- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - In a meeting room on the third floor of Seashore Hall, which has served as a not-so-temporary office for Hancher’s administrative staff during these post-flood years, there’s a wall lined with calendar pages.

For Chuck Swanson and his team, the wall serves as the blueprint for the historic transition between now and September 2016, when the new Hancher Auditorium, after the better part of a decade of planning and construction, at last raises its curtain.

“It’s huge,” said Swanson, Hancher’s executive director, of the task that lays ahead. “But we have a plan.”

Construction is now about 70 percent complete on the new Hancher Auditorium, a grand and elegant theater being built 7 feet above the 500-year flood plain along Park Road. The $176 million, 192,000-square-foot auditorium has been rising steadily since breaking ground more than two years ago just uphill from the original Hancher, which was destroyed by the flood of 2008 and razed in 2013.

The new structure itself - 20,000 cubic yards of concrete and and 4,000 tons of steel - has reached its full scale, a rough outline of what’s to come. Roofing work is ongoing this spring and summer. And crews have begun wrapping the tiered building with its metallic skin, some 14,000 pieces of brushed steel that are being pieced together like a massive puzzle, as Swanson puts it.

The building is expected to be substantially completed by March 2016, with the first performance set for that fall. For the Hancher team, that means there’s just nine short months before getting the keys to the new building, followed by six months of finalizing the ins and outs of its operation. And in between, they will be staging their last season without a home at various area venues - the 11-date lineup they recently announced.

“I can’t believe how fast it’s gone,” Swanson said. “It’s been challenging, it’s been hard, yet it’s been an adventure. All of us have had to think in a different way. I marvel, looking back, at some of the things we have accomplished. It’s really changed us.”

The new Hancher - with its curving, contemporary architecture designed by renowned architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli, its expansive views of the river and campus, and its state-of-the-art performance hall - will be the “envy of performing arts centers around the country,” Swanson said.

The auditorium itself will feature 1,800 seats, compared with the old Hancher’s 2,500, a calculated downsizing that leaders say will hit a sweet spot and make for a more intimate theater-going experience.

“Given the size of the entire facility when you drive by it, I think people are really going to be surprised by how close they’ll feel to the action, even from the very back row,” said Jacob Yarrow, Hancher’s programming director.

A project team composed of architects, UI facilities leaders, construction heads, theater consultants, sound experts, Hancher administrators and others has been overseeing the build and guiding the decision-making process. By way of example, Swanson said one of the most difficult decisions of late was selecting the right chairs for the auditorium, because, he said, it’s such an integral and personal part of the experience for showgoers.

Swanson said they ended up selecting cherry wood seats with brushed velour fabric, the installation of which will begin this fall. The chairs will sit below a unique array of house lighting - curving strands and circles of LEDs suspended from the ceiling, and long rows of bulbs lining the fronts of the balconies like thousands of fireflies.

Beyond the main auditorium, the building will include rehearsal spaces, administrative offices, School of Music program space, a scene shop, costume shop, recording studio and production offices. There will be a cafe and spacious common areas where the public can gather before and after shows. A cantilevered south side will open up onto a terrace and overlook the river.

“When people look at performing arts centers now, they look at more than what happens on stage; they look for a full evening, the entire experience,” Swanson said. “That’s why so much thought has gone into the entire building, beyond the stage. Our motto is ‘Come early, stay late.’ “

While working in various venues these past eight seasons has given Hancher the opportunity to tailor new and unique experiences from the ground up, said Yarrow, it has meant the organization hasn’t been able to regularly host large-scale productions like Broadway shows, orchestras and big dance companies.

Yarrow said the new Hancher will be equipped with the latest technologies in performing arts, including cutting-edge lighting, video, sound and set capabilities, allowing the auditorium to once again host acts of all sizes.

“In many ways I think of theaters and venues as tools to help artists and audiences connect,” Yarrow said. “And this facility will give us amazing tools to help make those connections.”

Swanson said he expects his team to move into the facility in March or April of 2016 and spend the ensuing months fine-tuning the operations. That will include aspects like the cafe, box office and seating charts. There also will be a learning curve for the new auditorium and its technology, from the acoustics to the lighting to the rigging.

Anne Matthes, a university alumnus and current employee, and a volunteer with the Hancher Guild, said one the highlights during her time as a student was going to shows at the old Hancher. She said it’s now been essentially two generations of four-year students who have missed out on that experience, and she’s excited for it to return to campus.

“It’s very exciting to watch it take shape,” Matthes said. “It’s going to be a world-class facility, there’s no doubt about that. And what it can do for the arts in our community and state is going to be profound.”

While it’s still more than a year away, Hancher leaders say they have been in discussions with various acts about performing during the opening season for the new facility. Asked if Hancher has a splashy opening in the works for 2016, Swanson only smiled.

“I’m not going to say much about that, but we’re definitely going to work on something great,” he said. “People have waited, and we have to deliver, for sure.”

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Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/

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