Beginning in 1958 Ponca Playhouse made its home in the Civic Center paying $1 a year rent but the city closed the civic center in the early 1990's due to structural concerns and several years later began the centennial project to remodel the building. The Civic Center closed with the production of "Rumors" in the spring of 1994 and the Playhouse began looking for a place to rehearse and perform. Fortunately, the Poncan Theater had just reopened after renovations and offered a vaudeville stage to the Playhouse. Between 1994 and 1996, the Playhouse rehearsed and built sets in a number of locations including Martin's Furniture building which is now Kem's gym. "We were vagabonds looking for a place to land," says JoAnn Muchmore. The Playhouse rented the Poncan Theater stage and produced its first production “Lend me a Tenor” in the fall of 1994 and the Poncan would be its home for theatrical productions for the next 15 years. During this period the Playhouse presented its productions on the stage of the Poncan but used the O'Reilly building on South First St., purchased in 1996 from the Monger family, for rehearsal space, construction of sets, and as a storage area for costumes and props.
[Click on the photo above to enlarge it.]
Now fifty-one years after its founding, this September Ponca Playhouse began presenting performances in the O'Reilly building so that for the first time both the theatrical performances and the work area for preparation and rehearsal would take place in the same location. "We had a dream and I think that one of the big pushes was that we wanted a facility where we would have a home of our own," says Ruslyn Hermanson. "We wanted a space where everything was together and we didn't have to move from one spot to another."
On September 18, I sat down with five members of Ponca Playhouse: JoAnn Muchmore (long time Director at the Playhouse and Director of "Tuesdays with Morrie"), Brian Hermanson (Producer of "Tuesdays with Morrie"), former Ponca Playhouse President Karen Brown, Jose Cervantes, and Ruslyn Hermanson to talk about what it took to get Ponca Playhouse installed and ready to perform in their new space, how the new space will affect the Playhouse's productions, and what the future holds for Ponca Playhouse.
If necessity is the mother of invention, than the looming deadline of the opening of Ponca Playhouse's first play of the season, "Tuesdays with Morrie," galvanized members of the Playhouse to get the space prepared. The amazing thing is that the work on the seats and risers came together so quickly. "The work got done in one month. Three weeks before opening night you would never have dreamed we could do it," says Brian Hermanson. "We were out in the lobby rehearsing and there were twenty-two people inside the theater working so hard they were sweating.," says JoAnn Muchmore. "The actors said one night 'What is plan B? If the theater isn't ready and there is no place for us, what are we going to do?' I told them it would be ready because I didn't want to upset the actors, but I wasn't so sure myself."
The first thing the Playhouse did was put in new bathrooms that were handicapped accessible. "We did that with the help of the Vietnam Vets who did most of the work because they have a policy of promoting handicapped accessibility," says Ruslyn Hermanson. Then came the seats. "Our office manager, Marlene Foxworthy, happened to remember that the Tulsa Performing Arts Center had remodeled," says Karen Brown. "So she got on the phone and found the last remaining seats that had not been used elsewhere. The contractor removing the seats from the Arts Center told us 'We have some seats and if you can come and get them within a week, you can have them.'" Sullivan Trucking provided a truck, a driver, and a helper and about six members of the Playhouse drove to Tulsa, got the chairs, loaded them up and brought them to Ponca City. "The chairs were in pieces, there were three different sizes of hardware so we had to put them together and fabricate missing parts," says Jose Cervantes but what was most amazing was that the risers we had built "fit 108 seats which was exactly the number of chairs that we were able to get from Tulsa," says Brian Hermanson.
As you come in the theater you will see that seats in the theater are arranged in six separate sections with each of the six "risers" self-contained with three levels of seats. The six risers are the crucial piece of the puzzle that made the design of Ponca Playhouse come together. Members of the Playhouse had discussed the design of the theater for 15 years and visited other theaters like "Town and Gown" in Stillwater to get ideas but what the final design came down to was two factors: flexibility and quality of seating. Members of the Playhouse came up with a unique solution that solved both problems. The first requirement for the design of the Playhouse's new performance space was that the Playhouse gain the flexibility to rearrange seating easily to perform different kinds of plays. To meet this requirement each of the six risers was designed so it could be moved anyplace in the room with a pallette jack. "The thing is that we wanted to have a design that was not limited," says Ruslyn Hermanson adding that the seating can be reconfigured in 30 minutes. "We wanted something that could be moved so if we want to have a proscenium stage, we can have it. If we want to have a thrust stage like we are using in 'Tuesdays with Morrie' we can do that. If we want to do theater in the round, we can do that."
The second requirement was that everybody have a great seat and that there be a new feeling of intimacy between the actors and the audience. "Nobody is more than three seats away from the production. Everybody has a great sight line. The actors are having eye contact and actually talking to you and you feel that you are part of the play rather than someone who is hiding in the back of the room," says Brian Hermanson. Karen Brown added that "when we had our open house for picking seats everybody wanted to chose seats in front. They couldn't quite get their head around the fact that now you can see the production just as well from the sides." Another practical advantage of the more intimate setting is that members of the audience can see and hear the play better. "The number of people with hearing problems, as you get over 50 is increasing," says Brian Hermanson. "Now people say after our first production ‘I can hear everything. I can see everything. Even though I have a seat near the back wall I have a great view.'"
The ways in which the new space will change the character of the Ponca Playhouse range from the economic, to the artistic, to a change in the way that the actors interact with the audience. "The Playhouse will be better able to weather the hardship of the loss of population in Ponca City by no longer having to pay rent for a performance space," says Karen Brown and the Playhouse can expand their offerings outside of the regular line-up. "We can do dinner theater," says Brian Hermanson. "Whether it be just desert or a full meal, we know that is something our patrons are wanting," says Karen Brown.
Artistically the new space will provide a greater challenge and greater opportunities to the Playhouse's directors. "When JoAnn Muchmore directs a play, instead of just directing her actors to the audience out in front, they are now playing to three or four sides, and this gives her the opportunity to teach us things." says Brian Hermanson. Another advantage to the new location is that it gives the Playhouse more flexibility in scheduling performances. "With so many older people now who don't like to drive at night, I think it would be good to plan more matinees," says JoAnn Muchmore. Having their own space will also allow the Playhouse to have extended runs of their most popular shows. "Musicals generally have more people attending than conventional theater. If we sell out early we can add more performances," says Brian Hermanson. "That's a good problem to have."
Construction of the new space has also been a real unifying experience for Ponca Playhouse and some say that the feeling of accomplishment and pride in putting together the new space is like the feeling when the Playhouse first started over fifty years ago. "We didn't know for sure who was going to show up on a work day. It would just be announced that there would be people down at the Playhouse at this time and day," says Ruslyn Hermanson. "One day twenty-six people showed up to work at the Playhouse. You wouldn't hear people complaining" says Brian Hermanson. "You would hear people inside laughing and having a good time."
"You are going to see some changes behind the stage," says Brian Hermanson. "Right now we don't really have traditional dressing rooms for the actors. Hopefully we are going to be able to expand to two buildings further down the block so we have have dressing rooms and additional work spaces."
Another change will be adding to the infrastructure in the theater. "We want to own our own lighting," says Brian Hermanson. "We want to add our own lighting and a sound booth back in the corner. Right now we are renting lighting because we don't want to make that investment before we have a chance to work with the lighting during a production but our own lighting is something that you are going to see very soon."
From a artistic standpoint the Playhouse may expand in other directions as well. "I think we may want to start doing some different, edgier plays that challenge the audience more," says Karen Brown something that JoAnn Muchmore has argued for in the past. One possibility would be to start a reader's theater on Sunday evenings where readers read from a "script" with reading parts divided among the readers. "There are plenty of sophisticated people in town who may want to see an edgier play, even if it is just on a Sunday night reader's play. We respect our audience and we are not trying to go off on some crazy tangent, but there are ways to serve different audiences now that we have our own space."
So now that the Playhouse has had their first performance in the new space – what is the bottom line? "There has been a tremendous response from the audience" says Jose Cervantes. "We haven't heard a complaint – not about the seats, not about the air conditioning, not about hearing the play. The response from the audience has been overwhelming."
Photo 1: Back row from Left: Karen Brown, Brian Hermanson,
Ruslyn Hermanson. Front Row from Left: Jose Cervantes, JoAnn
Muchmore, Marlys Cervantes. (Click on each small photo above to enlarge it.)
Photo 2 : The playhouse seen from the sound and lighting booth.
Photo 3: Each riser has three levels of seating and the risers can be moved to reconfigure the theatrical space.
Photo 4: The audience as seen from the point of the view of the actors on stage.
Photo 5: The six movable "risers" that provide seating.
More photos of Ponca Playhouse's new space are available online. Click each photo to enlarge it.
Special thanks to JoAnn Muchmore, Brian Hermanson, Karen Brown, Jose Cervantes, and Ruslyn Hermanson for sharing their insights on the new theater space and to Marlys Cervantes for setting up the discussion.
Ponca City owes a debt of gratitude to the many people who contributed to the new theater space without whose support this never would have happened.
Be sure and get your tickets from the Playhouse to see the rest of this season's plays.