- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Jeanette Mason took in a newly renovated Old Town Playhouse auditorium and marveled at the transformation.

“It looks absolutely stunning. I’m loving these seats,” said Mason, who directed her first show at the playhouse more than 30 years ago.

Wide, comfortable seating complete with cupholders and adjustable armrests is a highlight of a recent MainStage auditorium renovation that also included new carpeting, refinished original wood floors, new paint - rich burgundy with forest green wainscoting - an expanded stage and a restructured balcony, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle ( https://bit.ly/1MVlnwc ).

It’s the last phase of a three-year renovation that transformed the former church-turned-community theater into a contemporary community theater that rivals those in other small cities.

As important as what audiences will see is what they won’t: a new, permanent orchestra loft with monitors that will allow the orchestra director and musicians to watch the actors below. Previously the orchestra played to one side of the main floor, requiring seats to be removed or blocked off.

“We called it the fishbowl because there was a plexiglass half-wall to contain our sound,” said Sam Clark, a longtime music director and pit musician. “The light bounced off it, the audience was distracted by our stand lights and movement. Almost as much effort went into building that pit each time as went into building the stage. We’re hoping we’re a lot less obtrusive upstairs.”

The total $560,000 renovation was accomplished in three phases over three years and included a revamped entrance, a digital sound system, a whole-building monitor system, a remodeled downstairs theater and classroom, and a lobby with bar service.

Funding came from the Oleson Foundation, the Schmuckal Family Foundation and the Biederman Foundation in Traverse City, the Frey Foundation in Grand Rapids and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Additional private donations came from a seating campaign and from auctions held as part of the playhouse’s annual fundraiser.

OTP Production Resource Manager Gary Bolton oversaw the project after being unable to find a general contractor to take on the job. He said one of the biggest challenges was the building’s age.

“We’re dealing with a building that’s well over 100 years old,” said Bolton, who got help from skilled tradesmen and about 40 volunteers. “When you tear a 100-year-old building apart you never know what you’re going to find.”

He said the latest phase was complicated by the theater’s almost constant use and looming season opener that began Oct. 16.

“The biggest thing was the time frame. We had shows until Aug. 30 so I had five weeks to complete this. And if I failed, our whole season would be in trouble,” he said.

Installing wider theater chairs with more legroom meant losing about 100 seats, said OTP Director Phil Murphy. But the move will make for fuller houses. He said the theater may try to compensate by extending the run of its shows.

Peyton Campbell claimed seat 209-A at a recent unveiling party for donors and volunteers. The Traverse City Central High School student began acting at the playhouse at age 9 and requested the seat be donated in his name for his 15th birthday in April. Mom Kristel Keely also surprised him with two season tickets so he can sit in the seat next to a guest for every show.

Willis said the renovations were part of a “quiet campaign” to test the waters of support for a $10 million capital campaign some five to 10 years from now. Funds from that campaign would expand the building and bring the studio theater back to the main theater.

The renovations are a more feasible alternative to tearing down the theater and building a new one, she said.

“We didn’t think we’d be able to do what we wanted to do in this building. Now we’ve seen its rich possibilities. Our dream now is to add on to the sides and out the back and put restrooms on the main floor,” she said.

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Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, https://www.record-eagle.com

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