Rebuilt First Stage Theatre readies for debut
April 5, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Village Theatre plans additional offerings at downtown venue
The curtain rises soon on the rebuilt First Stage Theatre in downtown Issaquah.
Village Theatre Executive Producer Robb Hunt and other leaders plan to open the $3.1 million First Stage Theatre to audience members April 7, after years spent planning and reconstructing the brick-red-and-hunter-green structure.
The rebuilt theater doubles classroom and rehearsal space for the 32-year-old Village Theater. Inside, bright dressing rooms replace the cramped trailer performers used for costume changes at the old theater. Technicians use a modern control booth to adjust LED stage lighting and high-tech sound system. The “green” theater is also Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified.
Other details recall the early 20th century theater on the same site.
The reconstruction team turned salvaged lumber from the old First Stage Theatre into a lobby ticket booth, plus molding and wainscoting throughout the building. Crews also restored the mid-20th century neon sign perched on the façade.
The opening production “13” — a musical about a difficult adolescence — marks a homecoming for the popular KIDSTAGE program, a First Stage Theatre occupant.
“We’re putting a lot more emphasis on giving the place a home for performers to really work on the process, as opposed to final products,” KIDSTAGE Programs Manager Suzie Bixler said.
The burgeoning theater long sought additional space for KIDSTAGE classes and productions, and to polish original musicals. Hunt envisions the updated space as a venue for additional workshops and short runs for original musicals.
“We’ll be able to do readings at the drop of a hat,” Hunt added.
In such a move, the theater presented a multimedia production titled “One World Through Theatre” on March 28.
The dual-stage setup is common for regional theaters across the United States: a smaller stage for edgier or original fare, and a larger stage for full-scale productions.
The theater is almost identical to the old building from the street, though the footprint shifted five feet to the north in order to meet the code requirement to install windows on the south-facing side, so staffers and patrons can glimpse Mount Rainier.
Reconstructing the past
Initial plans called for a substantial renovation, but after theater executives realized the extent of the decay, planners decided to raze the building and start anew. The theater lacked a foundation, and the crumbling structure required constant upkeep.
“We couldn’t reconstruct it to be what we needed it to be for the next 100 years,” Hunt said.
The decision to rebuild the historic theater is not unusual. In Issaquah, reconstructed historic buildings, including the Pickering Barn and the downtown Issaquah Trails House, dot the landscape.
Erica Maniez, Issaquah History Museums executive director, said theater executives chose a responsible alternative to renovating the old structure.
“In the case of that building, it just was not in a state where it was going to be preservable very much longer,” she said. “The second-best choice then would be to have a renovation or a reconstruction.”
So, in 2008, the theater announced plans to reconstruct the First Stage Theatre. The public fundraising campaign to construct the facility kicked off in February 2009. Village Theatre has raised more than $2.5 million for the effort so far.
Backhoes sliced through the old structure last summer and construction on the modern facility started days later.
Crews salvaged other pieces from the old theater, including the iconic neon sign adorning the façade and the cornice atop the structure, for the rebuilt structure.
Hunt said the preservation is intended to impart the history from the space into the reconstructed theater.
The history stretches more than 30 years into the past, after Hunt and founding Artistic Director Carl Darchuk formed a ragtag theater in still-rural Issaquah.
From vaudeville to Broadway
The musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” — the inaugural Village Theatre production — opened at the old First Stage Theatre in April 1979. The frontier-era building housed Village Theatre until the modern Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, often called the Mainstage, opened down the street in November 1994.
Broadway-bound musicals “Next to Normal” and “Million Dollar Quartet” germinated at the old First Stage Theatre during the last decade. The productions picked up Tony Awards on Broadway, and “Next to Normal” earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rarity for musicals.
The plain building opened as the Issaquah Theatre in 1913.
The opening represented a landmark moment in the rough-and-tumble coalmining and farming community.
“It demonstrates that you have enough of a population that they’re clamoring for something to do, and also that life is secure enough that people want to spend money and go to a theater and be entertained for a little while,” Maniez said. “It’s kind of a sign of civilization.”
In the decades before Village Theatre settled in the space, vaudeville acts and silent films entertained audiences. Starting in 1930, “talkies” — motion pictures featuring sound — played at the theater.
The façade featured a neon sign as early as 1930, although the restored sign adorning the rebuilt theater came later.
The theater remained a popular destination through the mid-20th century, as the population in Issaquah inched upward. However, officials declared the theater unsafe in the late 1970s, just before Village Theatre set up in the building and renovated the space.
The chance to christen a modern First Stage Theatre is something Hunt and other theater executives anticipated for years.
The opening also attracted attention from City Hall. Mayor Ava Frisinger issued a proclamation honoring the reconstructed theater March 30, the same day Hunt hosted donors and supporters in a reception at the building.
“It’s kind of recreating our roots and giving us the ability to rejuvenate our creativity,” Hunt said.
How to help
Village Theatre continues to raise funds for the First Stage Theatre reconstruction. The theater needs to raise about $600,000 more, and naming opportunities remain available for donors. Call Development Director Louise Kincaid at 392-1942, ext. 111, to learn more about donations.
Learn more about ‘13’ — the opening musical at the rebuilt historic First Stage Theatre.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.