Summer construction project breathes new life into theater

- Photo by Keegan McEachern/For the Review

Amber McKenna

Black walls with high ceilings and tall 19th-
century windows encompass the dusty space in the abandoned Pioneer Theater. This summer, life will be restored to the theater and it will see performances once again.

In 1969, the Frerichs Theater burned down and forced the theater department to temporarily relocate to the space in Pioneer Hall, known as the Linfield little theater.

What was at first temporary became semi-permanent until 34 years later with the construction of Marshall Theatre, located in Ford Hall. The Pioneer Theater is said to have previously played host to a chapel and a plaque dedicating it as a reading room can be found on the back wall.

Tyrone Marshall, professor and program director of theatre and communication arts, said 153 shows were performed in the theater; he was involved in 73.

Marshall recalls many idiosyncrasies of Pioneer Theater. There was no access to the backstage other than through the stage itself. All actors, even those with the smallest parts, had to remain backstage for the duration of the show.

“The actors would be doing their homework with a flashlight, say their line and then go back,” Marshall said. “Years later, I heard stories about things that went on backstage.”

The problem was the same with the sound booth, which was only four feet wide. Marshall said the crew was forced to file in one after the other and stay in place the whole time.

“(The theater) was not a very performance-friendly space,” Marshall said. “But that didn’t stop us from producing things that were interesting to direct, perform and design.”

The theater sat 68 audience members. A space for this size of an audience is in demand on campus today.

Mo Walker, facilities planner, said arrangements are being made to turn the old theater into a multipurpose space, although plans have yet to be finalized.

Some of the restoration work to be done includes painting, improving air circulation and carpeting the space.

“We’re not doing a complete renovation; we intend to keep the historical value of the place,” Walker said.

He said the space could be ideal for showing movies, presenting lectures and providing a classroom or reception area. Another bonus of the space is it does not have fixed seating and can accommodate multiple types of events.

“It should be really pleasant when done, especially during the day with the tall windows,” Walker said.

One disadvantage of the theater is that it is on the second floor of Pioneer, meaning it is not handicap accessible.

The current plan is to spend around $300,000 on the renovations of the theater and other updates in Pioneer.

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