Tuesday, Sep. 30, 2014
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The Hofheimer Theater celebrates 30 years of music, theater and transformations
By Elizabeth Blachman
The Edward D. Hofheimer Theater opened in 1981 with a mighty storm and a homemade fog machine. The first main stage production was The Tempest, Shakespeare's romance about creating theatrical magic out of thin air.
This fall, the Hofheimer and I will both turn 30. But I can still remember sitting in the black box next to my mother in 1995, watching theater professor Rick Hite spiral into madness as King Lear. I was 13, and I saw for the first time the alchemy that could turn wide, blank walls into a Caribbean island, a British castle or a cramped apartment.
On a June day the Hofheimer is between transformations. The theater is quiet; the walls are bare and black. Behind a curtain Greek columns and trash bins are stacked full of equipment. Costumes on a rack are arranged by era—pink tulle peeks out from behind a green jacket.
Empty, the Hofheimer is a blank canvas—the place where, as Prospero says, "The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces/The solemn temples, the great globe itself/Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded/Leave not a rack behind."
"It needed to be so high," says Hite, now an emeritus professor, remembering the requirements that he and his colleague Bentley Anderson had placed upon the theater at its genesis. "It needed to be capable of going to total darkness, total black; it needed to have a wooden floor. [It was] very modest in all other ways."
The first mention of the Hofheimer in the Wesleyan archives is a 1978 letter about a fundraising push for a fine arts center to house the College's growing music, theater and art programs. In the years between then and the September 1981 opening of what was called the "laboratory theater," letters and discussions sailed back and forth among Hite, Anderson, college officials and the architect covering topics from how high the ceilings should be to whether the sounds of flushing toilets might interrupt the action onstage.
In the years before the Hofheimer opened, Wesleyan's theater department performed in the dining hall and the chapel, and the music department performed in the chapel or the science auditorium.
"We'd have to set up the set every night," Hite recalls. "I mean clear the dining hall, set up the seating, do the show, take everything down, and then set up the dining hall for breakfast…I used to refer to it as touring without going anywhere because we had all the work but none of the travel."
Since its opening in 1981, the Hofheimer has been transformed into ancient Greece and Laramie, Wyoming, a girls' boarding school in Massachusetts and a garden in Grenada, Spain. Once, after performing a Greek play, Hite found a copperhead snake basking in the glow of a single stage light and carefully carried it to the woods out back to keep from offending the theater gods. In April, the theater held a standing-room-only crowd at a memorial service for Bentley Anderson, who taught theater and communications at Wesleyan for 34 years.
The walls of the theater have also echoed with Brahms, Schubert, Bach and Copland. The Familiar Faces Concert Series, directed by Batten Professor of Music Lee Jordan-Anders, brought six concerts a year to the space, and the Music Department has encouraged collaborations that fused music with dance and art.
"I think that the theater should be defined by what's happened in it," says Jordan-Anders. "A room is simply four walls, but the relationships and the energy that they surround are what's important."
Professor of Theater and Humanities division chair Sally Shedd cites the theater's versatility and intimacy as its major assets.
"You never forget that you're surrounded by other audience members, and there's kind of a beauty to that," Shedd says. "It builds the sense of community in the audience that reflects the sense of community that's everywhere here on campus."
"It changed for virtually every show we did," says communication and theater major Kyle Ulsh, who graduated from Wesleyan in the spring of 2011. "Very rarely did the seating arrangement ever stay the same, so it was fun having to adapt performances styles for each scenario."
For a medieval morality play the audience sat in two groups facing each other on either side of an alley where the actors performed. For A Servant of Two Masters, patrons entered by walking under a bridge into an Italian palazzo. The protean theater is constantly in use—filling up several times a day with lectures, piano tunings, rehearsals and performances.
"It just gets to the point where we will run weeks and weeks over 200 percent occupied," says the theater's technical director Tammy Dhority Thornes.
There is little storage space in the Fine Arts Building where the theater is housed, so once a set is built, the only place to store it is onstage. Music rehearsals might take place with Greek columns or the Little Shop of Horrors plant in the background. The theater department can't accrue much in the way of sets and costumes—though that would be more economical in the long run—because there's nowhere to put them.
"We just need more space," says Thornes. "We need more space."
"The departments have to work together, and it's not always easy to share the space because our requirements are so very different," says Jordan-Anders.
And perhaps appropriately for a theater that started with a shipwreck, the building has sprung a few leaks. White streaks down the wall at the back corner testify to the water that comes in during heavy rains—filling buckets. The summer before last a massive air conditioner leak soaked the floors.
But improvements are slowly being made. The Hofheimer has vastly upgraded its lighting system in recent years, and Shedd and Thorne want a lighting booth that doesn't have to be accessed by a steep ladder.
"Well loved, well used," says Shedd of the theater. "It is a testament to those that came before, to Dr. Hite and Mr. Anderson and everyone here that we are ready. We're just bursting at the seams in terms of the next step, whatever that's going to be."
And so as the fine arts departments at Wesleyan contemplates the Hofheimer's need for future changes, Chana Ball, who graduated from Wesleyan in 1983, remembers that first transformation.
Ball played Miranda in the 1981 production of The Tempest. She remembers the moment when Shakespeare's language suddenly became clear to her, the moment when Hite's encouragement gave her the guts to audition, and the moment when the Hofheimer Theater was transformed into an island.
"I couldn't believe how much things had changed in the theater in those two short weeks," Ball recalls.
It was what I had noticed in 1995: An empty box could become a world.
Hite quotes Prospero, the magician he played in that first production, when he describes what happened in the Hofheimer that night amid the smoke of Anderson's homemade fog machine.
"It was," he says, "'such stuff as dreams are made on.'"