A new world for the Children's Theatre

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September 26, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

The Whittier-based company's renovation and expansion debuts Monday, Oct. 3.

At the very beginning of Shakespeare's "Henry V," the chorus enters the stage and the lines of the world's greatest playwright are given voice. The audience sitting in the circular, open-air Globe Theatre circa 1600 heard the theater itself referred to in those famous opening lines: "May we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air

at Agincourt?"

The wooden "O" is the Globe, a big, sturdy structure built of thick lumber (which burned brightly, no doubt, when the Globe went up in flames in 1613 during a performance of "Henry VIII").

That "O" is echoed today in the lobby of the Children's Theatre Company's (CTC) expansion. Inside the three-story-high glass lobby are massive old-growth beams forming a tower linking a future bright with childhood's sky-high dreams and possibilities to a gloried past that is the theater's foundation.

As CTC General Manager James Tinsley walked through the lobby -- which workmen were hurrying to finish before the renovation/expansion's opening bow on Monday, Oct. 3 -- he said that link between Shakespeare and the kids of Minneapolis is what Artistic Director Peter Brosius wanted when he envisioned the tower. Brosius wanted to create "a feeling of rising up, reaching out," Tinsley said.

The centerpiece of the 45,000-square-foot expansion is the Cargill Stage, an infinitely adaptable space that will seat up to 298 people for its shows focused on preschoolers and teens. The seats aren't attached to the floor, so they can be configured and configured again -- moved around or even out -- depending on the needs of various plays.

"The Cargill can have no seats in it, it can have 298, or it can have 50," Tinsley said. "The actors can be in a corner, on the side, they can be anywhere we want them to be."

The 56-feet-by-82-feet space is constructed of split-face concrete block that gives it a warehouse-cool look, but not a boomy warehouse sound, Tinsley noted.

"Concrete block is inherently porous, so it not only absorbs sound but sends it back. The acousticians love it."

The theater doesn't have a traditional ceiling; instead it's covered by a metal grid from which lights, power cords, scenery and more can be lowered and raised. The floor has covered troughs that carry water, electricity, sound cables, fog and other theatrical necessities.

The space has five main configurations -- including, Tinsley said, an impressionistic version of a carnival tent that will transform and downsize the theater for preschoolers.

He added that he has a special vision for this adaptable space: he'd like to put an audience in the air and actors down below.

"I have my dreams," he said, smiling. "One day I imagine we've used the winches to haul the seating platforms up off the floor so the audience is actually suspended and the acting is going on in between [the platforms].

"I'll die a happy man if we have that happen."

Those who've been waiting for the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Ave. S., to expand can also now die happy.

The expansion is the fruit of the 40-year-old CTC's first-ever capital fund-raising campaign, a hugely successful venture that raised $30 million for the Cargill Theater, dressing rooms, rehearsal space, offices, renovated/expanded shops for the theater company's production teams, as well as the McGuire Education Center containing four classrooms, a student performance space, a dance studio, teaching theater and lounge.

William McGuire is chairman and CEO of UnitedHealth Group. His name, along with that of his wife, Nadine, is attached to the theater in the Walker Art Center's new expansion as well. And their names are part of the new 95,000-square-foot McGuire Translational Research Facility on the University of Minnesota campus.

"It's the same McGuire who's been passing money all around town," Tinsley said. (McGuire gave $10 million to the $125 million Walker expansion.) "We didn't get quite as much as some of the others did, but you know, he's really stepped up to the plate with all of the arts organizations here in town and their buildings."

One recurring design theme that visitors notice as they wander the new facilities is sunlight. It beams in everywhere; from the moment you enter the glass-obelisk lobby with its muscular wooden tower through the Cargill Theater (equipped with electric blackout shades) to the classrooms and the gleaming maple-floor dance studio with its room-length mirror.

"Windows, windows and more windows," Tinsley said. "We've spent 40 years behind a white, brick wall and Peter [Brosius] wanted to open the space up and get as much light and transparency to the outside world as we possibly could. So we've got windows everywhere we could possibly get them."

The new classrooms and teaching facilities will mean that CTC can go from its current 1,300 students to 3,500.

"The Education Department becomes a little bit more self-sustaining," Tinsley said. "The biggest thing, more than anything else, is that we're able to get out and reach more kids through the programming. We might get one in 100 kids who wants to be an actor. Those other 99 are learning how to be public speakers and how to have better self-confidence and self-esteem."

Tinsley said he doesn't envision any dramatic changes for the core audience attending shows presented on the CTC's main stage, which is in its shared building with the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. He said season ticket holders for the main stage will have the first shot at tickets for Cargill Stage events, however.

Tinsley said the new opportunities for kids to learn stagecraft means children will be able to grow from their preschool years through their teen years at CTC. "Our hope is that families who have grown up coming here will continue to enjoy theater after leaving. Theater tends to feed on itself."

The expansion "allows us to expand our horizons, to be able to bring to new segments of the community what we do."

What they do is teach the age-old art and craft of the theater. If there's ever to be a new Shakespeare, he or she might well rise up and reach out from here.