Norfolk's Wells Theatre ready to show off major renovations
By Teresa Annas
January 13, 2017
When Virginia Stage Company’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” opens next week, the nonprofit’s performing home will be just as much in the spotlight.
The Wells Theatre in downtown Norfolk was closed for nearly nine months last year as the century-old architectural treasure was renovated. A goal was to enhance patron amenities and stage lighting and sound. The changes also will enable the company to offer educational programs and performances for all ages at the Wells, from children’s theater to cabaret.
The company performed at other Norfolk stages starting last March, and returned to the Wells for its holiday production, “A Christmas Carol.” The grand reopening was timed for the first subscriber show after work on the Wells finished. That would be Tennessee Williams’ classic drama, with previews Tuesday through Thursday. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Wells is set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 20, followed by the 8 p.m. opening of “Streetcar.”
On Monday, a row of new, wider seats in the rear orchestra is scheduled for installation. All else is done.
Outside the ornate, Beaux Arts-style structure, the marquee is now digital and the paint looks fresh. Most of the improvements are inside – in the lobbies, opened up and brightened with new paint, carpeting and lighting fixtures. And in the walls, where new wiring, cables and speakers have boosted lighting and sound capabilities onstage.
Also, with larger, marble-and-stone bathrooms, ticket buyers will spend less time in restroom lines during intermission.
The biggest changes are in the window-lined side lobby facing Tazewell Street and in the space above it. The first-floor box office at Tazewell and Monticello Avenue was demolished, along with a massive staircase, to create a long, open room dubbed the Tazewell Lounge.
The box office now shares a counter there with concessions, so that a person may buy a ticket, walk two steps and grab a glass of wine and a snack before the show. Nearby, glass-topped cocktail tables with stools line the wall for those who wish to sit and sip.
The previous concession stand is still in the main lobby, now named for the couple that gave the top donation for these renovations, Patricia and Douglas Perry of Norfolk. Beverages and snacks sold at the Wells may be brought into the theater during the show.
Without the old staircase, the space above the Tazewell Lounge is roomier and now earmarked for educational and community programs.
Virginia Stage Company has long sent performances and programs out to area schools and other settings. Now the company can also invite youth and school groups to the Wells.
The stage company will use both the classrooms and Tazewell Lounge to provide a new array of smaller-scale performances, such as children’s theater, new play readings, spoken-word events and cabaret. All will be produced by the company, or in partnership with other groups.
“This would help make the Wells a community hub,” said Tom Quaintance, the stage company’s new producing artistic director.
The renovations were conceived in 2007, when Betty Edwards was board chairman. “Everything was beginning to look old and tattered,” recalled Edwards, who said the initial idea came from Keith Stava, a former managing director.
A fiscal downturn delayed fundraising, which began around 2013, said Edwards, who led the capital campaign. The next year the company bought the Wells from its longtime owner, then gave the theater to the city of Norfolk, which maintains the 1913 building and can rent it out for income, too.
The renovations are being done in two phases and will cost a total of $4.5 million. So far, the stage company has raised nearly $4 million.
The $2.4 million first phase included a $500,000 endowment; income from the invested funds will go toward daily operational expenses.
Also included in the first phase is a new assisted-listening system that feeds directly into hearing aids with activated T-coils; other patrons may request devices to use with headphones.
New backstage wiring accommodated an upgrade in sound and light capabilities, allowing for crisper sound and more lighting options, said Carolyn Thatcher, production manager. In addition, new cables for sound are “preparing us for future technology,” she said.
Phase two will include replacing the antiquated rope-rigging system – which “flies” scenic elements onto and off the stage – with a safer, motorized system, Thatcher said.
More visibly, carpeting will be replaced and seats reupholstered inside the theater as part of phase two, for which no deadline has been set.
The stage company, now in its 38th season, presents five shows a year plus a holiday production in the 630-seat Wells. It is the region’s top theater, and casts Actors’ Equity performers along with non-union actors.
IF YOU GO
What: Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” produced by Virginia Stage Company
Where: Wells Theatre, 108 E. Tazewell St., Norfolk
When: Discount previews ($20-$35) at 7 p.m. Tuesday and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. It opens 8 p.m. next Friday with shows daily (except Mondays) through Feb. 5.
Tickets: $20 to $55, www.vastage.org, (757) 627-1234
Wells Grand Reopening: 6:30 p.m. next Friday, with ribbon-cutting and live music; a ticket to that night’s performance is required to attend