×

Bowker backstage gets a facelift

  • Dennis Conway, associate director of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center, in one of the former laboratories below Bowker Auditorium in Stockbridge Hall. The lab and other spaces are slated to be turned into new dressing rooms and rehearsal areas for performers at Bowker. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Milo Lanoue, left, director of operations for the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center, and FAC associate director Dennis Conway pause in the men's dressing room of Bowker Auditorium during a tour of Stockbridge Hall. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dennis Conway, left, associate director of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center, and FAC director of operations Milo Lanoue pause in the men's dressing room of Bowker Auditorium. The venue is currently hosting the Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater production of "Shrek The Musical.” GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Conway, during the tour to talk about the planned renovations for this space and the adjoining laboratory rooms. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Milo Lanoue, left, director of operations for the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center, and FAC associate director Dennis Conway pause in the men's dressing room of Bowker Auditorium during a tour of Stockbridge Hall to talk about the planned renovations for this space and the adjoining laboratory rooms. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Renovations are planned at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Stockbridge Hall which will convert old laboratory areas below Bowker Auditorium into long-needed backstage facilities. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Renovations are planned at the University of Massachusetts Amherst which will convert old laboratory areas below Bowker Auditorium in Stockbridge Hall into long-needed backstage facilities. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Renovations to the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Stockbridge Hall, opened in 1914, will create needed backstage facilities for the hall's 700-seat Bowker Auditorium. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dennis Conway, associate director of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center, says Bowker Auditorium seats over 700 people but still has an “intimate” feel, with good sightlines and warm lighting.  —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Renovations are planned within the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Stockbridge Hall to create modern backstage facilities the hall's 700-seat Bowker Auditorium. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lanoue, says Bowker Auditorium has already received some upgrades, such as new lighting and sound systems, fresh paint and refurbished chairs. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The former laboratories below Bowker Auditorium are slated to be renovated to create modern "backstage" facilities like dressing rooms. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A ramp has been added to the back of the University of Massachusetts' Stockbridge Hall for handicap access and the transport of stage props for Bowker Auditorium. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dennis Conway, left, associate director of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center, and FAC director of operations Milo Lanoue pause in one of the former laboratories below Bowker Auditorium in Stockbridge Hall. The space will be tunred into backstage areas for performers. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dennis Conway, associate director of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center, in one of two cramped rooms below Bowker Auditorium that is used as a dressing room and for costume storage. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2017

It’s a fine place to see a play, concert or other artistic event. And the stage itself is a perfectly good size to perform on.

But if as a performer you’re looking for some comfortable place to rehearse or get dressed for your show, you may have to consider going elsewhere.

Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, like the building it’s part of— Stockbridge Hall — turns 103 this year. And UMass officials say the auditorium lacks the kind of backstage basics that a modern performance venue needs.

But an effort is now underway to improve dressing rooms, add rehearsal space and other backstage amenities at Bowker and transform what one UMass arts administrator calls “an intimate performance space” into a complete entertainment package.

“It’s a very good place to see a show,” Dennis Conway, associate director of the UMass Fine Arts Center, said of Bowker Auditorium, which seats more than 700 people. “It’s got good sightlines, a new sound system, new lighting.”

But, Conway added, “We’ve been looking to make improvements to [the backstage area] for a long time.”

For instance, Bowker has just two rather cramped dressing rooms, both of which also double as wardrobe storage space. Meantime, hallways and classrooms sometimes have to be commandeered for children to get dressed for large productions by community groups like Amherst Leisure Services.

There are also no rehearsal spaces, and the nearest showers — something dancers in particular might want after a performance — involve a traipse to the university’s Campus Hotel.

But now, unused laboratories from the Soil Science Department, right next to the existing dressing rooms, have been earmarked for renovation and rebuilding — a plan that will more than triple Bowker’s backstage areas for performances and add amenities like showers.

“I think that’s going to give us more variety in what we can offer to an audience,” said Conway,.

He notes that Bowker has long been used by student and community groups like orchestras and theatrical ensembles. But the auditorium is also a key venue for professional performers booked by the FAC, along with the FAC’s main concert hall, which seats 1,850.

Most performers are primarily concerned with a good stage, a good sound system and decent seating for their audience, rather then backstage areas, Conway said. But he believes improving those areas at Bowker will likely make the auditorium more attractive for a wider range of artistic acts booked by the FAC.

“It will give us more flexibility,” he said.

The FAC first began eyeing the possibility of converting the lab spaces at Stockbridge Hall at least 10 years ago, Conway noted, when what he jokingly calls “a campus rumor” began that the soil science labs would be moving. That actually didn’t happen until last year, he noted.

Milo Lanoue, the FAC’s director of operations, notes that Bowker has received other upgrades in the past several years, such as new sound and lighting systems and new carpeting; all of the seating was reupholstered as well.

To upgrade the backstage areas, the next step will be the “remediation” of the disused labs: removing old equipment and any chemical residue, taking down walls to open up the space, reflooring and painting.

“There may be other things we find that need fixing,” said Lanoue. “I mean, the building’s more than 100 years old.”

The initial work will cost about $275,000, including $100,000 from a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund and the rest from the university’s Facilities Department, which is handling construction.

John Ebbetts, the FAC’s director of development, says the FAC has begun a fundraising campaign through varied means, such as social media, to come up with an additional $100,000 to meet the total projected cost of $375,000.

Conway says the main work will begin this year, though an exact date has not been set; preliminary work in the labs has consisted of removing some old equipment and furniture and marking walls targeted for demolition. It’s also not year clear when the job will be finished, he noted: “It will probably go in stages, depending on the funding.”

On a recent tour of Bowker Auditorium, Conway and Lanoue pointed out the bright points and quirks of Bowker and it backstage areas. The handsome balcony, for instance, curving around three sides of the theater, is very gently sloped, giving the auditorium an intimate feel even though it seats over 700.

On the other hand, a rolling rack of multiple costumes — Amherst Leisure Services is currently presenting “Shrek: The Musical” in Bowker — standing in an aisle on one side of the auditorium seemed to testify to Bowker’s lack of wardrobe space.

“I’m assuming that won’t be there when the show opens,” Conway said with a laugh, pointing to the clothes.

Bowker’s backstage areas are actually underneath the theater, down a flight of stairs to the building’s basement. The two dressing rooms, on opposite sides of a central hallway, are currently both crammed with tables pushed together in the center and stacked with things like wigs on wax heads; racks of costumes stand off to the side.

The disused lab spaces are just next door, also on opposite sides of the central hallway. One has been largely cleared, while another still has countertops with faucets and nozzles for gas lines that had been used for experiments.

Conway and Lanoue say the current plan is to convert these areas to two dressing rooms with showers, some rehearsal space and a “green room,” a central area for performers or cast members when they’re not on stage. Ideally it will have a small kitchenette, Lanoue said.

Last but not least: storage areas. There are really none to speak of right now at Bowker for things like stage sets, musical equipment, tools or other equipment, said Conway — but there will be in the future.

“We can’t add on to [Bowker],” he said. “The building is what it is. But we can bring it into the 21st century.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached by email: spfarrer@gazettenet.com.