Into the final frontier

By Eric Gallippo

Riverwalk expands into newly developed space

Walking past shelves full of relocated objects in the prop room at Riverwalk Theatre last week, something caught Bill Helder’s attention. “For crying out loud; that harness used to hang in the lobby of the old Okemos Barn,” Helder said, stopping and shaking his head at the sentimental piece of horse tack. “I’m sure that’s one of the things that surfaced when we got to the bottom of that pile of stuff there.”

That pile of stuff has since been replaced with an 80-seat black box studio theater, the centerpiece in the downtown community theater’s $300,000 expansion project that began with a fundraising campaign launched in early 2007 and includes an enlarged lobby, women’s restroom and additional rehearsal and storage space. Major donors for the project include The Dart Foundation, Cool Cities and the Rotary Foundation.

Helder, capital campaign co-chairman at Riverwalk, said with the latest additions, the building’s entire 15,750 square feet of available space has been developed.

Last year Riverwalk celebrated its 20th anniversary, and the Community Circle Players, the company that made Riverwalk its headquarters after losing its original home — the Okemos Barn Theatre — its 50th. Since the campaign to finish off the building, which was first leased and eventually purchased from Impression 5 Science Center, coincided with the anniversaries, it only seemed appropriate memory pieces, like the old harness, turned up while making way for the new.

But the new is pretty exciting, too.

While it’s not much to look at — it’s literally a black box — Helder gets a little twinkle in his eye talking about the new performance space and the potential it brings for innovative staging techniques, whether that be theater in the round, in the corner of the room or out in the swamp. Inspired by a production of “Candide” in which audience members sat at tables instead of in rows and crepe-paper vines dangled from above during the jungle scene, Helder already has plans for the swamp setting of the children’s show “Wiley and the Hairy Man” using a mix of crepe paper and “little pods of kids” positioned around the audience, which will sit on “dry land.” “It may be our first leap into truly black box staging,” Helder said.

Moving into the new rehearsal space next door to the studio theater, Helder paused to make sure this reporter was paying attention to details. “Did you notice that?” Helder asked. “I just walked in, and the lights went on. I think that’s cool.”

Next on our tour, the lengthened lobby and concessions area, which will get its first real test at an invite-only dedication event Sunday, and the improved women’s restroom facilities. “This is my wife’s favorite part,” Helder said, leading the way to show off the two additional commodes, complete with plates honoring donors on the stall doors.

Construction workers were still putting the final touches on the place last week, and the fire marshal sill had to sign off on the alarm system. Some issues need to be worked out in the black box before it’s performance ready in the fall, namely sound, lighting and an unwanted echo. Helder said one “tiny wrinkle” in the fundraising campaign is that it was set up for three years, which means final payments from pledges aren’t due until December. With the economy on the skids, he’s expecting some of that money not to come in now, which won’t affect construction, but will hurt the theater’s ability to equip the place.

But if they don’t have the lights and microphones in time for the first Black Box series show in October, Helder said he didn’t see a problem staging a production featuring the “unassisted human voice and some flashlights.”

Peering into the void, or a big, empty staging area can be like that. Some panic, others see potential.