AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
An audible sigh of relief followed the announcement at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven last week that its audiences will no longer find themselves leg-locked in their seats and waiting on long restroom lines.
Long Wharf launched a $3.8 million renovation campaign this past fall to make the theater more comfortable all around. A leadership gift of $1.25 million by The Tow Foundation gave a boost to the makeover project. Claire Tow, who suffers from ALS, has been a longtime friend and supporter of the theater; the C. Newton Schenck III Mainstage Theatre has been named the Claire Tow Stage in her honor.
The theater has raised $2.56 million-close to 70 percent of its goal. Designed by Gregg, Wies & Gardner Architects of New Haven, the renovation is scheduled to begin in June and be completed by the start of the Fall 2012 season.
Charles Kingsley, board president, explained that when the theater opened in 1965 in the food terminal on Sargent Drive, it was intended as a temporary home until a permanent venue was determined.
"But 47 years later, we're still here," Kingsley noted. "We've extended our lease another 10 years-and we may very well be here longer than that."
Besides the addition of Stage II, Kingsley said, "We haven't really done anything but put on Band-Aids since then."
The renovation includes new, roomier seats with four to five more inches of leg room between rows. This will require decreasing the number of seats from 486 to just over 400.
"The emphasis is to make the theater's look and feel match the excellence of what we put on stage," he said.
If the audience is "cranky and uncomfortable" it won't be as open to what's (happening) on stage, pointed out Gordon Edelstein, executive director.
"We're going to take away a few seats while keeping the extraordinary intimacy of the theater," he said.
Edelstein said the theater plans to "continue to produce great work in a place that will now be commodious to our patrons."
In addition to the seating, Josh Borenstein, managing director, described other aspects of the renovation, including an attractive, well-lit exterior, an updated and expanded lobby and restrooms, and much needed new theatrical lighting grids and a new heating and air conditioning system.
Borenstein described the streamlined look of the theater as "industrial chic."
Instead of attempting to ignore the theater's unusual location, "It embraces the fact that we're in the food terminal-there's a kind of rawness to us," he said.
In its fundraising efforts, the theater is launching a "seat campaign" -for a donation, a seat can be named with a plaque. For more information and updates on the renovation project, visit www.longwharf.org.