The Bard's new home in Walla Walla

By Dori O'Neal, Herald staff writerMay 1, 2011 

WALLA WALLA -- The Bard's plays will be treading new boards next month when Shakespeare's plays find a regular home in a refurbished 120-year-old Walla Walla building.

Creators of The Powerhouse Theatre hope it will become a magnet for Eastern Washington tourism that can rival the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in Ashland.

The theater will be run by Shakespeare Walla Walla, formerly known as Shakespeare Uncork'd. The group will lease the property from its Walla Walla owners with hopes of purchasing it outright someday.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, performed by the Seattle Shakespeare Company, will be the first production in the historic theater, opening May 19.

The biggest difference between The Powerhouse Theatre and the Ashland events will be that the Walla Walla theater also will offer entertainment besides Shakespeare's plays.

Harry Hosey, board president for the Seattle Shakespeare Company, said he partnered with the Shakespeare Walla Walla organization on the project, and the Walla Walla community is showing huge support for the venture.

Business owners from hotels to wineries see an advantage to having professional theater come to town.

"I think (Powerhouse Theatre) will be a great thing for this community," said Darcey Fugman-Small of Woodward Canyon Winery.

Kyle Mussman, owner of the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel in downtown Walla Walla, couldn't agree more.

"I do believe The Powerhouse Theatre will be successful and help generate additional tourism in the Walla Walla Valley and surrounding region," he said. "It is also wonderful to see another historic building in Walla Walla be put back into commercial use, and additional renovation work done to enhance our downtown charm and increase the arts and entertainment.

"Walla Walla is all about wine, food, arts and music, and this new venue will be a great asset to our valley and region," he added.

Even the nightclub scene hopes to benefit from a little Shakespeare.

Juston Watson, owner of the Red Monkey club in the downtown area, is one of the founding members of the Shakespeare theater group.

"When I was approached about (The Powerhouse Theatre project) by Harry Hosey, I instantly felt his commitment and enthusiasm," Watson said. "I am a skeptic when it comes to these types of things and usually will believe it when I see it. There is a lot of money behind this project, so I see it succeeding from that perspective.

"As a restaurant and bar owner, it will have a huge impact on me. Anything that will help our tiny town grow, I'm for."

The $1.5 million project is being fashioned after the famous Blackfriars Theatre in London, which is believed to have been used by Shakespeare and his actors. The Bard, a nickname for Shakespeare, later moved his plays outdoors to The Globe Theater.

The 340 stadium seats will be in half-round style, with a balcony. The work is being paid for by grants, and corporate and private donations.

"There won't be a bad seat in the house," Hosey said.

There's a drop-out door in center stage that can be used for dramatic effect. And the lobby will have sweeping staircases on each side of the entry for balcony patrons.

Hosey brought in Richard M. Devin, artistic director for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, as a project consultant.

"This is a very impressive building," Devin said. "The possibilities with it are enormous, and its design has a real Shakespearean feel."

But what's even more important, he added, is that The Powerhouse Theatre won't be just for Shakespearean plays, but also will be a community center for all the arts.

"The idea is to keep the venue booked all year long, even when Shakespeare productions are dark," Devin said.

The theater won't be completely finished by curtain time, Hosey said. Part of the lobby won't be done until later this year.

The building originally housed the Walla Walla Gas Plant in the late 1800s. Then electricity replaced the town's gas-fueled lighting system, and the building was bought by Pacific Power & Light after the turn of the past century.

The theater sits at the corner of Rose Street and Sixth Avenue. The Shakespeare Walla Walla group also has set a fundraising introduction to the theater from 5:30 to 9 p.m. May 18, which will feature Shakespearean actors wearing Elizabethan-inspired fashions, including creative masks, hair styles and other accessories from the days of Queen Elizabeth I.

Food from the era also will be served.

Tickets are $200 and include admission to the following night's performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

* Tickets are online at www.shakespearewallawalla.org.

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