There may well have been a bit of nail-biting and fretting in the weeks leading up to the unveiling of the Long Wharf Theatre's lavish new auditorium. The theater set itself a tight schedule, beginning the overhaul in early summer and planning for it to end just days before a high-profile show was scheduled to open.
But these are theater folk, used to working magic under seemingly impossible deadlines. How many times has the Long Wharf mainstage been completely transformed, only to be transformed again a month or so later?
The difference this time is that it's permanent, or as permanent as theater gets. When it was decided, after years of speculation, that the Long Wharf would not be moving to a new location in downtown New Haven, several million dollars were raised to spruce up the auditorium and lobby at the site which has been the Long Wharf's home since 1965. Thanks to a renewed lease, the Long Wharf Theatre will remain in its accustomed digs for at least another decade.
The renovations are a way of thanking longterm Long Wharf patrons and showing that the theater is not just staying put but using this opportunity for improvement.
What's the new look involve? Like some recent Long Wharf shows (the soul-bearing My Name is Asher Lev, the outspoken celebrity bio Satchmo at the Waldorf, the ensemble musical February House), it's all about openness and transparency and community. Big new windows in the expanded main lobby will reduce the terror that latecomers often felt when they approached the theater and couldn't tell if the lobby lights had dimmed yet and the crowd had moved inside to see the show. The lobby is now a third larger than it was previously, largely due to clever repositioning of counters and benches. Inside the auditorium, all of the 402 seats new and comfortably foamy, they've been configured so that there's more leg room between rows.
The exterior of the theater has also been rethought. The sculpture of flapping metal rectangles has been moved a few feet away from its old station at the foot of the main entrance, a slight shift which seems to have increased its prominence. The effect of the new windows is sleek and trim and bright.
That illumination extends to the theater's lighting system. A drop ceiling above the stage was removed, allowing crucial extra feet for lighting designers to play with, and new lighting equipment has been installed.
A press conference on Nov. 27 celebrating this new chapter — OK, act — of the theater's history spoke of its future. A representative of First Niagara Bank, who called Long Wharf "not just a great regional theater but a great economic driver," closed by saying the bank hoped to work with the 48-year-old theater "for the next 48 years." But it was also a time to remember the Long Wharf's illustrious past. Gordon Edelstein, who's been the theater's Artistic Director for a decade now and previously served as its Associate Artistic Director, named all the Artistic Directors who preceded him, "on whose shoulders I stand: Harlan Kleiman and Jon Jory, Arvin Brown and Doug Hughes. And while the new mainstage is being named for Claire Tow, whose husband Leonard and his Tow Foundation donated $1.25 million of the nearly $4 million raised for the theater's renovations, the building in which the Tow Mainstage resides still bears the name of another major Long Wharf behind-the-scenes supporter of multiple decades service, the late Newton Schenk. Schenck, who died in 2002, was the founding chairman of the Long Wharf Board. His widow Anne attended last Tuesday's press conference and said "I didn't know Newt's name would come up. I nearly cried. This theater is so full of stories."
Edelstein, who was the subject of a gala dinner event on the Long Wharf mainstage last year marking his 10th anniversary as Artistic Director, thanked the Tow family on a personal level for their commitment to the theater, saying that they had become close friends. Edelstein said the renovations also "would not have happened" without Long Wharf's Managing Director Joshua Borenstein, who took on that position last year after prior stints as Associate Managing Director and Interim Managing Director. The massive, carefully focused fundraising effort raised $3.5 million in a matter of months. That includes 200 patrons who paid to have seats "dedicated" with small plaques. Edelstein, in his press conference remarks, said "Some people have called selling the seats 'a gimmick.' I disagree with that profoundly." He spoke of how devoted Long Wharf audiences can be not just to the shows they see but to the entire theatergoing experience. Giving them an opportunity to put their name on a theater seat has special meaning. The Long Wharf still has $300,000 or so to raise regarding the renovations, and is still offering the chance to dedicate seats.
Other names were brought up at the press conference. The theater's redesigned Green Room — the offstage area where actors adjourn between scenes — has been named in honor of Cynthia Kellogg Barrington, a stage manager and costume designer for several New York theater and dance companies who lived in Branford and died in 2010 at the age of 68. Barrington left a portion of her estate to Long Wharf. The theater management lauded the New Haven architectural firm of Gregg, Wies, and Gardner, while Long Wharf Board president Charles Kingsley and board member Mary Pepe (who was president when the renovation plan and lease-renewal were implemented) thanked everyone from donors to workers to Edelstein and Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting for "input throughout the process."
Now it's time for the rest of us to input ourselves into those soft new seats. The Long Wharf's mainstage season-opener features Kathleen Turner directing and starring in a revival of The Killing of Sister George.