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Save the stage



Interviews with several theatrical professionals and academics reveal that its unique and artistically exceptional performance spaces — the 210-seat, in-the-round Arena Theatre and the 580-seat Mary Noble Tolbert Theatre — will be a major loss if razed or altered for other uses.

“The building itself is an architectural marvel that encourages people to dream boldly and think outside the box. The space allows for an intimacy and connection between audience and performers that you simply don’t get in a traditional fourth-wall proscenium space,” said Jeffrey Stephens, assistant professor of theater history at the University of Wisconsin and an Oklahoma City native.

“There have been many attempts to denigrate brutalist and postmodern architecture in the last two decades, and it is in Stage Center that those styles intersect. This wildly innovative structure is linked to its time in ways that only great buildings can be.”

J. Shane McClure first worked in the building in 1975.

“The large thrust stage is unusual for a number of reasons,” said the actor/ director. “It has [a] slightly asymmetrical keystone shape that effectively makes performers play in-the-round. Both the [Arena and Tolbert] stages were designed to bring the performers into the midst of the audience. The spaces embody the idea of communal experience.”

Rachel Irick, Oklahoma City Theatre Company artistic director, performed in “Julius Caesar” in the Tolbert.

“As an actor, I loved the crowd scenes and battle scenes. I felt like we were in a Roman arena, and it really enhanced the performance,” Irick said.

“The thrust configuration challenges directors, designers and actors to think more creatively about engaging the audience and creating interesting stage pictures.”

Her sentiments were echoed by actor/director Robyn Arn.

“Many shows were written in the 20th century specifically for spaces like this,” she said. “If we get rid of them, there are many pieces that won’t be revived or will lose part of their integrity because they aren’t staged as intended.”

The 40-year-old building has shown its age in recent years and needs significant refurbishing and updating.

“Perhaps [Stage Center] has its flaws,” Arn said. “So did [Frank Lloyd Wright’s] Fallingwater, but they didn’t demolish Wright’s brilliantly designed structure because he engineered it badly.”

A significant number of theater professionals agree that if the nascent “arts district” — where Stage Center is — is cultural progress for Oklahoma City, the building’s destruction would be theatrical regress.

Photo by Shannon Cornman

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