When Theatre in the Rough opens the doors on its preview production of “Our Town” tonight at the new McPhetres Hall, they will be ushering in much more than the hall’s inaugural audience. Tonight’s performance marks the end of the vagabond life for the theater company, who will call the new space home, and celebrates the regeneration of a major community gathering place five years after the original hall was destroyed by fire. It also offers a tangible example of the generosity of community members, whose donations to the theater’s fund-raising campaign made the beautiful new space possible.
Earlier this week, construction crews were still working their way through huge piles of lumber in the space, releasing the sweet smell of cedar as they sawed boards and nailed supports for the stage. Aaron Elmore, co-artistic director of Theatre in the Rough, did not seem that concerned about getting everything done on time as he looked around the room; with so many positive things to focus on, he appeared eager to share the new space with the community.
Even if the hall isn’t completely finished by the time the crowds come in, it’s highly unlikely anyone will be disappointed by what they see.
The new hall, located on the Gold Street side of the newly rebuilt Holy Trinity Church, is a big step up in both form and function from the old hall (which, though well-loved and well-used by the community, offered performers few amenities). Designed by architect Jeff Robertson with help from Elmore, and constructed by Southeast Remodel, the hall shares some design elements with the rest of the church, such as large Douglas fir beams and cedar plank walls. But the space is clearly geared toward performance. Elements include a proscenium arch, raised stage, hanging lighting grid and demountable (padded!) seats, as well as acoustic innovations such as soffits and two types of acoustic tile. Future plans include a sound system and catwalk.
The hall will be used by Theatre in the Rough for their performances, usually two per year, and, like the old one, will be available for other events of all kinds — concerts, school functions, receptions and other community gatherings.
An “amped up” McPhetres
In addition to being theater in residence at the new hall, Theatre in the Rough was the main force behind raising the money to make the space possible. In 2008, with money for that part of the rebuilding project nearly exhausted, the theater signed an agreement with Rev. George Silides and the church to take on responsibility for raising the rest of funds and figuring out what was needed to make the space work. In return they would be given a permanent home for their theater company, free rent for two shows a year and first priority on scheduling.
Elmore said that after moving from place to place to stage their productions — setting up and breaking down shows completely every time — the idea of a homebase was too tempting to resist.
“We wanted our name attached to this place,” he said. “We wanted a home, a place to hand our shingle, and to have that opportunity seemed like too good of a thing to be true.”
After agreeing to take on the project, the theater company, co-directed by Katie Jensen, decided to create an “amped up” version of the original space, one that would serve their group as well as the rest of the community for many years to come. This design includes a permanent lighting grid, sound system, raised stage and modular platform seating that can be entirely removed or reconfigured in many different ways.
“Once they asked to do it, we said, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it right,’” Elmore said.
The business of fundraising, however, was undertaken with some trepidation. The theater group has done little, if any, fundraising in its 20-year history, getting by almost exclusively on the cash raised through ticket sales, and making most of their own sets and costumes.
“When we started asking for money, this was terrifying new territory,” Elmore said. “It was very strange. But Juneau wanted to do it. All we did was kind of open up the gates.”
Originally the group set out to raise $50,000; they’ve now passed $160,000. The theater’s board of directors gave the first check, for $100,000, to the church during the final performance of their last play, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and will give them the remainder on the closing night of “Our Town.” Part of the money was raised by allowing donors to pledge specific chairs in the new space, with an inscription or name of their choice on the back, a program that was very successful. All 78 chairs in the hall have been spoken for.
Elmore, Jensen and Theatre in the Rough were recently honored with a Mayor’s Award for the Arts for their “ambitious and tireless commitment” to the rebuilding project.
Though McPhetres Hall has been reborn in a larger and more sophisticated fashion, Elmore said there was never any question of changing the name. The original hall was named after the Rev. Samuel A. McPhetres in 1959, three years after its construction, to honor the Reverend’s positive impact on the neighborhood. McPhetres was rector of the church from 1948 to 1959. Some members of the McPhetres family still live in Juneau and recently published a book, “He Wore the Shoes of Fisherman,” that told Samuel McPhetres’ story through the words of those that knew him. (For more, visit trinityjuneau.org).
Theatre in the Rough staged about half of their productions in the original hall, and has long enjoyed a good relationship with Holy Trinity Church, the building that housed it.
The devastating losses of the 2006 fire included the historic church, Juneau’s second oldest, as well as the adjacent hall and a neighboring home.
Elmore said the theater company received their first donation before the fire was even out, and by the end of the day received a message from the church, encouraging them to join with them in rebuilding. Many across the community echoed that message over the next five years.
In addition to losing their favorite venue, the theater company lost all their costumes, props and sets, most of which had been created by hand by Elmore and other company members. Since then, Elmore has been steadily building back up the collection, sewing some and appropriating others, to the point where he feels the company is nearly back up to speed.
The new space will include some storage room for the company, as well as a “green room” for actors located directly behind the stage.
McPhetres itself is the biggest of several rooms on the ground level of the Gold Street side of the church. The area around the hall includes spaces for a kitchen and a lobby (and future First Friday gallery space), and will include a fully furnished conference room that can also be used as a rehearsal space; builders created the room to be the same size as the McPhetres Hall stage. The Mustard Seed, the popular resale shop originally located in the church basement, will be reopened in this area. The space also includes restrooms and a hallway.
Celebrating “Our Town”
It seems very fitting that the first play selected for production in the new space is called “Our Town.” Also fitting that it should mark a fresh angle for the group, best known for their Shakespearian selections: it’s the first American classic they have ever done.
“This show is a completely new animal,” Elmore said. “It’s set in America in the 20th century, so it’s quite a bit different.”
Elmore said Jensen came up with the idea for producing “Our Town” almost immediately after the fire. Though an unusual choice, Elmore said many aspects of the work feel like familiar territory, such as the stripped-down set.
“In some ways it’s a perfect production to bring into a brand new space,” he said. “The set is really nothing. There’s no scenery. There’s some pieces of furniture we need to bring on and some chairs that need to be arranged and that’s about it.”
Another familiar element is the quality of the work itself, he said.
“Most of the plays we do have a kind of a metaphorical depth to them, they play on a lot of levels at one time,” he said. “It plays as a story between these two people, but also then you suddenly realize you’re talking about larger issues — ‘Whoa, that’s something I’ve been dealing with,’ etc. This definitely has that. And it shares that with much of great classical literature.”
Elmore said the team had time to explore the text and study various productions of the enormously popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning work, an experience that was both personally and professionally rewarding. Thornton Wilder’s use of language was particularly worthy of study.
“When you’re reading a good playwright, it doesn’t matter what they’re writing,” he said. “When they’ve written it, there’s a reason why they did, and exploring that will do nothing but pay off for you in character, in production values, and in your apprehension of the piece as a whole. Being able to work our way through that has been tremendous.”
Megan Behnke plays Emily Webb, the woman around whom much of the action of the play is based. The story follows her through life, tracing her everyday experiences and interactions with others in her small town. Behnke is a perfect fit for the role, Elmore said.
Another important role is that of the stage manger, played by Ed Christian, who navigates the shifting “fourth wall” between audience and actors. Playing with that imaginary barrier is another common element in Theatre in the Rough productions.
Elmore plays Emily’s father, and Jensen directs. Other cast members include Hunter Silides, Becky Orford, Phil Schempf, Ian Andrews, Natalia Spengler, Katrina Hotch, Carl Broderson, Peter Freer and Connor Chaney.
Original music, written by Bob Banghart, will be performed during the show by Banghart, Ceann Murphy, Patrick Murphy and Libby Sterling.
The show will run Thursdays through Saturdays until April 9, with Sunday shows on April 3 and 10.
For tickets, visit Hearthside Books or the JACC. Tickets will also be available at the door. Because of the set number of seats, audience members are encouraged to purchase tickets early, to ensure they can come on the night they choose.
For more, visit www.theatreintherough.org.