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First look at the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre

February 1, 2010 |  4:30 pm

WhiteInterior_web SAN DIEGO -- As part of a $22-million upgrade, the Old Globe Theatre demolished a 224-seat in-the-round theater and replaced it with ... a 250-seat in-the-round theater. The spaces are so similar that, from your seat, you have to look closely to notice what's different.

Good thing.

Because what the Old Globe has done is to take a theater that enhanced its programming flexibility and made it better.

The former Cassius Carter Centre Stage, opened in 1969 in what originally was a tavern, has long provided the Globe a terrific alternative to its 600-seat proscenium-style main stage and its 612-seat open-air theater. The main stage can house big draws, such as the world premieres of Neil Simon's "Rumors" (1988) and "The Full Monty" musical (2000). The outdoor stage is conducive to summer presentations of Shakespeare and other classics. New, unproven or experimental work, however, seems more at home in a smaller space. The Carter, imbued with the communal feel of all arena stages -- in which, when audience members look across the stage, they see other audience members -- filled the role well.

Its replacement, the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, retains those qualities while enhancing presentation capabilities.

As before, theatergoers enter at ground level and descend to their seats. As before, everyone sits close; the White's seating quadrants are just four to five rows deep.

To see what's different, you have to look up and look down.

WhiteCatWalk_web Above is a much higher ceiling, creating a big overhead area, called fly space, where small set pieces can be hung, then lowered onto the stage when needed. Also overhead, catwalks provide access to a much more extensive lighting grid.

Below is a subterranean cavern. The stage is, essentially, a yawning pit -- a blank slate -- that can be outfitted with whatever floor plan a creative team wishes. The playing area could be, quite simply, filled in at auditorium level, but it could be built just as well at varying levels. Hydraulics, perhaps, could be incorporated into some future designs. Trap doors could facilitate all sorts of surprises.

The new capabilities are nicely shown off in Ralph Funicello's set design for the first presentation there, a revival of Simon's "Lost in Yonkers." The action takes place in an apartment above a sweet shop run by the apartment's occupants. The new pit allows for the highly realistic inclusion of an interior stairwell that descends from the playing level to the unseen candy shop below. So when the script calls for footsteps to be heard on the stairs (the most memorable character is a steely grandma whose distinctive-sounding approach tends to throw others into a panic), the sound is duly heard from the appropriate level, announcing the actress' rise from below.

The audience "sees into" the apartment through imaginary walls, which, before the action begins, are delineated by wooden windows suspended in midair, one on each side of the room. As the lights dim, these are hoisted overhead so as not to obstruct anyone's view. 

The Carter wasn't conducive to extensive scene changes; items typically had to be pre-set there at the top of the show and left in place for the duration -- all but dictating minimalism in design.

To reach the stage, actors had to enter along the same, stepped aisles that the audience used to reach their seats. Now actors can enter along either of two alleyways that emerge at stage level from underneath the seating tiers.

Enhancements are everywhere evident in the new Conrad Prebys Theatre Center, which houses the White theater as well as a multipurpose performance hall, classroom space and much more, and in the invitingly redesigned plaza that serves as a giant outdoor lobby/dining area/living room that unites the theaters.

Time to explore.

-- Daryl H. Miller

Above: Top right, the interior of the new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Above left, the catwalk above the stage provides access to more extensive lighting. Photos: The Old Globe.

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