Theatour!: Clowes Memorial Hall

Antiquity isn’t the only way to a theater geek’s heart—for proof, check out Clowe’s Memorial Hall, just outside Indianapolis, IN. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie played this alternately solemn and warm space for one short day, and we all enjoyed getting to perform in one of our first postwar, non-school theaters.

Like the National Theatre in London, Clowes (rhymes with “stews”) has a brutalist, Ziggurat-y exterior (above) that belies a somewhat softer and more colorful interior (below). Red velvet and nice lighting always do the trick, don’t they?

Note the boxes—narrow, cascading riverbeds of concrete that roll towards the stage.

Also of interest is the austere proscenium which makes no latter-day approximation of gold leaf or cherubs. Concrete and hard edges are everything.

The staircases, visible in the atrium, are equally grave but cool.

The theater is about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, but thanks to good upkeep, doesn’t look it. Maintenance is ongoing: New carpeting and seats will be installed in the coming months.

The space isn’t devoid of funkiness. Sound panels on the ceiling are arranged in a depth pathwork whose appearance changes as you rise from one balcony to the next.

And then there are the actors, sure to funkify any room. Witness the lovely Adrienne Brown, primping in the recently renovated, spacious dressing rooms.

For more cool architecture in the style of Clowes, visit the awesome blog Fuck Yeah Brutalism for a sweet overdose. And for those more inclined toward the classic spaces, fear not: more old theaters are on the way.

UPDATE: ****** Clowes architect John Johansen died yesterday, at age 96. For more, click HERE.

TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, does not endorse the opinions of theater-words.
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TheaTour!: The Byham Theatre

I’ve visited enough theaters over the course of this tour to notice a common historical narrative. (In case you’re just joining us, I’m on the road with the kid’s musical If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.) For virtually every vintage house we’ve played, the story has gone something like this:

  1. The theatre is built as an early 20th century Vaudeville house.
  2. With the post-Depression decline of Vaudeville and the rise of film, the theater starts showing movies, and eventually (for some) X-rated movies.
  3. As it enters the 1970’s, the theater starts to decay.
  4. By the mid to late 80’s, it’s in the crosshairs of the wrecking ball.
  5. BUT! A local arts group or wealthy philanthropist steps in, saves the space, and kick starts an extensive renovation.
  6. Live acts return! Woohoo!

With minor variations, this is the story of Altoona, PA’s Mishler Theatre, Frederick, MA’s Weinberg Center, Petersburg WV’s Smoot Theatre, and surely countless other houses across the country. It’s also the story of Pittsburgh PA’s Byham Theatre, the latest stop on my tour. Built in 1904, the Byham is like many a great Vaudeville house: It’s neo-Classical, swarming with cherubs, and lathered in luxurious red velvet.

But as steps number one through five (above) reveal, a more complicated (and interesting) history is just beneath the surface. For one, somewhere in the Byham’s decaying period, the theater’s boxes were removed from either side of the stage. In the photo below, note the wide, empty stretches next to the proscenium—that’s where those boxes used to perch.

Backstage, pairs of archways hint at this history. Now used for storage, they were originally used as the entryways to the seats of the rich and notable.

What’s more, a haunting staircase stage right leads to the crumbling, vacant shells hidden from the audience by that plaster. (Those spaces are stacked on top of the leftover archways.)

But not all the history has been covered up. A nice fresco decorates the swath of ceiling just above the proscenium. If the nymphs seem a little manly, that’s because female models were unavailable thanks to the Victorianism of the day. (Another possibly apocryphal story goes that the nymphs were originally painted as men, but thinking them too fey, patrons demanded a sex change.)

Beyond the house is a lovely lobby. One of the first things you notice is that many of the ornate lighting fixtures prominently display their bulbs. Turns out electric lighting was a novelty back at the turn of the (other) century, and bulbs were flaunted rather than masked.

Before adopting its present moniker (adopted in 1995), the Byham was known as the Fulton, and earlier, the Gayety. The proof in this mosaic, unearthed during a renovation, greets theatergoers in the theater’s entryway.

Though it first opened on Halloween night and seats 1,313, the Byham is anything but unlucky. That it’s survived steps one through four is testament to Pittsburgh and, y’know, the power of art.

TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, does not endorse the opinions here reflected.

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TheaTour!: The Smoot Theatre

Just off the shore of the Ohio River in Petersburg, West Virginia sits the beautiful Smoot Theatre, where I made a recent stop with my touring compatriots. (You may remember that I’m part of a traveling kid’s show—read more here and here.) The Smoot impressed us all with its classy historicity.

One of the first things you’ll notice in the Smoot is the intensity of the mezzanine’s rake. It’s quite steep, so much so that a local theater op told me “people always get dizzy up there.” Good thing, then, that there’s a unique, wooden railing bordering the lower edge of the level. Also worth noting are the colors of the seats. It’s hard to make it out in my shoddy iPhone photos, but those in the mezzanine and the front of the orchestra are red, while those to the rear of the orchestra are blue. Kooky but fun, huh?

See what I mean about  the rake? Watch your step, indeed!

The stage has remained untouched since the Smoot opened in 1926, and (unlike most decks) is unpainted. Interestingly, it’s made out of two different materials: hardwood is farther downstage, while softer wood is upstage. Why? It’s easier to secure sets to the softer wood.

Like most Vaudeville houses that saw fortunes decline in the years following the depression, a movie studio (Warner Bros. in this case) bought the theater and turned it into a film house. Though the theater has now returned to legitimacy (after a close encounter with demolition in 1989), the beautiful, antique projectors still point to the stage from a booth at the rear of the mezzanine.

As a movie palace, the Smoot made use of the Vitaphone, a contraption that heralded the end of silent film and the birth of the “talkies.” (The Vitaphone, as any theater geek knows, is a key plot point in Kaufman and Hart’s classic Once in a Lifetime: “He first turned down the Vitaphone!” Anyone?) In a great move, the folks at the Smoot recently repainted this “sensational” advertisement:

Backstage are some nice relics…

…and the dressing rooms (separated by the original brick—no plaster, thank you very much!) are wonderfully romantic.

All in all, she’s a beaut, so much so that all of us onstage felt like we were on Broadway—the space somehow elevates you, makes you feel like what you’re doing matters.

Good stuff all around.


TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, does not endorse the opinions here reflected.

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The Jake Gyllenhaal Chronicles

What is JG shouting in this scene of his new play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet?

Um, do you really need to ask?

“We are NEVER EVER EVER getting back together!!
You go talk to your friends talk to my friends talk to me…
But we are NEVER EVER EVER EVER getting back together!”

This is exhausting.

TheaTour!: The Weinberg Center

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie continues its grand parade through the Eastern US and Midwest, and recently played the beautiful, historic Weinberg Center in Frederick, Maryland. (Check out Mouse/Cookie‘s first stop here.) Elegantly preserved and maintained, Frederick is a plumb of a town, all brick townhouses and human-sized scale, and its local chez du theatre, The Weinberg Center, matches this aesthetic perfectly.

The Weinberg’s façade is classic and inviting, and welcomes patrons into a passageway that opens up into a spacious lobby and house. It’s the kind of “bottleneck” construction many New York theater builders used on expensive 42nd Street, where a small marquis and entryway would lead to a theater actually situated on 41st or 43rd Street. (The American Airlines and New Amsterdam Theaters are good examples of this.)

Inside, 1,500 seats are split between a vast orchestra and a smaller mezzanine; simple yet pretty murals line the walls. Playing the space, you’re struck by the “shoebox” nature of its architecture: it’s much longer than it is wide.

The stage door is appropriately Rent-tastic, and makes for appropriately ego-inflating coming and going.

When the building first opened in 1926 (it was then called the Tivoli Theater), the Frederick Daily News announced, “Frederick may indeed feel proud of her handsome new theatre… The erection of such a beautiful amusement house is in itself a tribute to the community. It demonstrates in a most outstanding way the faith that a great theatrical organization has in the future of our city.” (Source.)

That faith, it seems, has been borne out.


(This writeup, by the way, does not represent the opinions of TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.)

All photos by theater-words.

Coulda Shoulda Woulda

This fall, two exciting plays premier at the newly-renovated Public Theater

Present circumstances being what they are, the thumb of theater-words isn’t as closely bound to the pulse of New York theater as it usually is. So what are we most bummed about missing this fall season? Achem…

1. Sorry, at the Public Theater. The third entry of Richard Nelson’s remarkable “Apple Plays,” Sorry takes us back to the now-beloved Apple family in Rhinebeck, NY for an evening of taut, unprepossessing drama. Just like it’s two predecessors (That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad), Sorry is an “up-to-the-second” play taking place on election night, 2012. The first two plays about the family were delivered with breathtaking intimacy and honesty; there’s every reason to believe that Sorry will continue the trend.

2. The Whale, at Playwrights Horizons. The is a tale of a six-hundred pound dude, his estranged daughter, and a young angry Mormon—all sure-to-be-potent ingredients when Samuel Hunter is the playwright and Davis McCallum is the director. And hey, there’s the thrilling prospect of watching Shuler Hensley wear a monstrously large fat suit.

3. Fun Homeat the Public Theater. Oh, agony of agonies to miss this one. theater-words has been keeping tabs on this new musical for quite some time, so its continued development is especially exciting. But to miss its premiere… oh dear. Why the enthusiasm? Fun Home was first published as a singularly brilliant graphic memoir by the peerless Alison Bechdel; the family drama therein was pretty much beyond compare. Adapted by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa KronFun Home is the kind of story that makes you knock your forehead: “Of course! What a perfect idea for a musical!” Director Sam Gold is the bee’s knees in pretty much everything he does, and will doubtlessly deliver an intelligent and sensitive production.


There are, of course, plenty of other shows worth being excited about (here’s looking at you, The Heiress, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to name a few) but in terms of very-limited runs, for my money it’s gonna be hard to beat the three above picks.

Do you plan on seeing any of these titles? What are your thoughts? And, post-performance, how were they?

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