By the time you read this, the work will be finished. Most of it will be, anyway.
Eric Rosen and Angela Gieras said so.
Rosen, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, and Gieras, the company’s executive director, were optimistic and even a little giddy as they recently took a visitor on a tour of the Spencer Theatre and the lobby of the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center at UMKC. The theater and the lobby, which the Spencer shares with White Recital Hall, have received their first major makeover since 1979, when the building opened.
Eight days before the Spencer’s grand re-opening and the first preview of “A Christmas Carol,” there was a ton of work yet to do. The backs of theater seats, almost glowing with brand new upholstery, were missing the actual seats. Workers were swarming inside and outside the lobby as they installed wiring, laid tiles and poured concrete.
You could see the redesigned lobby entrance, an arched wooden wall through which patrons will pass. Above, an overhang running along the back wall of the theater forms a walkway connected to rear theater entrances. It also allows patrons to gaze upon the lobby below, including the four-sided bar and concession stand that was taking shape.
“Everything will be functioning,” Rosen said as a reporter scanned the dusty construction site.
“There will be a handful of items finished in the month after we open,” Gieras added.
But surveying the unfinished lobby, it was easy to see that theatergoers would enter a light, airy environment that will stand in stark contrast to the old lobby, with its brick walls and dim lighting. The building was burdened by the dreary aesthetics of a utilitarian educational building, which is what it was meant to be.
When it’s finished, it may look a bit like a smaller version of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts’ lobby with a touch of the ambiance of an art gallery.
“It just makes it into a more contemporary space,” Gieras said. “If (people) come here and feel like it’s fun to come here, hopefully they’ll come back.”
The lobby’s surfaces will be white drywall. The floor will be covered with gray/black porcelain tile. The lobby’s south wall has been pushed forward 12 feet. Huge windows allow light to flood into the area during the day. Beyond the windows will be an outdoor plaza.
In addition, the back wall of the theater has been pushed forward, eliminating some seating, to accommodate the elevated walkway above the lobby that will include a donors wall. The seating capacity is now about 550.
The $5.5 million worth of remodeling, funded with a capital campaign, includes:
▪ 5,500 square feet of new construction.
▪ New, larger restrooms. (“We spent a lot of money on bathrooms,” Rosen said.)
▪ New carpeting and seat upholstery.
▪ Permanent signage on the building’s exterior.
▪ A second-floor lounge area serviced by a new elevator. (The entire theater is now ADA-compliant, Gieras said.)
▪ A new stage floor.
▪ A new assisted-listening system with new earphones.
Inside the auditorium itself, the old false ceiling has been removed. Now patrons will look up and see the catwalk and lighting grids as well as rounded acoustic black “clouds” designed to enhance the sound coming from the stage. The new acoustical environment was designed by Kirkegaard Associates, sound specialists with offices in Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado.
According to Rosen, every exposed surface in the theater is new.
“No surface is untouched,” he said. “Anything that had a wooden surface from 1979 was replaced. … The room feels much taller and physically closer to the stage. We believe the lobby makes a huge statement, but we wanted to spend most of our resources on the viewing experience.”
Other changes aren’t visible.
Kristine A. Sutherlin, a principal with Helix Architecture + Design and the project manager, said the building had settled through the years. As a result, about half the lobby floor had to be torn out and repoured, she said.
She added that the lobby design reflected Rosen’s desire to take “a cool, nightclub approach.” Although it wasn’t in place on a recent visit, a chandelier will be suspended over the concession stand and bar, which was generally modeled on the concession area in New York’s Public Theater.
“It changes it from a university lobby to a theater lobby,” Sutherlin said.
Rosen, who has worked to elevate the quality of theater produced by the Rep, said the remodeled facility will complement the work onstage.
“It feels like an appropriate frame for what we’re doing,” he said. “Hopefully, this feels like an inspirational place that matches our work.”