Husson’s new theater has ‘wow factor’

Posted Sept. 08, 2009, at 9:08 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — In his 30-odd years of doing theater in Maine, Ken Stack has worked in opera houses, Grange halls, old movie theaters and churches. The owner of Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville and former artistic director of Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor knows how to make do with what’s available or what can be begged or borrowed from others.

Now he’s learning how to make do with new at Husson University’s Gracie Theatre. Stack, who teaches at the New England School of Communications on the Husson campus, is directing “West Side Story.” The 1959 musical retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” will be the premiere production at the 500-seat theater during Husson’s homecoming weekend Oct. 16-18.

The show will feature local talent onstage with Husson and NESCOM students behind the scenes and members of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra playing Leonard Bernstein’s lush score in the orchestra pit.

The $6.5 million Gracie Theatre is part of the $15 million, 55,000-square-foot Beardsley Meeting House that has opened in phases over the past year. Ground was broken in September 2007 for the facility, which includes classrooms, faculty office space for the sciences and the humanities, administrative offices and conference rooms in the west section of the building. The Gracie takes up the west side.

The germination of the idea for a performance space on campus began eight years ago as a possible way to reach out to the non-Husson community in Greater Bangor and beyond, Husson President William Beardsley said Friday.

“We said then that we truly want to be part of the community,” said Beardsley, who has announced he will resign in December, standing center stage in the recently completed theater. Earlier this year, the board of trustees named the meeting house in his honor.

“Husson is a great big, lush New England beef and vegetable stew,” he continued. “This adds some spices that just warm the palate.”

The theater took its name from Gracie McCollum, who turns 7 next month. Her grandmother Hilda Hutchins McCollum of Bangor donated funds to help construct the theater and requested it be named in the girl’s honor.

Husson worked with acoustic and theater consultants from Walters-Storyk Design Group of New York City to create a space that merges cutting-edge technology with the university’s educational goals. Designers used a computer model to help shape Maine maple acoustic panels, which are curved like airplane wings to better disperse sound to the audience.

The theater, Beardsley said Friday, is more than just a performance space — it is a classroom and a teaching lab for students today and those in future programs that might include more theater arts offerings.

In addition to its 500 seats — 360 downstairs and 140 in the balcony — the Gracie has a recording studio, a light booth and a television booth, all large enough to use as hands-on classrooms. There are 192 dimmers, which means 192 theatrical lights can be used for one show, and a light board that has been on the market less than six months.

The Gracie has a scene shop, rehearsal hall, three dressing rooms and a special room backstage to store Husson’s Steinway piano used in its endowed Kenduskeag Chamber Recital series. The orchestra pit, which will hold 23 musicians and a conductor for “West Side Story,” can be covered over and used as a thrust stage.

The theater also has more than 50 feet of fly space above the stage so that backdrops, set pieces and even actors can be dropped into place from overhead. Most likely, no other theater in the state can boast that, according to Stack.

To top it all off, the Gracie is handicapped-accessible with 40 seats that can be removed to accommodate wheelchairs, according to Julie Green, Husson’s spokeswoman. Listening devices, similar to those used in area churches and synagogues, also will be available during events, she said.

Husson’s Student Life Office plans to use the Gracie for events students have requested. Native-born comedian Bob Marley will perform this fall, and Paul Sullivan will do a concert in December, Green said last week. In addition, the English department is planning a lecture series featuring Maine writers.

The Gracie won’t be large enough for commencement ceremonies during inclement weather, she said. Graduation draws far more than 500 people.

Husson’s recent partnership with the BSO could provide the orchestra a second home in addition to the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono. Last year, the symphony moved its administrative offices from downtown Bangor to the Husson campus. The office of David Whitehill, executive director for the BSO, is in the Beardsley Meeting House not far from the Gracie.

Although members of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra have performed “The Nutcracker” for many years with the Bangor-based Robinson Ballet, “West Side Story” will be the first time symphony musicians have performed live musical theater, Whitehill said last week.

The BSO has no immediate plans to perform in the theater, which is too small to accommodate its audience for concerts, Whitehill said.

The recording facilities and the 500-seat venue, however, will allow the orchestra to consider options that seemed out of reach before it formed its partnership with Husson. For example, the orchestra could record an album in the Gracie with the assistance of NESCOM students for much less than it could in a professional re-cording studio. The BSO has not made a record in nearly 20 years. Members of the symphony also could perform at Husson in small groups, such as in string or brass quartets.

All those possibilities will have to wait while the symphony hires a new conductor. The five finalists will try out this season, and the person who will take the baton permanently will be announced next spring.

To get to the Gracie, people will enter the Beardsley Meeting House and walk up the stairs in the Darling Atrium, the two-story public space with a wide, curved staircase leading to the theater’s public entrance. Others may take the elevator.

Tucked behind the staircase on the first floor is the Cyr Alumni Center named for Joe and Sue Cyr of Old Town. It is a kind of “green room” for the audience rather than the performers.

It was Beardsley’s idea to build the meeting house so it would be the visual focal point on campus. The completed facility now towers over the rest of the campus.

“In Old New England villages, the meetinghouse was a place where people came together, near the commons and the green,” he said two years ago at the groundbreaking. “On this campus of 2,500 people, which has no academic and cultural gathering place, this will be our meeting house, next to our commons and Husson’s green.”

It’s certainly the best-outfitted theater Stack has ever worked in. It takes him 15 minutes just to lock up every night.

“The wow factor still hasn’t worn off,” he said Friday.

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

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