Raising the curtain

In the 40-plus years the Fine Arts Theatre at Southwest Minnesota State University has been open, it has seen thousands of students onstage, backstage and in the audience.

During that time, the stage floor has been painted numerous times, and the theater seats have gotten worn out.

In an effort to revitalize the SMSU Fine Arts Theatre, the Curtains Up campaign was born – to replace the 44-year-old theater seats and the 30-year-old carpet in the theater and the lobby area.

Retired SMSU theater professor Dr. William Hezlep remembered how the theater looked when he first stepped on campus.

“Everything was brand new, and there was a lot of financial support from the school,” he said. “It was greatThe seats actually had springs in them.” The theater has continental seating, he said.

Hezlep recalled the time when the school did shows during the summer, the Heartland Players and how the theater was packed for some of the performances.

He’s glad that the theater is finally getting some work done.

“It’s about time,” Hezlep said. “We’ve been trying to get new carpeting in there.”

SMSU theater professor Nadine Schmidt said the current carpeting is from the early 1980s.

“We’ve been talking with the university over the years about that,” Schmidt said.

Two years ago, some things gelled, Schmidt said, and the university started talking about upgrades to classrooms. Schmidt said Jan Loft, dean of the College of Arts, Letters and Sciences, mentioned the theater, as it is a classroom as well.

“Dr. (Ron) Wood (SMSU interim president) said ‘OK, let’s set aside this much money as seed money,'” Schmidt said. The university made a financial commitment of 25 percent of the start-up costs. Then the university and the SMSU Foundation are working together to raise the rest of the money, Schmidt said.

Bill Mulso, the executive director of the SMSU Foundation, said the Foundation has been leading the fundraising campaign.

“It’s been successful,” he said.

The SMSU Foundation helped generate a list of names of alumni and university supporters, Schmidt said, and those people were sent a letter and a brochure about the Curtains Up campaign.

“We promoted it (Curtains Up) on social media, on our website and (play) programs,” Schmidt said. There were also a few silent auctions last year to raise funds, Schmidt said.

The first part of the renovation project took place a couple of years ago with the stripping and refinishing of the stage floor. More than 300 layers of paint were stripped from the stage floor.

“It was an extremely involved process,” Schmidt said.

“That was the first time you could see the layers of paint, the different colors from different shows,” Hezlep said.

People can sponsor one of the new theater seats for $250 apiece, Schmidt said.

“When you’re doing that, you’re underwriting a seat,” Schmidt said.

The new theater seats are going to be a little bigger, Schmidt said. The new configuration includes 292 new seats; the theater currently has 313 seats.

“Some, you sit (on them), and they’re just shot,” Hezlep said about the need to replace the theater seats.

Schmidt said there was a “seating fair” last year where three different vendors brought in chairs. They were rated on comfort, appearance and durability. The seat that was selected has a sturdy metal base, she said.

“They will be more comfortable for people,” Schmidt said of the new seats.

Schmidt said that putting in a center aisle in the seating was explored, but the theater will continue to have a continental style of seating.

Schmidt said the renovation process is “very exciting.”

“It’s such a nice space in terms of its bones,” Schmidt said. She said the wood and the brick in the theater makes it warm and inviting. “The new carpet and seats will complement the current elements there.”

Schmidt said the campaign has been going well.

“We’ve had a great response from alums, from community members, people who work here (at SMSU), parents of students,” Schmidt said, adding that a good number of seats have been sponsored. “It makes a nice gift for graduating students.”

Schmidt said it helps energize the theater students and faculty to have a revitalized place.

About 250 to 1,000 people come onto campus per show, Schmidt said, and sometimes even more. For example, a total of 1,355 people came to see “Schoolhouse Rock Live!”

“For a lesser known straight play, on average, we might get a total of around 500, with 150 of those students,” Schmidt said. “On the upper end of attendance, for ‘Secret Garden,’ we had 1,549 people come, with 295 of them students.”

The money has been raised to replace the carpeting and seats, Mulso said. Schmidt said the seats will be replaced in June and the new carpet will be laid in July. Any additional money raised through the Curtains Up campaign will go to additional renovations if needed, Mulso said.

“It helps us to have a nice, fresh place to show people,” Schmidt said.