I love taking visitors on tours of the theater ... it's fun. It's also surprising how often the visitor is a local person who has never been in the theater. That always stuns me, but not as much as the tour surprises the visitor ... to realize that we have this large, beautiful, legitimate theater in the middle of our small town a facility that a city or fancy suburb would covet.
As I walk them through the house, I tell them the folklore about Thomas Struthers and how he built his opera house and made it big enough to contain a free library for the people of Warren. I really enjoy telling them that he wanted to provide for the citizenry, but that he also wanted them to be invested in it. He asked the Warrenites of the 1880s to provide the land for him to build his marvelous gift, so they would care about it as much as he did. I think he was probably not only smart, but very people savvy.
Our staff and a handful of knowledgeable volunteers conduct tours. I'm sure we all have slightly different priorities on the history and the stories. Every time I lead a group, I'm reminded about how I had to learn not only all those facts about the theater, but also the whole new language of theater. I have been a theater buff most of my life, but when I took this job more than three years ago, my limited knowledge was strictly from the viewpoint of the ticket holder. Did I have a lot to learn.
Marcy O’Brien, Executive Director, Struthers Library Theatre
It wasn't just all that backwards language about stage right and stage left, upstage and downstage. I think I finally have that figured out so I sound reasonably knowledgeable. But it was the curtains, orchestra pit, fly system, lights, sound, scenery and props. Yikes. I now know that the front curtain, the one that goes up and down, is called the main rag and the one that goes side to side is called the traveler. The short ones (that look like valances) hide the overhead lights and are called borders, while the side curtains are known as legs. Some theater folks refer to them as "tormenters"; that term comes from Burlesque when the strippers used to hide partially behind them!
Last month we replaced the curtains after 28 years because they had gathered so much dirt just hanging there that the fabric gradually rotted. A theater curtain isn't like our home draperies we just can't take it down and toss it in the dryer to get rid of the dust. Ours were so fragile that any snag on scenery caused a tear.
The curtains are operated by a fly system which consists of lines and a counterweight system. Because of this system, the backstage could be a dangerous place. One mishandled line and any one of the 20 overhead screens, scrims or light bars can come crashing down. In the past few months we've instituted a training system for the safe operation of the backstage systems. You are safe if you're on a stage tour with me because I don't know how to handle them and never expect to train for qualification. I'll leave that to the crews who speak theater more fluently than I do.
On stage left, across the stage from the fly system, is our large, wooden piano garage. The Philomel Club owns our resident piano, a magnificent Steinway concert grand that has called the theater home for many years. The piano is easily rolled out of its cocoon for tuning and performances and rolled back to safety.
Adjacent to the piano garage is a pair of huge doors, almost 20 feet high. These doors allow scenery and large set pieces to enter the building directly onto the stage from the back parking lot. Scenery is either wheeled from our annex building where it's constructed or unloaded directly from trucks or buses traveling with touring shows. "Load-in" as they call the arrival of the sets, can be a pretty chilly procedure when those bigger-than-barn doors are open on February nights.
There is one star dressing room backstage immediately off the main stage. It isn't fancy, but it has its own bathroom and a door that can be locked. Three floors of dressing rooms are stacked up behind the stage. Under the stage is the "green room," sort of a multi-purpose gathering place. We serve meals to performers there. It's a place to snack, chat, or gather to wait for your cue. Occasionally it's used as an overflow dressing room.
The stage space that caught me most off guard in my early days is the one I have the most fun with on tour. The two doors at the bottom of the theater aisles that lead to the stage are called, are you ready? - vomitoriums. The first time I heard the word, it I didn't believe it. Then I asked why ... imagining it had something to do with a physical reaction from stage fright. Truth is, it's an ancient word from the Latin, meaning the tunnel through which spectators are ejected ... or spewed. In theater parlance, the term has thankfully been shortened to "the voms."
Next time I'll continue the tour through the rest of our sprawling building, but one last thing about the stage. Every night, the "ghost light" is turned on. We keep a floor lamp onstage to honor the theater tradition, which is still unclear to me. I don't know if it is to keep the ghosts away, or just to keep the light on for a resident spirit. All I know is one night I was working late alone and when I went to the ladies' room I noticed there was no ghost light on. Now I don't consider myself particularly superstitious, but that dark night I left immediately, never looked back and might have broken the land-speed record home. Theater superstitions are there for a reason, and I'm not going to be the one to question them. And by the way, I don't give night tours.
See you in the aisles.
Marcy O'Brien, Executive Director, Struthers Library Theatre