Within the next couple of years, Eastman students will see some major changes in one of their primary performance halls. The Eastman Theatre, Rochester’s premiere concert destination, is undergoing a major stage renovation beginning this summer.

Changes to the stage include a new, custom-designed shell to improve acoustics, a sprung wooden floor to accommodate both dancers and musicians, an improved orchestra pit with new mechanics and hydraulics, new rigging and better stage lighting. The aims of the improvements are to make the stage easier to use and to serve the diverse demands that the are regularly place on the hall.

“We are extremely excited to move forward with the first phase of our renovation plans for Eastman Theatre – a completely renovated stage,” Eastman School of Music Director and Dean James Undercofler said.

“The new stage is designed to complement the aesthetic treatment of the theater’s house, better serve the needs of the performers and simply function more efficiently and safely,” he added.

George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company and the Eastman School of Music, funded the original construction of the theater, which seats 3,094 people. Opened in 1922, the theater was a venue for silent films accompanied by orchestra before it became a major concert hall.

Today, the 80-year-old theater is home to the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Eastman’s performance ensembles. In addition, the theater is also used by a number of touring artists and ensembles each year.

This past year alone, the stage has been used by in performances with many well-known artists, including Marian McPartland and Mitch Millar. The theater was also where the Eastman Opera Theater performed Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” this spring.

Despite both its heavy use and the fact that the theater was not originally intended to provide the performance facilities of a major concert hall, the theater has undergone only one major renovation during its 80-year history, in 1971. The hall of the theater has been surprisingly well maintained.

As a result, all renovations will be historically sensitive with great care to the retention of the theater’s historic appearance. The renovations currently planned are mostly geared toward updating the stage to accommodate the needs of the many groups that use the theater for rehearsals and performances. Undercofler feels that the renovations will make the stage more user-friendly to a larger variety of groups.

“Our ultimate goal is to make Eastman Theatre a better venue for concerts, opera and other artistic performances in Rochester, while enhancing the downtown experience and contributing to the exciting renaissance of the city’s East End,” Undercofler said.

The stage renovation is considered “phase one” in a series of improvements planned for the Eastman Theatre. After much consideration, the renovation process was been split into phases for financial reasons – including the current state of the economy and the increasing need for financial aid among Eastman students.

“These are challenging economic times for everyone,” Undercofler said in a press release. “We’ve carefully considered all of the school’s priorities and have decided the most prudent way to proceed. We remain committed to seeing a completely renovated Eastman Theatre, but are equally committed to being fiscally responsible throughout the process,” Undercofler said.

The renovations will commence this summer. However, most of the work scheduled for 2003 – including work on the rigging and construction of the new shell – will occur off-site. The more visible work will be done over the summer of 2004. The stage is expected to be completed and fully operational by Sept. 30, 2004.

The Rochester architectural firm of Macon, Chaintreuil, Jensen & Stark is the chief firm in charge of this project. This is the same firm that designed the Eastman Place, as well as Strong Museum and other prominent buildings throughout the Rochester area.

The projected cost of $4-5 million is being covered primarily by donations from corporations, foundations and individuals, as well as designated Eastman funds.

Once improvements are made, the stage will hopefully be able to accommodate many different performances, allowing the theater to truly live up to the words that George Eastman inscribed on the building’s faade in the ’20s, “for the enrichment of community life.”

Ristow can be reached at lristow@campustimes.org.

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