“When it became clear that there was a fire that originated in the scenic studio …heartbreak.” said Associate Professor of Scenery and Audio, Chris Guse, when asked about his reaction to the fire. Resulting in over $5.7 million in damage, the fire left hundreds heartbroken and in disbelief. In the middle of the semester, and during the middle of several events in the Peck School of the Arts, students and staff found themselves at an unfortunate standstill. But, in true theatrical fashion, “the show must go on.” Damage was surveyed, plans to move forward were made, and rebuilding began.
And the show did go on. Help poured out, not only from the Milwaukee and Wisconsin theatre communities, but from all over the world. Theatres, schools, companies, and more loaned UWM stage space, a scene shop to build sets in, sound equipment for classes, and anything else the UWM faculty found they needed. The Peck School of the Arts wrapped up the 2016-2017 school year with their production of Arcadia at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, one of the most renowned theatres in the Midwest. After the school year came to a close, the focus shifted to rebuilding the Mainstage space.
Clearwing Systems Integration was contracted to reconstruct rigging and lighting systems which had been damaged in the fire. “Restoring the facility was never a question in my mind. If there was a consideration of not restoring it, I never heard it” according to Guse. The only steps were to proceed forward with re-building the space, which has been the home of the UWM theatre program for nearly 50 years.
As one of the earliest systems developed for theatrical production, the rigging system lays the groundwork for artists to create the magic of theatre. Making scenery appear and disappear, changing locations during a scene with the blink of an eye, or providing endless opportunities for additional effects such as performer flying, are all benefits of a safe and modern rigging system. The rigging system destroyed by the fire in UWM’s Mainstage space was original to the building, making it around 50 years old. Most components remained authentic to the original system throughout the years, resulting in beloved and vintage pieces being damaged in the fire. This also means that the new system will provide additional comfort for students and professors because of the added reliability and safety of a brand-new system.
The new system installed at UWM is designed to be an asset during live productions, in rehearsal, and in class curriculum. The system includes counterweight linesets for moving scenery up and down over the stage, masking curtains to block the audience’s view of backstage, and a grand drape to complement the theatre decor. Rigging components are provided by H&H Specialties, a distinguished national supplier of stage rigging equipment, and the drapes are built by Bellatex, a leading manufacturer in stage drapery.
The rigging system also includes a fire safety curtain by Thermotex, which is designed to provide a separation between audience and stage in the case of a fire in the future.
The renovated lighting system consists of new dimmers, house lights, architectural control, and system networking by Electronic Theatre Control out of Middleton, WI. The upgraded system is capable of controlling both older-style incandescent stage fixtures, as well as new technology such as LEDs, moving lights, and effects projectors. Because it is based on network infrastructure, the lighting control is flexible and allows for expandability as the needs of the University and its productions change over time. The new lighting system will allow the space to be restored to the state-of-the-art condition it was when first installed.
Before the spring 2017 fire, UWM professors struggled with providing students with experiences using the modern technology they would find in the field after graduation. Guse said they regularly created “collaborations and seminars so students could interact with cutting edge technology.” Now, however, the new systems will provide the infrastructure for seminars or guest lecturers to be brought directly to the UWM campus. The install will also make the modern equipment close to students for hands-on exploration and practical application in production, rehearsal, and classes. “It’s quite invigorating as a teacher to have the possibilities of what we can accomplish right with us in the classroom,” Guse said.
After talking to students, it is clear that the renovation is creating a positive buzz. Nightengale, a sophomore working toward a BFA in Theatre with an emphasis in Production said, “putting our theatre back together with some shiny new things is really the icing on the cake, it will make it final. We’ll really have our home back.”
Lily Pickart, a freshman working toward a BFA in Acting, is looking forward to the finished product as she has been working in the Mainstage space under construction this school year. “It’s amazing to see the stage come together with lights, seating, and other aspects that bring the theater to life,” she said. “The rebuilding of the stage each week and seeing the excitement of everyone as the stage [becomes] more and more filled,” has been a positive result of the unanticipated renovation, she said.
As the installation continues, UWM faculty and students have reflected on the silver lining this tragedy has brought. While it has created many setbacks, it also has opened many eyes to the beauty of community support.
Guse summarized the experience perfectly when he said, “it’s made for a useful and pleasant symbiotic relationship. It is reinforcing the most critical ability that event/designers/fabricators/producers posses, which is the cornerstone of our curriculum: The greatest trait of theatre/event artists and artisans is the ability to collaborate with a group of individuals with very diverse skill sets in order to create something larger than the sum of its parts.”
Clearwing Systems Integration specializes in the permanent installation of audio, video, lighting, control, drapery, and rigging in performance venues, arenas, churches, and museums. They are grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with UWM to create a fresh start, and to provide the students with a new space to learn in. Both Clearwing and UWM are looking forward to continuing a mutually beneficial and collaborative relationship utilizing the new install to ensure students receive the best possible education. The install is scheduled to finish before the end of the 2017-2018 school year.