By Bo Emerson, ajc.com Staff Writer
When the Alliance Theatre was constructed in 1968 as part of the multi-discipline complex called the Woodruff Arts Center, it was built on faith, because there was nobody to put inside.
The theater company came a year later. As a result, many of the suggestions that a theater company might make — about acoustics, seating, backstage areas and such — went unmade.
On Wednesday the Woodruff Arts Center is announcing a $22 million project to utterly recreate the interior of the Alliance and tailor it to the needs of the troupe.
“We’re tearing it down to the floor, out to the walls and up past the ceiling,” said Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth.
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Inside the empty shell, crews will construct a more intimate and acoustically perfect
environment. The front row will be 10 feet closer to the stage and the audience will wrap around the proscenium like two embracing arms.
It’s part of a $100 million “transformation” campaign that will also support the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum.
The campaign represents a significant boost for theater in Atlanta and for the arts in general, in a state that is near the bottom in public support for the arts, and at a time when several local theater companies have closed their doors.
“It’s one of the most exciting leaps forward for the theater in Atlanta in decades,” said Tom Key, artistic director of the Theatrical Outfit.
The Alliance, winner of a regional Tony Award, is the leading producing theater in the Southeast and has premiered more than 95 original productions including Tony Award winners “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker, “Aida,” by Elton John and Tim Rice, and Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.”
Renovations will begin in summer 2017, which means the Alliance’s 12-production season in 2017-2018 will be mounted off campus. Currently the organization plans to stage each play in a different locale and is looking at venues such as the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech, the Conant Center for the Performing Arts at Oglethorpe University and even unconventional spots such as the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. A final list will be ready next spring.
While temporarily moving the Alliance out of the building will present challenges, Booth hopes it will help attract new audiences “who will follow us home in 2018-2019,” she said.
Lisa Cremin of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund said a side benefit of the changes at the Alliance will be its involvement with other organizations.
“It will invigorate the work of the Alliance and the work of the theaters that they collaborate with,” she said.
The Woodruff has already raised $83 million of its $100 million goal, all from private donations and foundations. In addition to improvements at the Alliance, the funds will go to support the endowments of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the High Museum of Art and to make some programming throughout the Woodruff free and accessible to a wider audience.
The Alliance has a goal of raising $15 million as part of the its share of the endowment drive.
This initiative is the first remaking of the theater since its construction in 1968, and it is a radical reshaping.
Many of the improvements will be seen in the infrastructure or backstage, including:
• A new costume shop with natural light from skylights.
• New lighting catwalks that will provide access for technicians to install and adjust theatrical lighting.
• A new dressing room, green room and rehearsal space.
Booth is particularly excited about the redesigned acoustics. The Talaske Group of Oak Park, Ill., is handling the design. After scanning the interior with lasers, they used 3-D software to model the complicated mathematics of sound transmission, taking into consideration the reflective or absorptive quality of every material in the hall.
The improved sound will make it possible to eliminate amplification altogether for many non-musicals.
“Human voice to human ears: that’s what it was meant to be,” said Booth.
Another change is to the original orchestra pit, which was designed to accommodate 56 musicians — far more than the company has ever needed — or will ever need, Booth said.
The new pit, for about 18 musicians, will be tucked under the stage and will bring the audience closer to the action.
Seating in the hall will be reduced from 770 to 650, and the balcony will be augmented with “terraces” near the front of the hall.
Booth said the wrap-around seating and the access to the balcony from inside the hall will create a more “democratic” feel.
“There is a sense ‘we are all in this together’ with the audience and performers that is a complete 180 from the current room,” she said.