Fort Hays State University's theatre program is receiving a facelift, but don't expect the faculty to be bandaged up. Cosmetic changes are being made to Felten-Start Theatre, the venue for all FHSU student productions.
Malloy Hall, home to Felten-Start theatre, was completed in 1965. That fall, Felten-Start opened for productions with folding chairs as seats and bare floors. Since then, innumerable performances have provided entertainment for students and the public alike.
The seats and carpeting within the theatre were replaced a couple of times over the years, but the backstage equipment remains from Malloy Hall's infancy, explained Tomme Williams, instructor of theatre. With little to no extra space for actors to stand backstage, set pieces are hoisted into the air to get them out of the way. Outdated and worn down equipment make this task inconvenient and, possibly, hazardous.
To remedy the problem, an action-plan funded replacement of the entire rigging system is underway. New pulleys will be anchored to the floor backstage, eliminating the friction created by the movements of the current unsecured pulleys. The ceiling pulleys, which prevent cables from sagging as workers pull on them, are being replaced along with the rope brakes that hold the cables in place. Currently, the rope brakes take special care to ensure they are holding the ropes securely, making falling set pieces a risk. The battens, or pipes that hold set and lighting components in the air, are also being replaced.
The $150,000 project is funded through the fundraising efforts of Cathy Van Doren and Melanie Bannister at the FHSU Foundation, and the Ross and Marianna Beach Foundation, which matched funds raised by the FHSU Foundation, said Williams. Funding efforts came together in December 2012 and were capped the following semester with a $50,000 action plan. By the end of the spring 2013 semester, it was time to compare bids and estimates from different contractors.
Theatrical Services Inc., Wichita, is the contractor. The company has completed projects for Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center in the past. The Felten-Start project will likely last right up until the beginning of classes in August. Three students from the Department of Music and Theatre are helping.
"This will enable us to fly much heavier scenery but will also enable us to move further into the future," said Williams. "When we get new electric connector strips that hang above the stage and heavier light instruments, these new battens will be able to deal with that. The airline cable and everything that had been there since '65 was also beginning to show some wear and tear, so it's just making it a much more safe environment."
Funds existing after the project's completion will go toward purchasing new lighting instruments. Like the overhead fly system, the lights are of the 1960s and replacement parts are difficult to find. Right now, Felten-Start depends on Beach/Schmidt or rents lighting equipment to enhance the existing system.
Changes within the theatre program are not limited to the structural type. The theatre concentration recently made a physical move from the Department of Communication Studies to join music on the west side of Malloy Hall. This has proven itself beneficial, said Williams.
"Being part of the music department is a great thing, and the fact that we now have a performing arts department, and theatre has the support that it does have from Mr. Benjamin Cline and the rest of the music faculty," she said. "We are in the position now to grow both enrollment and majors and interest from students from western Kansas. It's only fitting that we are getting the backstage remodeled. It's only the start of the rest of what will happen with lighting and sound."
The move provides a better fit for the theatre emphasis. Williams said students from other majors want to continue their involvement in theatre, and new students are showing interest in the field as well.
The Felten-Start project has Williams grateful to donors who contributed to the campaign, the Beach Foundation for matching the grant, and those who helped with paperwork in the process.
"I do see more and more young freshmen coming in from Western Kansas who are really interested in participating in theatre," she said. "It's more about theatre now having some sort of consistency, being in the right place in the music department with other performing arts emphasis and making the most out of this building."