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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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Wisconsin Union Theater closes till fall 2014
Curtain down
The Play Circle will be gutted. For more photos, click gallery, above.

If all the world's a stage, a Madison theatrical continent is about to slip off the globe. The Wisconsin Union Theater will close this summer for two years of renovation and remodeling.

The 1939 streamline moderne venue will be updated in the first stage of the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union Reinvestment project. All five floors of the shuttered west wing will receive a facelift totaling $52 million.

"This place really needed to have some work," says Ralph Russo, Union cultural arts and theater director. "I give our leadership a lot of credit."

The last scheduled theater event is June 10. It's expected to reopen before its 75th anniversary season in the fall of 2014.

The most noticeable change will be a new street-level theater entrance on Langdon Street. Inside, it will displace the staircase leading down from the Fredric March Play Circle, which itself will be gutted to accommodate a thrust stage; it will feature only live performances.

Sidewalls in the Union Theater mezzanine will be removed. The already excellent acoustics will be improved. All seats will be replaced with wider chairs; the 1,300 audience capacity will accordingly drop by around 100. The stage will be replaced with a "sprung" floor, necessary for dancers. A sprinkler system and other safeguards will be introduced, as well as railings and other accessibility improvements.

The act curtain will be replaced, and a new lighting slot will be created. Elevators will be added. Thanks to studies of paint chips, the original auditorium palette will be exactly matched. Outside, the exterior stone cladding will be removed and cleaned, and Park Street will be reengineered to ensure that trucks no longer hit the second-story deck that hangs over the sidewalk.

The work is being overseen by Schuler Shook theater consultants of Minneapolis and Chicago. The firm's past restoration projects include the Koch Theater in New York's Lincoln Center. It also helped design the indoor Touchstone Theatre for Spring Green's American Players Theatre.

There are many hidden changes, some of which may alarm strict preservationists. The carbon-arc movie projectors will be replaced with a digital system, and the orchestra pit elevator may be changed from mechanical to hydraulic. The original design was once so revolutionary that - when first introduced in 1932 at Radio City Music Hall - it was studied by the Navy for use on aircraft carriers.

While the theater is closed, its programming will continue at UW venues including Mills Concert Hall, Music Hall and Union South. Even so, will longtime theatergoers be patient?

"That is the million-dollar question, isn't it?" asks Russo. "I'm confident that we will continue to be a very vibrant space when we reopen."

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