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Another Opening

by Kathryn Geurin on February 23, 2011

Another Opening

Schenectady Light Opera Company was bustling on Monday evening as the company prepared for Friday’s opening performance of The Drowsy Chaperone. Actors filed on stage for mic checks as crew members brushed fresh paint onto set details, rolled a grand piano into place and swept sawdust into a heap beside a circular saw on the stage floor. But despite the company’s 84 years of experience mounting productions in Schenectady, the effort to open this show is uncommonly chaotic. This time SLOC isn’t just building a play; they’re building a theater.

“Everyone is burning the candles at both ends to make this happen,” says Chaperone director and SLOC past-president Michael Mensching, who shouts instructions to his crew, wavering between eagerness and subdued panic as he surveys the yet-unfinished set and theater from the new balcony, which is still littered with tools, paint pails and plywood. “We’ve been scrambling, but the show’s in great shape, things are starting to come together.”

Founded in 1926, SLOC has been housed in a former synagogue on State Street in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood since 1972. But after a successful million-dollar capital campaign they have renovated and moved into an expansive three-building complex in the heart of the city’s business district.

The former St. John the Baptist Church, which dates from 1830, has found new life as a 250-seat theater space. A stage has been built where the altar once stood. Three balcony areas and a sound booth were once choir lofts. A speaker and lighting system hangs from the cathedral ceiling. New carpeting was installed on Friday and risers were installed Monday morning. As the evening’s rehearsal kicks off, volunteers with measuring tapes are spacing the red theater chairs over the platforms. Although it’s still in process, the new theater offers designers and performers new opportunities with its expanded backstage, wing and fly space, as well as new challenges—sightlines from the balcony have required new perspective in set design. Menshing had to design two sets for Chaperone; rehearsals were already underway before SLOC knew for certain if the production would take place in the old theater or the new.

“But, push came to shove and they sold the other building, so this had to happen now,” says Mensching. “There were a lot of memories in the old space. Some people felt like we couldn’t leave our home. But you have to grow with the times.”

And grow they have. In addition to the new theater, SLOC renovated the rectory to provide lobby and reception areas, as well as restrooms—all busy with workers hauling cabinetry and tools, hurrying to prepare the space for Friday’s opening.

SLOC owns all three buildings of the Performing Arts Center, but the extensive space has allowed them to bring in tenants to offset their overhead. The upper floors of the rectory, refurbished to their historic glory, provide home to Capital Lyseum, a new private high school focusing on small classes and experiential, urban learning.

Next door, project chair Bob Farquharson fiddles with a lock on the heavy double doors on the third floor of the former Bathesda House, only recently considered “a Dump,” he says. He recalls cracked ceilings and crumbling plaster, peeling paint, stained, filthy floors.

And then Farquharson pushes the doors open into the grand hallway of the Northeast Ballet Company. Freshly refinished maple floors gleam under the arcing ceilings, reflecting light from a massive antique chandelier. A statue of a ballerina stretching at a barre ushers visitors into a huge, elegant dance studio; smaller studios and dressing rooms line the hall.

The ballet company needed a new space, and “they were a perfect fit,” says Farquharson. “The Performing Arts Center has taken a vision beyond us that benefits other arts and educational organizations. It’s a revenue stream, it’s economy of scale. There is a real synergy that takes place.”

On the second floor of the Bethesda building, doors on one side of the hallway open onto microscopes and horseshoe crabs—the labs of the Schoharie River School, which offers students applied math and science learning through environmental studies. Windows opposite reveal aisles of floor-to-ceiling costume storage. Downstairs makeup mirrors are set up in a large room that will eventually house SLOC’s new venture into cabaret.

Once the multi-stage development project is complete, SLOC’s theater, rehearsal space, costume and scene shops will finally all be in the same place. The new location offers handicapped access, audience parking and convenient access to the restaurants, shops and activity in the art and business districts.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Farquharson. “The last two years were very intense, trying to raise money, which we’d never really done. It was a whole new arena for us—and we picked the worst time in the world to go into fundraising mode.”

And yet, while arts organizations nationwide are struggling or shuttering their doors, SLOC met their fundraising goal and is close to realizing their vision.

They received major grants from the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, Schenectady County and the Golub Foundation. A Heritage Foundation Grant provided funds for preservation of the historic complex, and a Main Street Grant—federal money disbursed by the state—provided funds for “cityscaping,” including flower beds, a new concrete plaza, parking areas and patio.

“I think people get the vision,” says Farquharson. “The company was ready, our audience was ready. Opening night is sold out, and that hasn’t happened in a while.”

Individual donors contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash and in-kind donations, and countless hours of volunteer labor.

“Its kind of phenomenal when you think that no one here is getting paid,” says producer Michael McDermott, watching as theater and production simultaneously take shape around him at the hands of dozens of volunteers. “People have taken this on as a hobby, and yet, at the end of the day it’s going to be a pretty big contribution to the local community.”

“It’s a huge part of the revitalization of downtown Schenectady,” says McDermott, “We want it to be a vital facitily. We designed the space with flexible seating, so it can serve as a multiple-use space, for wedding receptions, special events, training events. But first and foremost, our business is putting on shows. And this first show here is critical.”

An actor dashes in from the store with the last yard of needed fabric. Technicians test the intricate workings of a handful of special effects. House lights fade. A clear tenor voice rises into the rafters.

Farquharson nods. “It looks like we’re finally arriving”