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Wharton Center gets patrons behind scenes

Friday, September 21, 2007

Art lovers got a chance to experience Michigan State University’s Wharton Center for the Performing Arts like never before on Sept. 15 by taking public tours of the building in celebration of its 25th anniversary.

The lights of the actors’ dressing room on their faces, a spotlight in their hands and the view atop the Great Cobb Hall stage allowed the average theater-goer to feel like a star of a Broadway production. The public tours featured a behind-the-scenes look at parts of the building only seen by actors, faculty and staff.

As guests traveled around the Wharton Center, they learned the ins and outs of the behind-the-stage inner-workings, from the “FLY rail” pulley system to the lighting and cue system. Above all, the staff and volunteers of the Wharton Center conveyed their appreciation for what the building brings to campus.

“The Wharton’s had quite a dream, we’re very lucky,” said Debby Harrison, an Inner Circle volunteer.

The Wharton Center is responsible for bringing major Broadway productions to campus, such as “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Only two college campuses in the country, Michigan State and Arizona State University, have professional facilities qualified to accommodate such productions.

Large Broadway shows require big budgets and an enormous amount of time and effort to pull off successfully. During production, while the audience enjoys the show, electricians, stage carpenters and production managers whirl silently about behind the scenes to create stunning sensory effects.

“It takes timing, finesse and strength,” said Steve Heinrich, stage carpenter. “It’s a hippo ballet back here.”

The work is justified though with the profit brought in from big productions. Brian Archer, senior production manager said that all the profits go toward theater updates. This enhances the integrity of equipment and caliber of future theater experiences.

Filled with 2420 seats, Great Cobb Hall’s rounded frame encloses the audience in an orb where sound is allowed to circulate and fill the hall. Giant columns line the outside aisles, not for support but rather to enable the stunning acoustics. The columns are shaped in the likeness of silos to honor MSU’s strong agricultural history. The Wharton Center boasts the ranking of being the 6th largest ticket seller in the world.

“Groups want to come to East Lansing because word is out we can fill the house,” said Harrison.

The spotlights illuminate the stage from their elevated home in the back of the theater. Spotlight operators pour light of variegated shapes and colors onto the stage by hand. Some more complicated lighting cues, such as a scene in CATS, had to be practiced for hours and the large machines heat up with an oven-like quality.

In the ballet studio, dancers move across a spongy floor under soft mercury lights. The actors’ dressing rooms have chairs with backs (required by the actors’ union) and glowing light encircling every mirror.

The thrust stage of the Pasant Theatre would make Shakespeare proud with its accurate architecture and genuine vomitorium tunnels to “expel actors from the stage.” The Pasant’s acoustics are “dry,” meaning the aid of microphones isn’t always needed.

A door “expels” a person directly from the stage into a hallway filled with autographed posters of productions past. Descending the montage of penned playbills, the Green Room stands at the end of the hallway. This room is used for meetings, meet-and-greets or is a holding tank for actors waiting for their stage cue, complete with a flat screen television showing the happenings onstage.

Clifton and Dolores Wharton, for whom the building is named after, described the arts as a humanizing, unifying force in our world, bringing people together across vast cultural, social, economic and geographic divisions. The dream of the Wharton family lives on with the Wharton Center’s commitment to arts and culture on campus and in the community. The opportunity for enrichment as one community, one university and one culture is easy to see, hear and emotionally experience, all in one building.

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