College Theater Classes Have New Home

DECATUR, Ala. — Perched on the catwalk 25 feet above the stage floor, Hugh Long surveyed the surroundings: the 200 lights, secret entrances and sound-manipulating curtains.

“I’m like a kid going from an abacus to an Apple computer,” Long said. “This place is awesome. That’s all you can say. It’s awesome.”

Four years ago, with Long considering the post of assistant drama professor at Athens State University — where the theater program had been dormant for 32 years — north Alabama leaders pitched their vision of the future. Standing on Second Avenue in front of a vacant parking lot, they talked of a new theater and recital hall with state-of-the-art equipment.

That vision has come to fruition.

Brick by brick, Phase 2 of the Alabama Center for the Arts took shape. The building, which will house music and theater classes for Athens State and Calhoun Community College, will open to students in August and provide a boost for downtown Decatur’s art scene.

“The outside has classical architecture, so it fits with downtown. But the outside is deceiving of what is on the inside. The inside has some of most high-tech equipment available,” Long said. “Every professor is a specialist in their field and had a vision of what they wanted. Not everyone saw that vision in the beginning, but here, at the end, all of those visions have come together to form this amazing place.”

Studio for Recording

At 43,000 square feet, the $13.5 million center features a 140-seat recital hall with a digital projector for films and lectures, a 300-seat black box theater, a recording studio with two booths for sound engineering, sound-proof rehearsal rooms, a space for set construction, a music lab, computer lab, dressing rooms and smart classrooms.
Standing on the concrete floor in the center of the jazz band rehearsal room, where sound panels covered the walls and hung from the ceiling, Long, who joked he should add Phase 2 tour guide to his resume, clapped once.
“Every music student who comes in here does this. They wait for the echo and there is none. Hear how quiet it is? No sound goes out and no sound comes in, which is important being so near the train tracks,” Long said.
The recording studio, which Long described as “the baby” of Calhoun music instructor Jimmy Cantrell, contains a central space for large musical groups, four isolation rooms for soloists and two control booths allowing for more than one student to work on sound engineering and design. From the control booths, individuals will be able to record performances taking place in the recital hall.

A mix of wood and exposed brick, the intimate recital hall combines elegance with functionality. Along with concerts, organizers discussed hosting lectures and TED Talks in the hall.

The intimacy of the hall extends to the theater. Bill Provin, Calhoun’s director of theater, credited Bubba Godsey for the overall design of the black box theater. Movable risers, which Godsey described as an erector set, can transform the space into in-the-round, alley and end-stage layouts.

“Bubba has been collecting information for years about what works and what doesn’t work in theaters. Thankfully, everyone had the good sense to listen to him. He had everything planned, right down to the inch. He even planned where the washer and dryer should go,” Provin said.

Calhoun’s debut performance in the new theater, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” will take place Oct. 13.

“We wanted a show that would be pretty accessible. There will be a lot of audience members who have never seen a theatrical production before, so we knew we probably did not need to start with Shakespeare. ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is a modern American musical comedy that people will enjoy,” Provin said.

As part of the Alabama Center for the Arts’ initiative, Calhoun will share the theater with Athens State. A rehearsal space, which doubles as the tornado shelter, with a floor plan comparable to the main stage, will allow one group to practice while the black box is in use.

“Now this is what I wanted,” Long said while walking into the rehearsal room. “I wanted a space where the students could jump and roll on the floor. Here, when they lift a sword, they will not be hitting the ceiling and when they are dueling, they will not bump into one another.”

Debut in November

For the Athenian Players’ debut performance at the theater set for November, Long selected “Verdi Gris.” Written by TV actor Jim Beaver, best known for roles in “Deadwood,” ”Supernatural” and “Justified,” the play centers on a young man’s absorption into an offbeat Oklahoma family in 1972.

Individuals can get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a play through the windows facing into the theater. The addition is one neither Long nor Godsey nor Provin envisioned.

“Theater people are of the mindset that you do not reveal your work until it is complete. Since Calhoun and Athens State are teaching colleges, the consultant suggested installing windows so people can see what is going on and get excited about it,” Long said.

He equated it to the trend of open kitchens in restaurants. People want to see the process and the work that goes into the final production.

How the new facility will impact the theater programs remains a question.
“The facilities are a great selling point. Add to that the bachelor of drama and theater arts that the Alabama Commission on Higher Education approved in December, the lower price and the intimate setting. I studied at NYU with 900 other students and was lost,” Long said. “Here, you are going to be known.”

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