Cynthia Penn-Halal is beaming as she stands amid the clutter of construction at Walltown Children’s Theatre
. The company’s executive director points out a neighborhood worker painting the wooden side rails on new risers for the audience, while theatrical carpenter Jeff Alguire puts the finishing touches on the technical booth he’s made out of what was once the baptistry in a former church building on Berkeley Street.
“I’ve wanted to do this since 2005,” Penn-Halal says of a monthlong project that has transformed the main room of her facility into a commercial-grade black box theater, capable of hosting the region’s itinerant theater companies.
The proof of that comes this weekend, when Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
opens its current show, Hunchback
, in the renovated space. In the coming months, Walltown will also serve as the Durham anchor space for the Women’s Theatre Festival
. Penn-Halal is seeking proposals from other regional theater and dance artists for the coming year.
As fate would have it, Walltown’s current renaissance follows on the heels of regional theater’s greatest recent loss: the closing of Durham’s Common Ground Theatre
in 2016. As a nonprofit, Common Ground had to transfer any remaining assets to another nonprofit. When Little Green Pig’s artistic director, Jaybird O’Berski
, was looking for a Durham venue for his company’s next work, he recognized Walltown’s need and suggested the transfer to Common Ground founder Rachel Klem.
“I refer to it as a theatrical organ transplant,” O’Berski jokes. “I ran them across town on ice in a cooler.”
Audience members will easily recognize the upholstered red chairs that once graced the former theater’s space. Not as obvious, but as essential: the risers, the lighting system, and the metal grid suspended from the ceiling to hang the lights on. “Without the grid, we couldn’t use the lights,” Penn-Halal says. “That would have cost us so much money.”
All in all, Walltown has received an estimated $15,000 in volunteer services and equipment. CLS Lighting and Reinvestment Partners has donated additional audio gear and lighting instruments, and the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership and the Rust Foundation have contributed funds for the upgrade.
But old-school sweat equity has gotten the job done. Since early April, volunteers from Little Green Pig, Third Date improvisational theater company, the Round Table living group at Duke University, and the Walltown community have put in hundreds of hours, tearing out two walls, removing an altar, and replacing the flooring where performances were once held. The work was harder than expected, since the original structure was “built like a Spanish galleon,” according to O’Berski, “solid hardwood all the way.”
Walltown’s space is the third theater that Alguire, a noted regional actor, has helped to build with his own hands. Before moving to the area and serving as Common Ground’s master carpenter, Alguire helped build the Bailiwick Repertory Theater’s space in Chicago.
Sweating, with a DeWalt power drill in his hand, Alguire looks pleased at the progress around him. New electrical panels have been installed to support the lighting system, the new work lights are in, and the ceiling, walls, and audience banks have been painted matte black—the first prerequisite for a true black box theater.
“This is going to become the new Common Ground, I hope,” he says. “I’m very happy to put it together.”
Penn-Halal is optimistic about the time ahead. Just now, she’s asking for a curtain for the theater; this summer, she plans to engage a professional lighting designer and turn the house beside the theater into another rehearsal studio.
“We’ve always had a mission to create professional-level programming here,” she says. “This was the next step: to be able to give them a similar experience working behind the scenes.”