Harper Joy Theatre builds on its reputation

The $7 million remodel of the theater will increase its footprint by 10,000 square feet.

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Whitman College theater department chair Thomas Hines takes about the college's expansion of Harper Joy Theater but says that the look and feel of the largest performance space, the Alexander Stage, will remain the same, including the many unique performance posters framed on the walls. Wednesday, September 15, 2010

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Construction crews work to prepare concrete molds for footings on the expansion of Whitman College's Harper Joy Theater. Wednesday, September 15, 2010

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Theater department chair Thomas Hines surveys the stage at Whitman College's Harper Joy Theater while touring the building to discuss a major renovation and expansion project under way. Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Before the dramas -- and the comedies, the one-acts and the musicals -- comes a little drama.

Tons of it, literally. Harper Joy Theater at Whitman College is undergoing going a face- and body-lift costing more than $7 million and requiring 14 months of construction. The theater will grow by more than 10,000 square feet by the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.

Built in 1958, the theater last saw a significant remodel in 1985, school officials have said.

Last week, a giant hole at the east end of the building was a below-ground hive of activity, as building crews wrestled heavy equipment and elderly pipes that once served a long-gone street above. Foundation corners jutted into air and temporary bridges tremulously spanned open air here and there.

It is a major "pardon our dust" event, and it will be inconvenient for this school year, but it is worth the work and wait, said Tom Hines, theater department chair.

Whitman College prides itself on giving theater students an education in the realities of stage productions, from costuming to manning the rigging systems, he noted while conducting a tour of the project.

"This is not a trade school. The training they get here is quite complete to allow them to go directly into a career in theater ... We perform theater and teach it as it will be elsewhere, using industry standards."

In a typical year, HJT, as the theater is fondly known, presents eight or nine fully-mounted productions and as many as 15 smaller student productions, more than any other university theater program in the West, according to information from Whitman College. About 8,000 audience members will fill the seats during that time to see the work of hundreds of theater students.

The renovation reflects the success of those efforts. Theater has existed on the campus for more than a century, and the program consistently earns good ratings in national college review forums. Harper Joy is much more than a building -- "It is a tradition of art, teaching and learning," Hines said in a recent letter addressing the remodeling.

That sort of thriving -- the program has tripled in size since the 1970s -- meant something had to give. In this case, it was walls to allow for the expansion.

Some of the project's price tag will show and some will not, said Peter Harvey, Whitman's chief financial officer.

Under the "showing" list: increased audience seating, some of which can be flexed to fit audience numbers and production need; a set of six faculty offices with meeting space; a new main office with a staff kitchenette; a bigger Black Box Theater with a second-level tech gallery and control room; a lobby and vestibule that will grow by 725 square feet; and a costume shop of nearly 1,500 square feet with fitting room and faculty office.

Bringing the costume shop up out of the basement under the stage is "huge," Hines said, as he toured past an area the size of a neighborhood grocery store, now shrouded in plastic to protect the clothing. "This was never intended to be a workspace. It has no windows. It shares space with plumbing pipes."

She is still unable to believe her good fortune, said Robin Waytenick Smasne. "When Tom called me last fall, I fell over. I literally fell over."

As costume guru for HJT, she is in charge of approximately 100,000 pieces of costuming.

"If you're in a production, we dress you from the skin out," she said. "It's not just the jacket or the dress, it's the underwear, the corsets, the socks, the wristwatch."

Students sew some of what is needed, and everything is painstakingly cataloged and stored.

That means space, and that space has been a compromise of sorts for more years than Waytenick Smasne cares to consider.

"It's a great dungeon, but it's a dungeon," she said.

The dungeon, er, basement will convert to student rehearsal space, filling a function that will no longer be delegated to the theater's lobbies and halls.

Then there are the invisible upgrades that is money well spent, Hines said. Designed to make the entire building safer, cleaner and easier to maintain, those improvements include upgraded electrical, dust-collection and ventilation systems. Computerized electric rigging winches will replace an antiquated and potentially dangerous sand bag set-ups on each wing.

"It's a footnote, but it's an expensive footnote," he said. "What's left of the original (rigging system) was purchased when the building was built. It's definitely at the end of its life. For the safety of the students and teaching them to use modern equipment, it's very important."

Also added to meet code is seismic reinforcement, more bathrooms and access for those who use equipment for mobility.

Funding for the HJT renovation has come from a combination of private donors, loans and $450,000 in grants from local and regional foundations, Harvey said.

The public will not be denied any of the regular HJT performances, Hines said. Most will take place in current quarters, with the last two productions moving to as-yet-undecided locations.

Nancy Simon, director for HJT, has seen 47 or so theater seasons, first as a student, then as an educator. The remodeling is just another chapter in the building's history along the way, she said.

Each time we enter the theatre, old spaces will change, and new ones will appear. We hope that our enterprising and enthusiastic audience will join us for the great adventure."

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