Opening night at Raleigh Ensemble Players' new theater | Theater | Indy Week
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Opening night at Raleigh Ensemble Players' new theater 

Call it the glamour of showbiz: While Raleigh Ensemble Players Artistic Director Glen Matthews wrestles with a shop vac in the distance, Managing Director Gary Williams urges construction dirt and debris from the corners, where an ancient, original green-and-white dime tile floor meets what is now the sparkling porcelain subway tile of an adjacent wall. Overhead, a series of mini-pendant lights make a diagonal across the lobby, directing us unerringly toward the theater in the back.

Through the door, a large chamber awaits its first production, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which runs this weekend only. The striking excavated walls of the theater feature varying strata of exposed stone and brick; an impressive iron staircase descends from the back right wall to the left. When Williams kills the work lights, an understated array of new houselights beam downward from their black ceiling-mounted recesses. The drywall dust captured in the illuminated air looks ... well, dramatic.

There's no doubt about it: 213 Fayetteville St. has changed a lot since August 2008, when the self-proclaimed granddaddy of Triangle alternative theater, realizing it had permanently outgrown its 20-year-old studio lodgings at Artspace, launched a capital campaign in the heart of Raleigh's downtown.

Two years later, as REP's first opening night approaches, Matthews is nearly giddy after months of advanced sweat equity on the part of skilled laborers, ensemble members, the company's board and supporters.

"It's been a long time coming," he chortles, while giving me a tour of the space.

After a promising beginning to the campaign, a global economic downturn took its toll on the company's benefactors and raised questions about their ability to complete the deal. In September 2009 we reported that the group was $200,000 away from its goal, at a time when arts philanthropy was on the decline.

The company persevered—and raised funds while mounting a series of popular and critically acclaimed productions in 2009 and 2010 in an already completed studio space on the building's second floor. Though that performance area was even smaller than the company's old digs at Artspace, designers Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su made the most of the intimate quarters, and the audience's point-blank proximity reinforced the intimacy of shows like Shakespeare's R&J and Tracy Letts' Bug.

A $60,000 appropriation from the City of Raleigh and a second grant of $25,000 from the Tony Randall Theatrical Fund (which also funded the company in 2007) gave the group the necessary cash to finish the construction.

As of last weekend, a dead battery in an emergency lighting system was the only thing preventing the load-in for the show. Inspectors wouldn't approve the facility without it last Friday, leaving one more detail for this Monday. Compared with what the company's come through, it's the most minor of details.

In addition to productions and fundraisers, the company will rent its theater as a meeting space for local and visiting businesses and corporations.

"We have a long way to go. We owe a lot of money," Williams says, noting the company's remaining debt of $100,000. "But once we get the building going, I think it's going to work."

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