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Rebuilding the Past to Reach the Future

The renovation of the Plaza Theatre has given the Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City, Okla. the space needed to offer theatre year round while paying tribute to its heritage


By Joel Dorr


When envisioning the state of Oklahoma one quickly conjures up images of denim jeans, cowboy hats and crazed bulls spinning around an arena, ferociously trying to toss a rider from its back. Google Oklahoma and you instantly find the state’s diversity with listings for the major Oklahoma universities standings in football polls to the befitting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”


So it is no wonder that in the capital city of Oklahoma resides a theatre that pays tribute to its namesake. The Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City has been producing great musical theatre since 1963 and is Oklahoma’s only professional year-round musical theatre company. That’s a lot of  theatre!


The success of the Lyric Theatre can be traced back to the first element in the original mission statement, “to provide excellent live musical theatre,” according to Paula Stover, executive director of the Lyric Theatre, who goes on to say, “The group of dedicated civic leaders wanted to broaden the cultural landscape of the city, and believed that a professional musical theatre company would bring a taste of Broadway to Oklahoma.”


The Lyric Theatre produces classic and contemporary musicals through a blending of Broadway stars and local favorites, while proudly providing over 250 jobs through out the year. Operating under an URTA contract with the Actors’ Equity Association, and employs members of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and Musicians Local 375-703, as well as I.A.T.S.E. Local 112, the Lyric insures outstanding quality in each production by employing nationally recognized directors, designers, actors and artist.


“The Summer Season is the season we have been producing for 46 years.  It is the time when Lyric can produce the big classic and contemporary musicals. Historically, the reason Lyric was founded as a ‘summer stock theatre’ was because there was no place to perform during the rest of the year,” says Stover.


Spreading Your Wings


For many years the Lyric was content producing only musical theatre but with time a decision was made to stretch artistically. They began the expansion through the introduction of various new series, such as “Show Notes”, which debuted in the fall of 2001. The “Show Notes” series are cabaret style concerts developed around the work of a featured composer or a central theme offering an insider look at how the works came to life. A new 2004 winter series entitled “The Lyric Theatre Second Stage” produces edgier more mature subject matter pushing the envelope past traditional musical theatre. The fall of 2005 ushered in the “Staged Reading Series” offering writers and composers of new musicals a forum to hear their work on stage in limited productions.


Audiences embraced each new series with excitement and enthusiasm, however, the successful introduction of every new production was followed by an old familiar problem seen throughout the theatre world.


“We wanted to be able to offer our audiences opportunities to take in quality professional theatre year-round…but we were still faced with renting space any place in Oklahoma City where we could find it, and we could not mount a true year-round season that way,” points out Stover.


A New Arena – No Bull


Producing the summer season of big classic and contemporary musicals on the large stages of the Kirkpatrick Fine Arts Auditorium and most recently in the newly renovated Civic Center Music Hall has worked perfectly for over 40 years. The large stages however are simply too big for smaller musicals and plays which the Lyric hoped to produce in a year round performance schedule. So the Lyric set their sites on a plan to expand their footprint including the renovation of the historic Plaza Movie Theatre.


“In 2000, Lyric took a huge step in securing a centralized, permanent home for all company undertakings. Three buildings were purchased all within one square mile area known in Oklahoma City as the Plaza District, an inner city neighborhood located in the midtown area, which has been undergoing a dramatic revitalization. Two of these buildings, the Administrative/Ticket Office and the Plaza Theatre are conjoined. Our Production Center/Academy building is located one block west,” says Stover.


While there was no doubt in the Plaza Theatre’s potential use, it was–well there is no easy way to put it–it was nasty, a total wreck. Sitting neglected since the 1980s, the theatre had been ravaged by time, soaked by rain and reeked of mildew.


The capital campaign for the renovation work started with a feasibility study of Oklahoma City and after the positive results came in, they hired David Green, a campaign consultant, to coach them through the fundraising process. The campaign was set at 10 million dollars with 5 million allocated for the renovation and five million for the endowment. Before the campaign was announced to the community half of money was raised from foundations, corporations and individual donors. 


“There were many milestones during the campaign – our first major gift was 1 million dollars from The E.L. & Thelma Gaylord Foundation to finish renovation and endow the Academy building, next a 1.5 million gift from the Inasmuch Foundation towards the Plaza Theatre renovation.  It took two and a half years to complete the entire process,” according to Stover.


The beautiful renovation of the Plaza Theatre on NW 16th Street has been instrumental in bringing back to life this beloved and historic neighborhood. The renovated Plaza is now open year round and has provided the Lyric’s Thelma Gaylord Academy students with the “ultimate classroom” when presenting their work on the stage.


The renovation, designed by architect Rand Elliott with theatre consultants Jack Hagler and Kimberly Corbett of Shuler Shook, is stunning to say the least. The renovation is an amazing blend of modernization enhanced through the beauty of the past.


This of course was the feeling architect Rand Elliott was hoping to invoke in audiences as they entered the theatre. As a child Elliott remembers the prominent role the Plaza Theatre played in the lives of the community and wanted to build a connection back to that time. To help the audience connect, Elliott acknowledged the “ghost” of the past in the renovation design.


“A neon outline ‘ghost’ marquee was designed in the spirit of the original as was the exposed brick walls acknowledging the buildings shell construction. We decided to make art of heater cavities and conduit locations once hidden behind long ago destroyed plaster. Even the original fireplace in the lobby is now a surprise in the men’s room,” explains Elliott.


“The original concept was to give them [Lyric Theatre] the most flexible space possible. When it actually happened the way we dreamed it, it was really exciting. This one really evolved exactly the way we dreamed it. Even better probably,” says theatre planner Jack Hagler of Shuler Shook.


Creating an intimate and functional theatre from a very linear ex-movie house was a huge challenge. The design team realized the importance of extending the stage as far a possible into the house while looking for other ways to bring the production to the audience.


“My goal was to pull the audience member into the drama and make them a “participant” as they experience the space as a stage,” says Elliott.


Creating a great environment within a space is an important component of a design, but ensuring its functionality on the production side is just as imperative.


“As we talked through it, Rand came up with the concept of bringing catwalks down the sides of the room to add flair to the walls and turn them into functional catwalk systems. This allows you to hang masking curtains, pull railings, build stairs up to the catwalks or mask the cat walk themselves. It’s now possible to extend the masking down to cover the beautifully exposed brick walls to change the look of the entire room,” says Hagler, continuing, “To me, the prize of the space is the tension wire grid that covers the stage and extends out above the seating which gives you the ability to bring the production out into the audience. This grid allows for the hanging of lights, scenic elements or flying people or objects overhead to embrace the audience.”


The newly renovated Plaza Theatre is now bustling with activity proudly presenting the work of the Lyric while being rented by non-profit theatres and performance art companies throughout the area.


Surrounding Yourself With Good People


The success of any organization begins with the people who are engaged at all levels.  The Lyric Theatre employs 14 full-time staff members and around 100 part-time during the summer and winter seasons. Over 150 volunteers help out in a wide variety of theatre task such as ushering, mailings, helping with the Academy and event planning to name a few. Like many non-profit theatres, the success of the Lyric Theatre as a whole, and the triumphant capital campaign effort in particular, is a direct result of an excellent Board.


“The Board of Directors is made up of civic business leaders and civic volunteers and were instrumental in raising funds for the campaign.  We would not be where we are today if not for two Board members in particular – Mike Turpen and Gail Beals. Mike was Campaign Chairman and is responsible for raising over 80 percent of the funds.  Gail was Community Campaign Chair and brought in funds from subscribers all over the state of Oklahoma.  All of the Board members who worked on the Campaign are still with Lyric,” explains Stover.


So often we look at decaying buildings and give little thought to what possibilities it might offer with a little work. Luckily the folks of Oklahoma City found a way to breathe life back into the abandon walls of the Plaza Theatre helping the Lyric Theatre to reach out to their community by reaching back in time.


Paula Stover believes this has been a winning proposition for everyone as the Lyric Theatre reaches more Oklahomans than any other arts organization in the state.  Says Stover, “The Plaza Theatre fulfilled Lyric’s vision of having a home for the Academy students to perform in the ‘ultimate classroom’ for performing plays along with small musicals, and of having a full winter season of Broadway entertainment to complement the summer season at the Civic Center.”

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