Fall Guide: At N.C. State, a large old theater finally becomes a nice place to visit | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Fall Guide: At N.C. State, a large old theater finally becomes a nice place to visit

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As he gestures left and right, around one corner and through a large glass wall, Mark Tulbert appears to glide through Talley Student Union on a Monday morning.

Smiling, he weaves through packs of N.C. State students, back on campus for their first full week of classes, to highlight the fanciest features of the university's four-year, multi-level, $120-million renovation of its campus-life hub.

Those are the new restaurants, and this is the recently opened rooftop terrace. There's the Clinique counter in the student bookstore, Tulbert offers with a laugh, and there's the local ice cream counter. There's the enormous outdoor LED screen for movies, and here's 1887, the emporium's not-yet-open, late-night, relatively fine-dining bistro, with its open kitchen and army of stainless steel fixtures.

"The university, quite a few years ago, started to pay a lot of attention to the campus environment, to make it more friendly and inviting," says Tulbert. "And it is much more welcoming than it was when I got here 22 years ago. The difference is amazing, really."

For two decades, Tulbert has helped lead N.C. State's performing arts program, recently rebranded as "NC State LIVE," in presenting concerts and spectacles on campus. The organization long had its headquarters in the drab Talley, where, for decades, students came to get a quick bite at Taco Bell or meet with a club and then quickly leave. Tulbert hosted his productions in the building's Stewart Theatre, one of the largest assembly spaces on campus and a strong if aging auditorium that, for decades, was one of Raleigh's biggest concert halls.

But in 2009, the university launched an initiative to reimagine the space entirely, turning Talley, much like Hunt Library, into a modern structure where students wanted to go, even when they didn't need to. Construction crews stripped most of the building to its steel-and-concrete skeleton, adding enormous upgrades at every corner and filling new levels with coffee shops and meeting rooms, ballrooms and bakeries. Only Stewart was left standing.

"A lot of people have a lot of memories here. So many asked me, 'They're not going to tear Stewart down, are they?'" explains Tulbert, standing at the top of the auditorium's stairs as construction workers buzz around him. The room reopens in mid-September with a season including jazz pianist Kenny Barron's trio and Beatles homage Art of Time Ensemble. "No, they're going to make it better. The context of the entire building has changed so that it's a way more interesting experience."

The modifications to Stewart itself are indeed modest, not at all on the scale of UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall overhaul a decade ago or Duke's recent upgrades to Page and Baldwin auditoriums. All 800-plus of the room's creaking, sagging seats are gone, replaced with wider red chairs that drop the capacity by about 50 but should make attendees happier. They've added more handicap access for audiences and performers alike. The gaffer tape-covered carpet, thought to have been in the space since 1972, is out, replaced by a thin, gray pattern. It's so new that Stewart smells like a flooring warehouse.

The catwalk has steel-and-rubber floors now, not old plywood, and the faded red concrete blocks of the old theater's walls have been resurfaced with austere, slate-colored drywall. Backstage, once-dismal dressing rooms are now modern and sparkling, with enormous mirrors illuminated by high-design fixtures.

"Nobody wanted to replace the entire theater," explains University Theater manager Andrew Korhonen, standing in one of the new dressing rooms. "And the cost to do that wasn't part of this project."

Instead, Stewart is now the historic centerpiece in an empire of newness—the old grail for a fresh building. Rather than avoiding on-campus concerts because there's nowhere nearby to have a decent meal, visitors can eat and shop in Talley. And, just as the university had hoped, the students are flocking in, evidenced by the throngs of them here on a Monday morning. They stare at laptop screens in a Starbucks and lounge with friends on one of the central atrium's couches. To see Stewart, they need only look up.

"One of the classic lines I hear from seniors coming to a play or something at Stewart for the first time is, 'I didn't know that this was here,'" says Tulbert. "Now that they're here more, I want to get less of that."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Upped stage"

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