also serve as

the principal performance venue for the Program in Theater and Dance.

McCarter’s Gothic inspired design is handsomely embellished —

during daylight hours at least — by its warm-hued fieldstone

masonry

that takes on an iridescent glint in sunlight. Its cathedral-like

appearance (visitors to town often think it’s a converted cathedral)

is further promoted by a 130-foot-high tower that once housed a warren

of dressing rooms on five floors.

Hardy, known as the premiere architect for the performing arts,

describes

McCarter’s existing brick-and-stone exterior as "an essay in

patterned

masonry." And he has succeeded in upholding its stylistic legacy

while observing the hard realities of modern construction costs. Using

textured bricks in diamond weave patterns, and breaking up the

building’s

masses with cast stone parapets, belt courses, and lintels, the new

Berlind Theater nestles up comfortably against its older sibling.

It even has a small tower of its own — housing the house elevators

— that complements the original big Gothic tower.

A member of Princeton’s Class of 1954 and, like Berlind, a Triangle

Club alumnus, Hardy and his New York firm have been responsible for

such high-profile theater projects as the Radio City Music Hall

restoration,

the New Victory Theater, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey

Theater,

and Rose Cinemas. Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, a modest 350-seat

theater that sits across the road from the gargantuan new Kimmel

Center,

provided Mann with another Hardy model.

At the outset of the project, both architect Hardy and others assumed

McCarter would be building a large blackbox theater that could be

configured in different ways for different needs.

"What we need is a second mainstage," says Mann, explaining

that the new space will be suited to new intimate drama as well as

the classics. "We learned from the 1960s and ’70s that those

flexible

stages are not good for everything," she says.

"Most of the theaters designed to provide total flexibility

haven’t

worked," says managing director Woodward. Features that once

appeared

attractive, like reconfiguring seating for different productions,

have proved both impractical and prohibitively expensive in labor

costs. Rather than run concurrent seasons in its two theaters, Mann

has chosen to divide the theater series between the two stages,

matching

each play to the performance space that best suits it. And for the

first time, interest in the her annual drama season will be allowed

to bud and blossom: the much smaller venue allows for much longer

runs, enabling theatergoers to help sell the shows through

word-of-mouth.

A bank of glass doors leads to the theater’s entry lobby

at street level, and inside, the theater has an attractive, somewhat

industrial look. Forms and surfaces are utilitarian but also colorful.

Particle wood wall finishes are in playful hues of salmon, mauve,

and terra cotta, secured with visible screws. Handrails are painted

pike. Hardy went for a sense of utility and bare-nails, to reflect

the theater’s experimental mission. He also saved the big money to

spend on state-of-the art acoustics and technical features.

The entry lobby houses a same-day ticket counter, a university seminar

room, and the Berlind’s two spacious rehearsal rooms that are tucked

under the auditorium seating. The Berlind auditorium and stage are

located on the second and third floors of the building, up the hill,

so to speak. The new stage has been built back-to-back with the

Matthews

stage, making both accessible to a shared loading dock and even

dressing

rooms. Total acoustic separation between the Matthews, the Berlind,

and the rehearsal studios will allow McCarter to utilize all three

spaces simultaneously. This fall there are already more than 25 dates

scheduled when both mainstages will be in use. "Please leave

plenty

of time for parking" is the management’s current mantra.

The Berlind’s two generously large, column-less rehearsal studios

match the dimensions of the Matthews theater stage. Both studios

feature

lighting and technical grids suitable for performance as well as large

windows and sprung wood floors.

Rehearsal room windows that allow natural light to stream into the

space are a "glorious" addition to the design championed by

Mann. Long-time professional experience tells her that she and her

colleagues have spent far too many days — often in eight to twelve

hour stretches — in rehearsal studios that are invariably located

in the theater basement. At the Berlind, the company of actors can

have their spirits raised by the sight of sunny skies outdoors —

or perhaps dampened by Princeton’s inimitable gloomy drizzle that

preceded the opening of "Anna in the Tropics."

In the upper lobby, four large lantern windows look out onto the

former

"South Lawn," shielded from a direct view of University Place

traffic by new plantings of mature trees.

Great acoustics and state-of-the-art technical systems were a must

for the new design and Woodward says the staff is well-pleased by

the results so far. Woodward also likes the new house’s range of

handicap

and wheelchair seating, some of which is placed in back of the house,

but much of which occupies its much more attractive middle rows.

Ticket prices at the Berlind appear slightly higher ($30 to $48) than

the Matthews because all its seats are considered comparable to the

Matthews premium and front orchestra sections. The good news is that

McCarter still offers excellent discounts on same-day rush tickets

and rock-bottom prices for patrons age 25 and under.

"Performance is about the connection with the audience. Now the

actors can easily make eye contact with every single audience member.

You get that sense of having two hands cupped together," says

Mann.

Top Of Page
The Season On Stage

McCarter Theater

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $30 to $50.

Anna in the Tropics. First season at the new Berlind

Theater

features the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner. To Sunday, October 19.

Wintertime. In the Matthews Theater, Charles L. Mee’s

comedy, set during a winter country weekend. Previews begin October

15 for the show that runs to November 2.

Fraulein Else. In the Berlind Theater, Francesca

Faridany’s

effervescent adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s turn-of-the-century

novella, directed by her husband, Stephen Wadsworth. Previews begin

January 6 for the show that runs to February 15.

Candida. In the Matthews Theater, Lisa Peterson directs

an unconventional production of G.B. Shaw’s "Candide," first

produced in 1897. Previews begin March 23 for the show that runs to

April 11.

My Fair Lady. In the Berlind Theater, an original revival

of the 1956 Lerner and Loewe classic, reconceived for just 10

performers

and two pianos. Previews begin May 4 for the show that runs to June

13.

Crossroads Theater

7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100. $30 to $45.

Color Me Dark. The 25th anniversary season opens with

"Color Me Dark," the story of a 14-year-old African-American

girl and her family’s journey north from Tennessee to Chicago in 1919.

Previews begin November 5 for the show that runs to November 16.

Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz. Sandra

Reaves-Phillips

staring in the musical that was the hit of Crossroads’ season in the

late 1980s. Backed up by five musicians, Reaves-Phillips portrays

five great female singers: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters,

Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Mahalia Jackson. Previews begin

December 3 for the show that runs to December 21.

Walking with Ijapa. Famed actor Ossie Davis stars with

storyteller Paul Keens-Douglas in a panoply of tales, fables, comedy,

and folklore from the West Indies, North America, and West Africa.

Previews begin February 4 for the show that runs to February 15.

Mandela!. Musical oratorio celebrates the 10th anniversary

of the new South Africa. Written by Duma Ndlovu and Steve Fisher,

the show is a hybrid of contemporary and traditional musical forms.

Show will premiere in South Africa in July. Previews begin April 28

for the show that runs to May 9.

George Street Playhouse

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $28 to $52.

Wilderness of Mirrors. Season opens with the world

premiere

of Charles Evered’s play about the birth of the CIA. David Saint

directs.

Opening night is Friday, September 12 for the show that runs to

October

5.

Attacks on the Heart. World premiere of an Arthur Laurents

drama about the love between an American man and a Turkish woman after

September 11, 2001, directed by David Saint and starring Cigdem Onat.

Previews begin October 14 for the show that runs to November 9.

A Walk in the Woods. Lee Blessing’s prize-winning drama

about two diplomats, one Soviet and one American, negotiating their

way through the Cold War; Ethan McSweeny directs. Previews begin

November

18 for the show that runs to December 14.

Agnes of God. John Pielmeier’s enduring drama about a

young nun charged with murder in the death of a newborn baby. Suzzanne

Douglas stars in the production directed by Ted Sod. Previews begin

January 6 for the show that runs to February 1.

Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Terrence McNally’s hit comedy

about two couples on Fire Island during the Fourth of July weekend.

Previews begin February 10 for the show that runs to March 7.

Tick, tick…Boom! A musical by Jonathan Larson, the

creator

of "Rent." Previews begin March 16 for the show that runs

to April 11.

Passage Theater

Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton,

609-392-0766. $20 & $25.

Afghan Women. Season opens with William Mastrosimone’s

new play, set in the present day, about an Afghan-American doctor

who returns to her homeland to volunteer at an orphanage where she

comes under attack from a rogue warlord. Desperate to save her country

and her young charges, she finds she must take part in an unexpected

battle. Part of ticket sales goes to International Orphan Care.

Preview

begin October 9 for the show that runs to November 2.

Solo Flights Festival. The fourth annual solo flight

begins

today. Three innovative and funny solo shows by Robin Hirsch, Cecelia

Antoinette, and Cynthia Adler run in repertory, Thursdays through

Sundays, February 5 to 29.

In Mahalia’s Light. World premiere of a musical homage

to Mahalia Jackson by famed gospel and jazz singer Queen Esther Marrow

and collaborator Roseanne Kirk. Previews begin May 13 for the show

that runs to June 6.

Bristol Riverside Theater

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. $27 to $44.

The Woman in Black. Season opens with the chilling stage

thriller by Stephen Mallatratt. Previews begin October 7 for the show

that runs to October 26.

Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Grandmother . The comic

musical

by Robert Walman, adapted from the bestseller by Lois Wyse. Previews

begin December 2 for the show that runs to December 21.

Ain’t Misbehavin’. The Tony Award-winning musical

featuring

songs of the late, great Thomas "Fats" Waller. Previews begin

January 27 for the show that runs to February 15.

Tete-a-Tete. A smart love story for the ages based on

the lives of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and starring

Douglas Campbell. Previews begin March 16 for the show runs to April

4.

The Skin of Our Teeth. Season closes with Thornton

Wilder’s

classic family comedy. Previews begin May 4 for the show that runs

to May 23.

Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey

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

$23 to $28.

Pygmalion. George Bernard Shaw’s comic social critique

inspired by the ancient myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. Previews begin

September 4 for the show that runs to September 28.

Othello. Shakespeare’s tragic tale of the power of

jealousy,

insidious evil, and innocent purity. Previews begin October 28 for

the drama that runs to November 23.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Dylan Thomas’s classic story

captures the magic of holidays past. Previews begin December 2 for

the show that runs to December 28.


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