By Lawrence Cosentino
It’s almost October. What’s holding up Williamston Theatre’s 2022-’23 season?
Nothing. Literally — nothing.
People who go to the first production of the season, Terry Guest’s “Magnolia Ballet, Part 1,” beginning Oct. 13, will be shocked to discover that four view-obstructing, creativity-cramping pillars have vanished into thin air.
In an engineering coup nearly as impressive as making it through the three toughest years in American theater history, the Williamston team has finally gotten rid of a 15-year-long headache, part of a bold $500,000 investment in their home and mission.
Sunday afternoon, the Williamston crew was busy bolting down crimson seats in a transformed space.
Actress Karen Sheridan, who portrayed the divine Sarah Bernhardt in “Memoir” at Williamston in 2018, played the humble role of “lady with vacuum” Sunday. She dragged the vacuum along, spiffing up each row of seats as soon as her “Memoir” co-star, Williamston co-founder John Lepard, could bolt them down.
“It’s a great day,” Sheridan said, turning off the vacuum to be heard.
The poles obstructed the view from over a dozen seats, interfered with lighting and projection by casting unwanted shadows and penumbras and, worst of all, distanced the actors from the audience and the audience from itself.
“They divided the audience into slices,” Sheridan said. “Now the audience will feel like it’s experiencing the story together, and we’ll feel closer to them on stage.”
Three days before, Williamston Theatre director and co-founder Emily Sutton-Smith walked into the theater for the first time since it was liberated from the poles and cried joyfully.
“For 15 years, it was ‘someday, someday,’ she said. “Now, someday is today.”
The four poles weren’t there for show. They held up a supporting beam that, in turn, held up the entire second floor and the roof of the building.
Scott Walkowicz, a structural engineer based in East Lansing, said it’s the most unusual project he’s worked on in his 30-year career.
When stores or restaurants are renovated, Walkowicz explained, nobody thinks of removing poles. On the contrary, people find them reassuring.
With no textbook to consult, Walkowicz came up with an original solution, as far as he knows. To remove the need for support from below, Laux Construction installed a steel girdle on top of the roof and dropped rods down through the roof and the first-floor ceiling, supporting the second floor from above.
Sharp-eyed patrons will spot three giant beams lining the back wall of the house. The south wall, a shared wall owned by the neighbor, was unavailable for support.
“We couldn’t touch that wall,” Walkowicz said. “So we had to drop columns all the way down through the roof, the second floor, the first floor, the basement and into the earth.”
To embed the new superstructure into the foundation, the team used helical piers, long rods with propeller-like blades that drill deep below the frost line to stabilize the tons of weight above. Contractors squeezed into a 2-foot crawlspace to cap the piers with concrete.
The vertical columns were swung over and dropped into place by crane on a sunny morning in August, as Putnam Road was closed to traffic.
Walkowicz’s team worked out detailed computer models of the brick and wood “swaying loads” (a queasy engineering term for typical wall wobble) to determine where the beams should go.
Steel rods over an inch thick were hung from the beams, like the cables on a suspension bridge, and affixed to brackets below. The doomed first-floor poles were fitted with heavy steel collars attached to the brackets.
In a tradition going back to ancient Rome, Walkowicz himself, as a design engineer, stood in the middle of the floor below as the poles were detached last week.
“It’s like making the engineer cross the bridge first,” he said. The new steel skeleton held up perfectly.
It’s the most significant change in infrastructure at Williamston since artistic director and co-founder Tony Caselli took down the “For Sale” sign in front of the former Mr. G’s Furniture building 15 years ago, using a Phillips head screwdriver donated by the Tru-Valu hardware store across the street.
Back then, the box office was a card table stacked with cookies. A three-quarter “thrust” stage, instead of a traditional proscenium arch, gave the theater a unique intimacy. Still, the four founding members — Sutton-Smith, Lepard, Caselli and managing director Chris Purchis — had their sights on the poles from the start.
As far back as 2005, a structural engineer told them it was possible to remove the poles, but it would be expensive.
Meanwhile, the staff concentrated on making more pressing (and affordable) improvements, such as adding bathrooms, putting in a box office, adding a door to the stage left aisle, upgrading to LED lights, and adding projection capability that has become essential in modern theaters.
In 2014, after the theater bought the building and paid off the mortgage, the pole project seemed within reach.
In the first phase of renovations, the “Wizard of Oz” booth, where the stage manager controls the lights, sound and other theater magic, was moved from a remote corner of the stage to a commanding spot in the middle of the back lobby.
Fundraising was underway for the pole removal phase when the pandemic hit. The theater was closed for 20 months — the entire 2020-’21 season and parts of the season before and after.
“There were definitely moments during the pandemic when the four of us looked at each other and went, ‘Well, we’ve had a good run,’” Sutton-Smith said.
Two rounds of PPP funds, a Shuttered Venue Operating Grant and a LEAP grant, helped keep the theater alive. A three-year renovation plan was split into four years. The delay had an upside because it gave the staff time to raise more private funds. Donors stepped up and demonstrated their faith that the theater would bounce back better than before.
But the fight for survival isn’t over for the Lansing area’s only professional theater. According to an Aug. 21 report in The New York Times, theaters across the country, from Broadway to regional theaters, are reporting downward attendance trends. The numbers are almost shockingly consistent from market to market. For example, attendance at the Metropolitan Opera fell from 75 percent of capacity to 61 percent in the 2021-22 season. At the Williamston Theatre, attendance dropped from 75 percent capacity to around 40 percent. A much-vaunted boost from pent-up demand hasn’t materialized, especially in venues with an older clientele.
“We honestly expected everyone to come back last year, and they didn’t,” Sutton-Smith said. “So we are looking at a slightly more precarious financial situation that we are very conscious of.”
There were times when the staff and board questioned the need for an extensive renovation project when attendance was in decline, but it would have been a nightmare to give back the grants and donations earmarked for the renovation.
“There’s a moment when you say, is this really what we want to spend our savings on? But the flip side is, if we don’t do it now, it will never happen,” Sutton-Smith said.
The theater borrowed on its own savings to get the job to the finish line.
Last month, Williamston received $10,000 in National Recovery Act funds from the Gaining Recovery in Transition, or GRIT, program administered by the Arts Council of Greater Lansing.
People ask Caselli why the theater didn’t simply move to another building.
“We love where we are — easy parking, easy access to restaurants and bars,” he said. “We’re open to all kinds of collaborations, but this is our home. This is where we want to be.”
Tickets are already on sale for the seats Sutton-Smith and her team bolted into place Sunday. The season’s first play, “Magnolia Ballet Part 1,” continues the theater’s collaboration with the National New Play Network, a “rolling world premiere” program that supports new plays and playwrights.
“Magnolia Ballet” also furthers Williamston’s mission of bringing new plays to Michigan and fulfills a firm commitment to bring diverse voices to the stage.
Williamston’s January 2022 production of Heather Raffo’s “Nine Parts of Desire” followed the lives of nine Iraqi women over the two Gulf Wars and U.S. occupation, all played by actress Sarab Kamoo in a one-woman tour de force. “Magnolia Ballet” fleshes out a similarly rich mine of life experiences that may be unfamiliar to many audience members.
“Terry is a wonderful Black queer playwright, such a lyrical writer,” Sutton-Smith said. “It’s a father-son story, but it’s got all of these layers about queerness, racial heritage, family relationships.”
On an engineer’s pad or a playwright’s script, this season as Williamston is all about removing obstructions and bringing people closer together. Half a million dollars is a lot of money, but Sutton-Smith feels the investment will start paying off on opening night.
“It’s important to us that we make sure the organization has a future beyond us,” she said, “so the next generation of artists can come in, be part of the community, tell great stories and touch people’s lives — and not have any beams to deal with.”