Welcome to the New Hazlett Theater

Opening night: the twittering excitement of musicians and actors, the frantic rushing of the stage crew, and the vital sound checks repeated ceaselessly. One flaw can destroy the players’ spirits, but deafening applause can signal the weight lifted from their backs. It was opening night at the Hazlett Theater this weekend, but while all the people in it were checking, rushing, and preparing, it was the old building that was the focus. People were coming to see the show, yes, but the theater itself was the star this time around. After years of sitting in grand silence in the North Side, the New Hazlett Theater is reopening its doors and starting anew.

Act 1: The Theater as it Was

The Hazlett Theater, now called the New Hazlett Theater, is the most recently renovated theater in Pittsburgh. Beginning in 1984, when the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust turned the Stanley Theater into the Benedum Center, newly renovated theaters have been born in the spaces that once housed vaudeville show houses and early movie theaters. The surge of renovations by the Cultural Trust “is due to the work of Jack Heinz, who hoped to transform a red-light district into a Cultural District,” wrote Veronica Corpuz, public relations manager for the Cultural Trust, via e-mail. The Hazlett restoration, however, was undertaken by a new non-profit organization: the New Hazlett Center for the Performing Arts. Oversight for the theater comes from a number of groups, including the Children’s Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum.

The opening of the 2006–2007 season at New Hazlett will continue a tradition for arts and performance that began on the very spot, in the very same building, 117 years ago. In 1889 the building was created as the Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall; the words “Carnegie Hall” are chiseled into the stone above New Hazlett’s doorway today.

Yet for all the rich history of the place, it might have never lived to be called New Hazlett Theater. “The building itself was to be torn down in the late ’60s,” said Sara Radelet, the executive director of the New Hazlett, “The community sort of rallied and prevented that from happening.”

When renovations ended in 1972, patrons found themselves in a very different type of theater, one with a new name: the Allegheny Community Theater. Where once the theater had a very traditional look, in the new space, “all the plaster was removed to get down to bare brick walls and there was an intricate lighting system…. It created this very industrial feel,” said Radelet. The seating, she said, was on movable risers to allow the theater to be set up in different ways, such as theater in the round style or a thrust/three-quarters configuration (with the audience on three sides). The space was rented out by various groups and grew to be known as a haven for public theater.

Intermission: A Few Too Many Tenants

The first theater company to rent out the Allegheny Community Theater was Carnegie Mellon-born. “The original tenant was the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Vanguard Theatre Project — a professional touring company that produced plays for high school- and college-aged students that had been founded by Carnegie Mellon-trained actors and faculty members in 1962,” wrote Lynne Conner, summarizing from her book Pittsburgh in Stages: Two Hundred Years of Theater, to be published this spring.

From 1974 to 1979, various groups took up the space, including the City Players (currently the City Theatre Company), which was the first and only theater company fully funded and sponsored by the city of Pittsburgh, according to Conner.

Conner said that it was not until 1980 that the space was renamed the Hazlett Theater, after Ted Hazlett, the man who had headed both the A.W. Mellon Foundation and the effort to create the Allegheny Community Theater. By that time, Pittsburgh Public Theater was the sole performing group at the venue, and when the O’Reilly Theater was built closer to the heart of the Cultural District, the Public Theater moved to that venue.

The city continued to rent the Hazlett to various groups. “The issue was that nobody was using [the Hazlett Theater] time and again,” Radelet said. “Each group had to move in and start from scratch.” Without a staff of its own, the Hazlett Theater became too much of a hassle to perform in, even for the groups that loved it. Until New Hazlett Center for the Performing Arts came along, the theater had been mostly dormant since 2001. It was then that the Hazlett Theater experienced its second resurgence.

Act 2: Let’s Take it from the Top

In 2005, when renovations were being planned, it had been years since the Hazlett Theater had been maintained year-round. There were problems with water damage, said Radelet, and there were insufficient public restrooms and unsavory backstage conditions. All of this would have to be changed in order to create a successful new beginning for the Hazlett Theater.

One thing, however, had to stay the same: the very heart, the performance area itself. Wayne Brinda, who served on the board of directors for the New Hazlett Theater, recalled another board member urging them not to change the theater itself. While the lobby, backstage areas, and catwalks were all replaced or renovated, the theater was left alone as requested.

On the theater’s opening weekend, plenty of the old exposed brick that Brinda and Radelet both called attention to remained visible. The renovations are so freshly done that the sharp chemical smell of new paint and carpet still hits patrons as they walk through the door. The chairs in the theater still look like they’ve seen their share of days, their small widths speaking of a time before luxury movie theater seats at places like Loews.
The “stage” as it was set up this time was really just the floor; the front-row-seat audience could put their feet on the same level as the actors’. In preparation for Saturday evening’s performance by Dan Zanes and Friends, musicians tuned up and sound checks echoed through the chamber. There were few people, but every one of them (including Radelet) was moving in a ceaseless pattern of straightening and adjusting. The contrast between the rough light red bricks and the pale shining wood of the ticket counter strikes guests immediately. As Brinda put it, “It’s the old Hazlett from the perspective of the audience because of the stage. It’s the New Hazlett because of the new equipment and because of the new lobby.”

Brinda’s theater company, Prime Stage, will be performing its entire 10th anniversary season at the New Hazlett Theater, but it performed there back in the days when it was being rented by the city as well. “Performers [and] audiences love going there,” said Brinda of the theater. “It’s a facility that a lot of people love. There’s something magical about it.”

Brinda lived through the years when the Hazlett Theater was in less than the greatest repair. “No one was really taking care of the theater,” he said. “A lot of us had to pretty much fend for ourselves.” Despite the shortcomings, Brinda still feels the theater was a great place to work. “It’s the closeness and the ruggedness of the theater,” he said. “You anticipate having an experience there because it’s a three-quarter and the focus is on the performance.... It focuses on the story being told; being close to the actors, you can feel things with them, you can appreciate what’s going on.”

“It really is nice to go back to that space,” Brinda said. “We loved it and our audiences loved it.” When the theater company announced it was returning to the space, he said he felt like everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Prime Stage will begin its season with The Crucible and will also be showing To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Jack and Rochelle at the New Hazlett Theater. In addition to a full season by Prime Stage, the New Hazlett will feature many collaborative performances. During the 2006–2007 season, the theater will host collaborations between the Children’s Museum and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and between the Andy Warhol Museum and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The theater will also host Attack Theatre, Dance Alloy, the Pittsburgh Music Theater, and the Pittsburgh Opera throughout the season, according to Radelet.

In keeping with the spirit of Prime Stage, which gears itself towards producing works that can be suitable for young people and enjoyed by adults, the New Hazlett will open its doors to a wide variety of performances. Radelet said her goal for the theater was to “generate a culture here … where all age groups … feel they have a connection to it.”

Curtain Call

Today the staff at the New Hazlett will be cleaning up after the festivities of this past weekend’s opening events and preparing for what comes after the parties are over. They will be setting about the business of preparing for a whole season of performances from a large range of arts and theater groups.

The reopening of the New Hazlett, then, will be marked as another of several theaters and arts venues to start fresh in the past two decades or so. The long term plans for the New Hazlett include making Pittsburgh (and the theater) a new stop along the touring routes of musical groups. Even now, however, the reopening has bolstered the community, according to Radelet and Brinda.

“That’s why all of us were so focused and committed to getting this thing reopened again,” said Brinda. “It’s almost like going back to the way it was when it started. It’s a home for the region, not just one theater company. It’s a theater for the community, it’s a theater for the region, and really that’s what it was intended to be.”