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New 360-Seat Berlind Theater Opens at McCarter

Myrna K. Bearse

It's not every new theater that opens with a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and with a poem written in its honor by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet -- in this case Paul Muldoon. But this is what happened Monday night at the official opening of the Roger S. Berlind Theater, a ceremony that preceded by a day the beginning of previews of Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics.

The new 360-seat theater is McCarter's long-awaited second stage, which it will share with Princeton University's Program in Theater and Dance.

"We wanted to make a room that was intimate in ways that the larger theater can never be, and we wanted to make a place that encourages innovation," said Hugh Hardy, architect of the new theater.

When McCarter Theatre Artistic Director Emily Mann first met with Mr. Hardy on plans for the Berlind Theatre, she put her hands together and created a bowl, said McCarter Managing Director Jeff Woodward. "She said, 'That's what I want the setting to be like. I want the members of the audience to be in one section together, to share the experience collectively; but also the performers, when they come out, can have instant immediate contact with the audience.'"

The theater is named for Broadway producer and Tony Award winner Roger S. Berlind, a member of the Princeton University class of 1952 and an alumnus of Princeton's Triangle Club and Theatre Intime. Mr. Berlind, who has produced or co-produced more than 30 productions on Broadway, contributed one third of the $14.1 million cost of the theater. The balance was shared equally by McCarter Theatre and Princeton University.

Noting that the Berlind Theater has little or no precedent, Artistic Director Emily Mann said, "Rarely if ever in this country has a major theater thrown in its lot with a major university."

The performance space provides something similar to stadium seating, with what appear to be perfect sight lines from every seat. The stage is 24 inches high; in contrast to the 40 inch height of the main stage at McCarter. There is no pit; if musicians are needed, they will be placed on stage. When a scaled-down production of My Fair Lady comes to the Berlind in May, music will be provided by two grand pianos on stage.

Mr. Hardy, a 1954 Princeton alumnus, is a founding partner of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. He described the Berlind Theatre as "a remarkable project" because it connects programmatically a community and university. "I don't know of any other facility in Princeton that has such a close connection between the academic life and the life of the community," he said. "Students will be there pursuing for-credit activities in theater and dance and professional performers will be there, and the programs will be interrelated," he said.

In his design of the new theater, Mr. Hardy used a variety of materials to complement the argillite stone masonry of McCarter, including masonry, patterned brick work, and three different colors and textures of brick. Argillite, he said, was very popular in the 20s on campus. "It's wonderfully multicolored stuff, but very hard to relate to," he said.

In line with the idea that the Berlind should register as a workplace and not a lush cultural center, Mr. Hardy used ordinary, unglamorous materials. The lobby ceiling is expanded metal lathe, used to support plaster. The walls are made of flake board, a backup for cabinetry. In the theatre itself, all equipment, lighting, sound, and catwalks have been made into architecture. The color scheme is a subdued maroon and grey.

Place of Exploration

"In general, the materials are straightforward, commonplace stuff that you wouldn't expect to see in a public building. It helps to convey the sense of a place of exploration," said Mr. Hardy, who has designed a number of theaters. These include a headquarters and studio building for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, restoration of the New Victory Theater on 42nd street in Manhattan, the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, and the renovation and expansion of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.

Darryl S. Waskow, managing director of the University's Program in Theater and Dance, said the program will open it first show in November. Its main venue up to now has been 185 Nassau Street, a converted elementary school, and Mr. Waskow said he hopes that the audience will grow when performances move to the Berlind.

The stage of the Berlind is large enough to do epic work and large-scale productions, such as Shakespeare, said Mr. Woodward. "But we can also do small work as well. We have great flexibility as to what we can do because of this stage.

"The acoustics are wonderful, there is a state-of-the-art sound and light system, and the sight lines are excellent," he continued. " I think it will become one of the best places to watch a play in the United States."

Functioning as a main stage along with the 1,100-seat Matthews Theatre at McCarter, the Berlind will provide programming flexibility. Some plays, explained Mr. Woodward, are not appropriate for a larger house, and often plays require a longer run to help them find an audience or to give the writer and artists involved time to work on them."

As for the University, the move to the Berlind will prevent the experience of having prospective students arrive only to find that the performance space at Princeton is inferior to that of their high school.

Added Rehearsal Space

But the Berlind offers more than performance space. It provides, both to McCarter and the University, state-of-the-art rehearsal space. In addition to rehearsals, McCarter plans to use this space for readings of new plays and modest-scale productions. It will also double as a venue for receptions, and dinner parties.

A staircase and elevator bring patrons upstairs from the lobby to the performance space. Long indows that provide natural light to several levels of the building look out over University Place, and there is a landscaped park area, complete with benches, beside the building. University Place itself has been equipped with pavement bump-outs on both sides to reduce the width of the street, and there will be a new crosswalk leading to the entrance of the Berlind Theater.

After the season's opening production of Anna in the Tropics in the Berlind, the venue moves to The Matthews Theatre in McCarter for Wintertime by Charles L. Mee. The balance of the season offers Fraulein Else from the novella by Arthur Schnitzler, in the Berlind; Shaw's Candida in the Matthews; and My Fair Lady back in the Berlind.

As for opening the season with the Nilo Cruz Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama – a decision made several weeks before the prize was announced – Mr. Woodward said, "We were thrilled for Nilo and felt pretty smart ourselves."

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