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A behind-the-scenes look at IU Northwest’s new theater

Theatre Northwest veterans and newcomers alike are excited about the newest technology that will help them produce professional-grade shows, provide top instruction for students

Thursday Aug 31, 2017

Indiana University Northwest’s long-awaited Arts & Sciences Building is officially open. The 2017-18 academic year welcomed new and returning students in late August, filling the halls and classrooms – a welcome sight after two years of watching the modern learning facility materialize on the east side of campus.

Situated on an entire city block of Broadway in Gary, the three-story, $45 million building is the replacement for Tamarack Hall, home of the campus’s beloved theater that was lost to floodwaters in 2008.

The building’s completion is a pride point for many on campus, but the folks who make the performing arts their primary focus have special reason to celebrate. The 500-seat professional theater, with all its state-of-the-art technology, is a particular highlight, as is the accompanying 100-seat black box theater.

Throughout the summer, groups of IU Northwest folks took turns getting a peek inside the building, taking in a tour that lasted a good hour-and-a-half or more. The theater, officially named the IU Northwest Theater at the Arts & Sciences Building, was a highlight.

Something bigger than yourself

“Wow, this is the real deal,” someone uttered as a group entered, at the time still bustling with workers putting in the final touches. Advancing down the aisle, the group entered the back stage area, their eyes simultaneously drawn upward to take it all in.

Even Katherine Arfken, associate professor of design and technical theater, was visibly taken by the backstage technology of the professional theater. It was Arfken who pointed out the small amenities that might go unnoticed by the typical theater-goer, but pack big impact for the shows’ producers.

Two upgrades that might not be visible to an audience but will be appreciated by the production teams, Arfken said, are the brand-new counterweight system that includes five motorized positions dedicated to stage lighting and permanent running lights throughout both performance spaces as well as the main theater corridor.  Both upgrades will increase the safety and efficiency of the production work.     

Moving on, the tour moved into the black box theater, a type of performance space thought to foster more intimate theater experience in a simple, unadorned room with black walls and a flat floor.

Unlike the temporary black box theater, which the once-displaced theatre company had fashioned out of an old video store on Grant Street in Gary, this is a true black box which can be configured in a multitude of ways.

Again, eyes gazed upward in unison as the group entered the black box, which rises up three-stories. Arfken explained that about 16 feet off the stage floor, there is a technical mezzanine that works as part of the flexible performance space, where the crew can set up a control booth anywhere along the perimeter of the room, as needed.  

Another four feet above the tech mezzanine, she said, there is a tension wire grid where student technicians can hang and focus stage lighting without ladders. Above the tension wire grid, the lighting positions can be reconfigured as needed, providing student and guest designers with almost unlimited options.

“Working in a building that houses all of our production facilities under one roof will help to create the collaborative environment that is such a vital part of a strong theatre program,” Arfken said. “Access to the newest lighting and sound technology will help attract new students and prepare them for the professional world after graduation.”

Next came a peek inside an impressive Costume Shop lined with sewing machines.

“For the last nine years, our shows have all been costumed by professional designers without the benefit of a functioning Costume Shop,” Arfken said. “This new dedicated lab space will help us revive our costuming course and rebuild our pool of skilled student costumers.”

Excited about a comeback

As the academic year speeds along, the Department of Performing Arts is now working to finalize its 2017-18 season.

The Theater at the Arts & Sciences Building serves as the home base for Theatre Northwest, the performance company of IU Northwest’s Department of Performing Arts, but the venue is expected to become a popular destination for many other groups and events that wish to bring their performances to Northwest Indiana audiences.

Community Arts Coordinator Larry Brechner, newly hired to manage the theater’s bookings outside of Theatre Northwest, is currently working toward scheduling shows from around the region. He’s looking forward to seeing what he informally calls “Arts on Broadway,” flourish.

“It’s going to take some time, but I’m really excited about learning more about what this facility can deliver,” Brechner said. “Serving the needs of Theatre Northwest is our first priority, but as time goes on, we’re looking forward to bringing the talents of a myriad of artists to Northwest Indiana by way of this venue.”

The space. The amenities. The technology. All of this adds up to excitement from all sides.

Mark Baer, associate director of acting and directing, now positioned firmly at the cusp of Theatre Northwest’s reimagined future, has much to be excited about. The number of theatre majors is on the way up, due in part to providing current students with more frequent and personal advising, and recruitment visits to area high schools.

“We have the largest and most passionate group of students in the theatre department since I’ve been here,” Baer said. “It’s crazy how much artistic energy there is in the department and all around Gary right now.”

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