After 45 years, Otterbein Summer Theatre took an innovative approach in summer 2013, finding a new home ONSTAGE in the Fritsche Theatre at Cowan Hall.
The new space provides an improved and more comfortable experience for audience members, including increased legroom, a full 12” of height between each row, and handrails on every aisle.
Perhaps the most pronounced change from the former Summer Theatre location in the Campus Center is that the entire front row is now seated directly on the floor, providing much-needed accessible seating for those who have difficulty negotiating stairs.
The custom seating units and a laser-leveled ramp were designed to fit the Fritsche Theatre stage by the StageRight Corporation, a portable seating company located in Michigan that has installed seating in venues all over the country, including Carnegie Mellon University, the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey and the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The ramp installed at the front of the stage was designed to meet American Disabilities Act regulations with a grade that allows easy access for those with walkers and wheelchairs.
With all of the changes, seating has been slightly reduced to 237 people, only eight fewer than the capacity in the Campus Center. The vast amount of space above the audience gives the theatre an open feel without sacrificing the intimacy Otterbein patrons enjoy during the summer productions.
“It’s a black-box theatre feel without feeling boxed in!” said Al Minor, a long-time subscriber and theatre patron.
The height also allows for more flexibility for scenic designs as units can be flown in and out of the space and stage so pieces can be easily added and removed from the Thayer Scenic Studio, right behind the stage. Set load-ins and strikes are also much easier to execute when all of the tools are located within the same building.
Originally conceived by Dr. Charles “Doc” Dodrill in the 1960s and designed by Fred “Pop” Thayer, Summer Theatre at Otterbein was made possible in large part by the air conditioning installed in the Campus Center in 1967. The theatre, which was constructed in the basement on the old shuffleboard court, went through a series of modifications, from a complete theatre-in-the-round that seated approximately 300 to the current three-fourths thrust configuration, which seats 245. Many happy memories have been created during the summers since the inaugural season in 1967, so many that Otterbein now holds the title for the longest continuously running summer theater in central Ohio.
An aging facility has presented challenges to Summer Theatre. The basement of the Campus Center has had its share of trouble over the last several years, including flooding, noise disruptions and inconsistencies with the air conditioning unit. There have been summers when students and staff had to bail water out of the basement so that the show could go on, and many occasions when complimentary water bottles were distributed to keep the audience hydrated when the air conditioning failed.
So the Department of Theatre and Dance proposed acquiring risers to create a new intimate theatre on the Fritsche Theatre stage. “That we could get this all accomplished in nine months is a tribute to our very supportive Administration and Service Department,” said Department Chair John Stefano. “We are delighted with the space.”
Long time theatre patron Mike Collins agreed. “What’s not to like? The patrons are closer to the stage, have reliable air conditioning, improved access, more legroom and better sight lines with the increased riser height. Even from a technical perspective, the Cowan stage has better acoustics, better lighting and a fly gallery to boot!”
Summer Theatre will continue to be housed in the Fritsche Theatre at Cowan Hall until a new theatre is built. Whatever space is constructed will be designed to accommodate the new seating units. In the meantime, the Campus Center Theatre will continue to be utilized during the academic year for at least one production as well as workshops, classroom projects, the student-produced Festival, rehearsals and classes.