Preserving Theater for All

A crowd stands outside the theater entrance.  Soon, a stage crew member opens the doors.  They say, “Come in.  Enjoy the show.”  People walk inside UMPI’s Wieden Auditorium and find their seats.  Not long afterwards, the room goes dark and the stage lights up.  Performers then give the audience members an experience that won’t be forgetten anytime soon.

Since 1960, this scene has been played out at Wieden Auditorium on a regular basis.  Joe Zubrick first entered the theater in 1982, he started out as the theater’s director and stage designer.  In 1985, he became the director of UMPI’s theater program.  He remembers when the program put on eight to 14 shows every semester.  Students also performed shows during the summer.  UMPI brought in dance troupes and musicians from across the state and country.  The Pioneer Playhouse, a community theater group, made Wieden Auditorium their home stage.

Zubrick said that hundreds of people used to buy season tickets to Pioneer Playhouse shows.  He called the theater “a centerpiece of the community.”  But Wieden Auditorium has taken much wear and tear through the years.  In the mid-90s, UMPI closed its theater program and less people used the stage for shows.  Physical problems that existed in the theater went unnoticed.

In the early 2000s, Zubrick came to Wieden to help prepare for a show.  He found many dangers and accidents waiting to happen.  Tracks that stage curtains hung on rested on other tracks, the curtains could fall if someone pulled on them.  Many curtains had splotches of paint on them.  Insulation fell off cables that had burned out.  Zubrick knew that the theater needed a lot of changes to become a better space for performers.

“The space itself is really hard to work in.  It’s relatively small.  It has no wing space,” Zubrick said.  “Everything you do in this theater is a compromise because the things that you would like to do you can’t do because of the physical facility.”

For a while, UMPI started to bring more performers to campus.  Early on, the Presque Isle Community Players made Wieden Auditorium their home venue.  Zubrick continued to help with productions.  The first official fundraiser for the theater happened in March 2011.  The Presque Isle Community Players performed “Almost Maine.”  John Cariani, a Presque Isle native and Broadway performer, wrote the play.  The show raised a large amount of funds for renovations.

UMPI has been working to raise more renovation funds for several years.  Rachel Rice, UMPI’s director of community and media relations, became in charge of Wieden Auditorium around three years ago.  She has helped bring a variety of music and theater groups to campus.

Just these past few semesters, UMPI has hosted Boston folk-rock band Adam Ezra Group and local Motown band Star City Syndicate.  Shakespeare touring troupes have performed four plays at UMPI during the last several years.  The Presque Isle Community Players performed another Cariani play “Last Gas” on March 31 and April 1, 7 and 8.  All shows were fundraisers for the theater.  People donated at the door and filled most of the seats.

“I think what we’ve seen is that people have really embraced and enjoyed the concerts and performances that we’ve offered,” Rice said.  “It’s very nice to have the support that we’ve seen from the community.”

So far the Wieden Auditorium renovation has consisted of smaller projects.  But all renovations have had a great impact on the theater.  Last year, Rice and Zubrick installed new back curtains on the stage.  Recently, they hung new side curtains as well.  The curtains give performers more privacy.  They can walk backstage without audience members seeing them.  Wieden Auditorium also has had a new light board in the sound booth for almost a year and a half.  People in the sound booth can dim lights and gels in the lights allow them to change colors.

Debbie Roark, executive director of university advancement, is another team member on the renovation project.  She said that eventually the theater will have new seats.  But for now the group has focused on buying smaller equipment.  They are looking to purchase headsets for stage crew members.  With headsets, crew members in the sound booth and backstage could communicate during a show.

Roark said that improving the theater is a good thing for the community as well.  Wieden Auditorium is one of the few venues for cultural arts in Aroostook County.  The better shape the theater is in, the more performances UMPI can bring to campus and the public.

“We realize that not everybody has the time or ability to drive to Bangor to go to a major production.  This is one thing that we could do to help people in our community,” Roark said.  “We want people to come and enjoy the venue and have a good time.”

Wieden Auditorium does not just host professional actors and musicians.  The Presque Isle Community Players and University Players put on plays and musical revues every semester.  No matter who performs, one thing doesn’t change.  Students and community members can help the theater in any way they can.

“Come to events.  Anytime you hear about an event happening in the auditorium, come be a part of the cultural arts and leave a donation at the door,” Rice said.

The theater renovations still have a long way to go.  But Zubrick feels hopeful that one day Wieden Auditorium can become a popular place for theater again.  He said that Wieden has always had a tradition of putting on quality shows.  The recent performances have given him a glimpse of the theater’s past and its possible future.

“We had people visiting during the summer who couldn’t believe local people put on the quality productions that we had.  They thought they were touring companies,” Zubrick said, about past student and community productions.  “What I remember is the effort and the creativity and the determination to make things happen.”

Wieden Auditorium might not be the same as it was before.  But more than ever people have stepped up to show their support.  The theater’s seats have been filling up again.  Actors and musicians, both local and professional, bring stories and music to life onstage.  Wieden has brought together people who want to see the theater thrive.  For those who love theater, the auditorium will continue as UMPI’s center for the arts and community.