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A Star is Born

When the curtain rises this March on Studio Theatre's production of Jean Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon, a new theatre will have its debut. The brand-new Timms Centre for the Arts provides the University's distinguished Department of Drama with a professional performance and teaching venue. It also presents opportunities for the community to become more involved with this gateway to the University.

Indeed, the Drama Department's new performing arts centre owes its existence to community support: the $11.23 million Timms Centre was made possible by the legacy of Albert Timms, an Erskine, Alberta farmer who died in 1978 leaving the bulk of his estate to the University of Alberta for a building to continue the family name. By the time construction on the Timms Centre began in the summer of 1993, the estate had grown to more than $7 million. To this were added contributions from major banks and other private donors and matching funds from the Government of Alberta. At a time of fiscal restraint, the Timms Centre demonstrates what can be achieved through partnerships between the University and the community.

With its distinctive fly tower and curved glass curtain wall framing the lobby, the Timms Centre adds a strong presence to the southeast corner of campus. Set on the site of a former parking lot at 87 Street and 112 Avenue, it is connected by an overhead walkway to the Fine Arts Building and through to HUB and the LRT station — thereby opening a new entrance to campus, one that gives the Department of Drama an excellent marketing opportunity. Students and faculty making their way onto campus through the new building will pass directly by the Department's box office and won't be able to miss the marquee promoting current and coming attractions. And as they pass they will be enticed by the Centre's unmistakable sense of theatre, their imaginations stirred by a balcony running through the entrance foyer — a balcony whose heritage is underlined by its resemblance to the catwalks that form an intricate grid above the Centre's stages.

The spacious lobby of the main theatre adds to the ever-present sense of drama. From its interior there is a panoramic view stretching from the commercial high-rises to the south to venerable St. Stephen's College and its campus neighbors lining 112 Street to the north. At one end, a staircase leads up to the main stage, connecting the lobby's ground floor and mezzanine levels and incorporating an informal playing platform, ideal for speeches and lunchtime performances.

The Timms Centre houses two principal performance venues: the main stage and the second playing space. The main theatre has a proscenium stage and seating for 289 (or 321 with the orchestra pit at house level). The second playing space, which can accommodate an audience of up to 100, has flexible seating that allows for various theatre configurations: thrust, arena, alley, environmental, end or corner stage.

The two performance venues are the nuclei of the building, but what sets the Timms Centre apart from similar facilities is the way the structure facilitates instruction and allows for innovative, safe, efficient production. Above the auditorium in the main theatre the sound and lighting booths are large enough for instruction. The sound booth can double as a small recording studio, while the lighting booth can function as an experimental light lab. The systems housed in both performance spaces are computerized and state-of-the-art.

Brightened by natural light, the rehearsal hall is spacious enough to simulate the entire acting area of the main stage, allowing the director to have a full-scale view of the work in production.

Back stage, the main theatre is an excellent lab for traditional forms of theatre rigging. The entire stage is trapped — making it possible to locate trap doors to meet any production need. Wing space is ample to allow trucking of scenery, and the full fly tower supports a system of counterweighted pipes for flying scenery in and out.

Strategically placed next to the performing areas are the theatre shops, all well lit and ventilated. The shops include a facility for the construction of scenery (sound-proof doors allow work to continue even when a production is in progress), a paint fit-up area where scenery receives its finishing touches, and a prop shop where set dressing and other props are constructed or modified. There are also large areas for the construction, maintenance and alteration of costumes.

All of the shop areas were designed to accommodate both the construction needs of productions and the teaching of classes. Adjacent to them are storage facilities for the vast stock of props and costumes that the Drama Department has accumulated over its 46-year history. While the Timms Centre's design clearly places it at the forefront of new theatre facilities, the planning of the building drew upon the history of the department and the experience of faculty and staff who have practised their art in theatres throughout North America and beyond.

Alan Welch, an administrative officer in the Department of Drama, coordinated the department's participation in the building process. Welch explains that groups of faculty and staff were formed to decide what spaces were needed in the facility and how they should relate to each other. "We knew what we wanted," he says. "Although we are a department of diverse interests and specialties, we came together very quickly on what was needed for the facility to serve the needs of the teaching programs. The process brought us closer together."

To meet the needs identified through this process, the Department of Drama's building committee worked with the architects of Brinsmead Ziola Associates and with another building committee that included people from the University's physical plant, planning and development, and grounds and transport offices. Additional expertise was contributed by consultants, who provided input into the fine points of acoustical, theatrical and landscape design, as well as cost control. The general contractor for the project was Granville Constructors Limited.

The careful planning and design shows in areas like the second playing space. This facility, says Welch, "affords directors, designers and actors a totally flexible theatre with few creative limitations." Features such as railed catwalks increase the room's flexibility while ensuring student safety, making the second playing space an ideal public performance venue for BA, BEd, MA and MFA students, as well as a research facility for the faculty.

"Our actors, directors, designers and technicians now have the opportunity to experience all types of performance venues during their schooling, and they will be prepared to deal with any professional situation they encounter," says Welch.

Thomas Peacocke, '53 Dip(Ed), '55 BEd, '59 BA, the Drama Department's coordinator of acting training and the director of the opening play in the Timms Centre, agrees. Peacocke studied at the University of Alberta in the 1950s and, after earning an MA in directing from Carnegie-Mellon University, began teaching drama at the U of A in 1961. His many credits in film, television, radio and stage have earned him Genie and Sterling Awards as well as a Dave Billington Award for outstanding contributions to the Alberta film industry.

With the completion of the Timms Centre of the Arts, which is connected to the Department of Drama offices and classrooms by an above-ground walkway, Peacocke is enthusiastic about what the department can now offer its students. "The Timms Centre is the finest teaching facility that I am aware of, and it physically brings together the drama department as a whole for the first time since 1972," he says.

Drama department chair David Barnet says the Timms Centre for the Arts even exceeds the expectations he and his colleagues had for it. "It offers us a potential we haven't quite grasped yet," says Barnet, an alumnus of Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in England and the founding director of Edmonton's Catalyst Theatre.

The Timms Centre's main stage will be the new home for Studio Theatre, which annually showcases the talents of the Drama Department's graduating BFA acting class. Barnet points out that, while admission is inexpensive, Studio Theatre has always offered an exciting, unusual season, including some large cast productions that would be prohibitively expensive for most professional companies. With its new stage, Studio Theatre will be able now to engage its audiences even more, says Barnet. "The Timms Centre allows the students a superb platform for their work. It is a theatre that provides the setting for a dynamic relationship between the company and its audience," he says, explaining that other stages where Studio Theatre has performed have tended to create a passive, observing audience, but the new theatre is different: "Here, interaction and a participatory relationship between actors and audience is promoted by the space."

Barnet also points out that the Timms Centre enables his department to involve its audience not just in the final production of theatre but also in the educational process. "We are allowed to open up the workings of the department. Play readings, dance performances, ad hoc presentations are all possible."

The building of the Timms Centre has prompted Barnet's department to begin planning a world-class program for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre technology. There is a demonstrated need in this evolving industry for professional staff, says Barnet, who is particularly excited about the potential the Timms Centre offers to forge a stronger relationship between the department and the community.

He points out that the Timms would be ideal for high school drama festivals, professional performances, children's workshops and extension of city festivals. "The Timms Centre propels us into a new world of business, art and education — and opens up endless opportunities for exchange with the community."

Published Spring 1995.

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