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Fisher Dachs Associates - News - The TheaterWorks makeover is finished. Come in and take a look.
The TheaterWorks makeover is finished. Come in and take a look.

October 17, 2019
TheaterWorks' elaborate redesign was unveiled Wednesday night to raves during a special open house.

With reviews such as "fabulous," "stunning" and "a knockout," the theater's patrons were overjoyed with the improvements to the theater, lobby and backstage at TheaterWorks longtime 233 Pearl St. home. So were the theater's staff, whose input on the improvements had been welcomed throughout the process.

Audiences will be pleased with with a roomier and more open lobby, more convenient ways to head to the theater downstairs, a larger bar/concessions area, new bathrooms and new auditorium seats with lumbar support.

"The purpose was to honor some of the original architecture and also create a cozy, hip space that's more communal," says Rob Ruggiero, the theater's producing artistic director. "For the theater, we just celebrated the roots of what it already is, and elevated it. The audience will be most excited about the new bathrooms and the new seats they were crappy, and life-worn, and now they're cool and new.

"But for the technical staff, we now have one of the best equipped black box theaters in the Northeast, maybe in the country."

Actors will no longer have to enter and exit from just one side of the stage, which is now open on both sides. There are new dressing rooms, and the old bathroom area has been remodeled for the performers.

The sound and lighting booth at the back of the theater space has shifted more centrally so that for the first time the stage manager and others in the booth have an unobstructed view of the stage.

TheaterWorks' stage manager Kate Cudworth marvels that "for the first time, from up in the booth, we'll be able to see every drink the bartender pours in 'Christmas on the Rocks.' When they asked me what I needed, all I really wanted was bathrooms for the actors and a booth I could see from."

Ruggiero, one of the central voices steering the makeover, stepped into the new elevator in the lobby and did a little dance.

"I rode on this for the first time just the other day. It's been blocked off for a month."

Downstairs, Ruggiero sat back in one of the new auditorium seats and imparted a secret: Row F in the center section has slightly more leg room than the other rows. We're talking maybe an inch or two, but Ruggiero is attentive to the tiniest details. He's been that way since the planning for this project began. Construction work happened throughout the spring and summer.

"My level of participation, my level of detail, from the edges of the windows to the finishes on the countertops, is uncommon. That's something we had to work with. It was an unconventional process in terms of a conventional renovation. But that's TheaterWorks. We're never normal.

"The dressing rooms are a real thrill for me," Ruggiero continues. "Part of my vision is about all our guest artists being taken care of."

There's also a new HVAC system in the theater and carpeting throughout the auditorium, so that "even if the staff is walking about during the show, everything will be quieter."

The audience's experience will be different from the moment they enter the building.

"We've been calling the upstairs lobby space 'the living room,'" Ruggiero says. "It will change how the audience relates to our space before they go downstairs. We don't have a box office with walls. It's very welcoming."

Couches, chairs and a bench, stylistically mismatched on purpose, are positioned throughout the lobby. "It's important that it be eclectic," says Ruggiero, who was inspired by similar styles found at downtown bars.

The lobby used to double as an art gallery, curated by TheaterWorks' director of marketing and communications. Some art may still find its way to the lobby walls, but a whole separate gallery space has been created in an unused area across from the lobby.

"We're trying to keep the connection we've always had to Connecticut artists," Ruggiero says.

The new bathrooms are gender-specific, but a message emblazoned on the wall between them declares: "We welcome and respect gender diversity. Please use the restroom which makes you most comfortable or most closely fits your gender identity or expression."

The theater's old bathooms, which used to be shared between actors and audience members and now have been redesigned for the actors' use only, are gender-neutral.

Brian Prather, who has been designing sets for TheaterWorks off and on for 15 years, officially became the theater's resident designer last year. At the open house, he was inviting people onstage to help scuff up the police-station floor he'd created for the season-opening drama "American Son."

"It's the kind of set I want people to mess up a little."

Prather had a major hand in the design of the new upstairs lobby, with the box office desk and its white marble top becoming a pet project. He also designed the floor tile pattern in the bathrooms.

"Rob's been running things by me. I was so excited by it all. When I design things, they're usually gone in a month or two. This will outlast me."

Longtime TheaterWorks subscriber Suzanne Hopgood, who lives in the same neighborhood as the theater, was at the open house checking out the front row of seats, delighted to discover that they could be removed for wheelchair access.

"My husband came home in a wheelchair in March. We've found that we can completely resume our social life downtown."

Upstairs at the open house, Jan and Ken Siskind, who've been attending TheaterWorks shows since the mid-'80s (with "Almost, Maine" and works by David Mamet and Edward Albee among their favorites) deemed the lobby "a knockout" and loved that "the theater has more space now for the artists."

Kelly O'Connor and Luke Talbot, who both work across the street from the theater but had never been inside it before Wednesday's open house, says they plan to come now. "It's good to support the neighborhood."

The renovations were designed and done by SLAM Collaborative of Glastonbury. The firm's president, Robert Pulito, is also a member of the TheaterWorks board of directors. The work cost around $5.7 million, of which $2.7 million came from the state of Connecticut. TheaterWorks raised $2.5 million itself through a capital campaign and is still raising the final half a million.,

The theater, lobby and auditorium wasn't all that TheaterWorks unveiled this week. The theater also debuted a new logo, which incorporates "Hartford" clearly into the theater's name, and a new website,
The Hartford CourantBy Christopher ArnottPhotos by Brad Horrigan