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The lights were out at the Asheville Community Theatre, and the newly renovated auditorium was completely dark — blackened, save for the single ghost light illuminating a small circle of stage.
The theater smelled of freshly cut lumber and still-drying paint as Rob Bowen, lighting designer and chairman of UNC Asheville’s drama department, stood just outside the center of light, directing a crew of students in the lighting cage high above.
Bowen and his students are testing out the new lighting setup for "The Producers," the first performance set to debut the Asheville Community Theatre’s renovated space.
Since 1946, the Asheville Community Theatre has been an entertainment staple of the community, producing dramas, comedies and musicals. Its current space, built in 1972, sits at 35 E. Walnut St. downtown, and, since then, the theater hadn’t seen a whole lot of upgrades — until now.
"Rob was telling me the other day that our lighting system is now one of the best in the region, which is really exciting," said Jenny Bunn, marketing director for the theater. "The students up there now are the first people to work with this entirely new, state of the art lighting system, so they’re trying to work out all the kinks."
At the start of 2017, the theater dimmed the lights on its home stage to begin the massive construction project, ripping out its seats and essentially gutting the interior. By March, its staff was hard at work finishing up its season in a temporary home at UNCA.
Breaking up the renovation into phases, ACT first tackled its main stage auditorium and backstage rooms, a $1.6 million project that began in January and finished when the new seats were installed, around July 21.
Just in time for the August show and season opening, Phase 1 of the Asheville Community Theatre renovation is complete.
When the stage reopens this week, the new interior will make its debut, with all-new seating, updated lighting and sound equipment, and an upgraded greenroom and dressing rooms backstage.
‘It’s like a real theater now’
The lights in the theater faded on, revealing the rest of the room: the blue-cushioned seats that rose from the stage’s edge, the black-painted walls on which were mounted differing shades of blue square panels.
"It helps with the echo in the room by giving the sound something to bounce off of — instead of (the old) cinderblock walls," Bunn said.
"It’s like a real theater now. Right, Rob?" she said jokingly.
Jenny Bunn, marketing director for the Asheville Community Theatre, points to photos taken during the renovation of the seating in the theater as she gives a tour.
"It was a real theater before," Bowen said, then added, "a real, old theater." The pair laughed.
Prior to this renovation, the theater was decked out in golds and deep reds. Now its color scheme seems to be more about function, reflecting the modern trend of simplicity.
Of course, Bunn said, the old theater was well-loved "and we were grateful for it" no matter the color scheme. But, she continued, it’s a nice update from the old "mustard-colored seats, the bright burgundy carpet and the old, church parlor-style curtains that (were) in the back. Lots of dust showed up on those things."
There are also changes to the face of the stage, with wider ramps for safer movement on and off.
During the seven months it took to complete Phase 1 of the theater renovations, some changes were made to the next steps in the process.
Instead of stretching the project into three phases, the theater company has squeezed the renovations into just two. Originally, Phase 2 would see the construction of a new black box theater in the building’s back lot, beginning in 2018 — and, in 2019, Phase 3 would begin by renovating the theater’s storage space into a new education complex.
The greenroom of the Asheville Community Theatre was redone as part of Phase 1 of renovations to the building. It now has more room for actors and crew members.
Instead, Bunn explained, Asheville Community Theatre will keep its storage space and expand the black box theater project to include a separate education space in the brand-new building.
"At some point in the spring, we realized: Why don’t we just keep this storage complex as it is, put the education complex into the new building?" Bunn explained. "Well, that’s brilliant. Why are we retrofitting this building when we can build a new space that would house both a new theater and an education complex?"
Construction on Phase 2, however, won’t begin until the theater is able to raise the $2 million needed to fund the last step of the process.
"We feel confident that we can do that over the course of a year," she said.
More upgrades backstage
Phase 1 wasn’t all about the front of the theater, though, and much of the work that went into the already-complete renovation lies backstage.
Leading the tour of the renovations, Bunn stepped across the stage and through a maze of the set of "The Producers," into the room hidden from the audience out front.
The women’s dressing room got a major upgrade in Phase 1 of renovations made to the Asheville Community Theatre. The men’s dressing room was renovated as well.
"Ta-da!" she said, revealing a tidy space, painted bright green, with a large table and chairs, a small kitchen set and added cabinetry for better organization.
Before, she said, "the backstage was a real mess. We moved in in ’72, but we’ve been around since 1946, so there was a lot of stuff — a lot of stuff that we had just shoved into corners."
The old space, as cluttered as it was, was "well-loved," Bunn said. "It’s your home, and you just sort of deal with (the problems). … (The actors) are volunteering their time, and so, if you’re giving 14 performances, showing up at 6:30 for a 7:30 call, and the show is two-and-a-half hours long — it’s nice to be able to give them a space like this, where their costumes are hung up for them every night and there’s a space for you at the mirror with your name on it."
The women’s dressing room at the Asheville Community Theatre is among the renovations. "it’s nice to be able to give them a space like this, where their costumes are hung up for them every night and there’s a space for you at the mirror with your name on it," said Jenny Bunn, marketing director for the theater.
Stepping through a door to the right of the stage, Bunn pointed to the grassy lot behind the theater and explained that, in just a few short years, it will make a huge transformation, from a spare parking lot to a brand-new second stage and education center.
The lot, in the space between the theater and the Thomas Wolfe House, was already owned by ACT, so finding a way to utilize it was something the theater had been discussing for quite some time.
While a good portion of the already-complete renovations were about aesthetics, it was just as important to the Asheville Community Theatre that the renovations make it easier on their staff.
UNC Asheville professor and department of drama chairman Rob Bowen works on a lighting design for "The Producers" as Bjorn Goller, right, works on the set in the newly renovated Asheville Community Theatre on Aug. 11. Along with new seats and changes to the stage, Phase 1 of renovations also included an upgraded lighting system.
"We were just able to think through how we were using this space, and how to make it easier for everyone to use," Bunn said. "And seven months is all it took for this to happen. Everything came in on time — and on budget — and we’re thrilled.
"We’ve always been so grateful to the leadership back in the late ’60s/early ’70s who thought of this space and built it," she added. "But now the backstage area and the patron area matches what we’ve been trying to do on stage."
Phase 1 of renovations being done to the Asheville Community Theatre included new seats and sound paneling in the auditorium.