Humanities Theatre closed for renovations and upgrades (and reveals historical gems)

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Over the lockdown(s), the Humanities Theatre in Hagey Hall quietly changed hands from being centrally managed for all its years of operation to Faculty of Arts management. Given its location and name, many might have assumed the theatre had always lived under the administrative umbrella of Arts, but that’s not the case — until now.

Today, Janelle Rainville, Director of Production and Theatre Operations (Department of Communication Arts), is hard at work to ensure the Humanities Theatre will be safe and modernized for all theatre users. “Inspections by independent accessors have identified health and safety concerns that need to be addressed immediately,” says Rainville. This means the theatre is now closed for one year while necessary renovations are completed. “We plan to re-open, including welcoming rentals again, in 2023.”

The list of renovations includes enclosing the balcony railing to meet building code, upgrading the stage rigging system, replacing the asbestos fire curtain and upgrading the fire safety system, and installing proper safety equipment for staff, faculty, and students working at heights in all areas of the theatre.

archival photo of theatre construction

Archival photo of the Humanties Theatre under construction, circa 1970.

In researching the Humanities Theatre history and consulting with external experts, Rainville discovered something exciting. In a note to the Dean of Arts Office this summer, she wrote: “I wanted to share a fun fact that I just learned from our fly system consultant, Rick Boychuk, who wrote the book (actually, two books) on the history of theatrical fly systems.  I’d been sending him building drawings and whatever paperwork I found.  He got super excited when he saw the drawings: The Humanities theatre was designed by George Izenour, a huge figure in theatre architecture and technology. Rick says ‘Wow. Just wow. This is huge.’”

Who knew? It turns out the Humanities Theatre was designed by a “leading innovator in the field of theatrical design and technology” credited with over 27 patents for various technologies and design improvements — according to Wikipedia.

Rainville also reports other historical gems and time-capsules found backstage and in other parts of the theatre. Here are a few from her list of discoveries:

  • A paint frame that is one of only a dozen or so that still exists in Canada.  It allows scenic painters to work on drops (backgrounds) that are approximately 40 by 30 feet. The paint frame is still functional, though needs a little love
  • The sound booth was a museum for audio technology.  It included a record player, a reel-to-reel machine, an 8-track player, and a cassette deck.  All were still in working order.
  • Photos of the original lighting system that was installed in 1970 plus photos of the Theatre of the Arts’ original lighting system from 1965.
  • Scads of original drawings, plans, and photos of the space during its original construction and seating renovation in 2000.
  • The Wheel of Death stage prop from a FASS production, along with many other FASS memorabilia

Kathryn MacDonald, Arts Executive Officer, says the adoption and renovation of Humanities Theatre is a tremendous opportunity. “The Faculty of Arts will develop a theatre destination for Kitchener-Waterloo that will attract shows and visitors from all over while serving our campus community as a fully updated presentation and performance space. And there is great potential for experiential learning for our students involving stage and set design, working with sophisticated rigging, and other theatre technologies.”

Rainville’s colleague Chris Greenhalgh, Director of Technical Theatre, has reclaimed the backstage workshop, upgrading it with newer tools and equipment, plus required safety features, to make a fully functional space where students have attended carpentry labs since September.

Also manager the 400-seat Theatre of the Arts in ML and Studio 180 black box theatre in Hagey Hall, Rainville is currently making every effort to assist more than 50 rental bookings for the Humanities Theatre that had to be cancelled in finding alternative arrangements on campus and in the region.

“We’re lucky to have Janelle and Chris," says MacDonald, "who have years of theatre operations and technology experience, to guide these plans and renovations."

Pain frame backstage

theatre backstage

stairs with Theatre Staff Only sign