For the Department of Performing Arts, it was a double whammy.
In 2018, renovations began to the department’s home in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Fine Arts Center. Faculty, students and staff moved out to seven different buildings around campus, including Cadek Hall, the Barr Building and even the Caretaker’s House behind Patten House on Palmetto Street.
“Seven Horcruxes,” said Kenyon Wilson, interim head of Performing Arts and an obvious fan of the Harry Potter novels.
In fall semester 2020, renovations to the office space in the Fine Arts Center were mostly completed, and they moved back in. Then COVID-19 hit.
“We were already tired when COVID hit and looking so forward to, ‘We’re going to be back in our building. It’s going to be back to normal.’ Yeah. One starts and ends and the next begins,” said Steve Ray, head of the Department of Theatre.
Two years later—and four years in all—normality has officially returned. The final tasks, completely renovating the 456-seat Roland Hayes Concert Hall and the 256-seat Dorothy Hackett Ward Theatre, are finished, and performances are coming back.
The Kyiv City Ballet on Oct. 5-7 marks the Fine Art Center’s official grand reopening and will take place in the Hayes Concert Hall. On Oct. 11, the first theater production, “Feathers and Teeth,” takes the stage in the Ward Theatre.
“It has been a tough few years during the renovation, and the pandemic didn’t help, but things were better when we could move back into the teaching spaces of the building,” Wilson said. “We can always find ways around the lack of a performance space, but our students’ education is our priority.”
The Fine Arts Center opened in 1980 and—except for a few fixes and renovations here and there—hadn’t been updated. Some Ward Theatre and Hayes Concert Hall equipment was woefully outdated and just plain worn out.
Most visitors will understandably focus on changes and beautification of the concert hall and theatre. They present a significant difference from the past with brand-new seats, carpet, computer-controlled stage lighting and sound systems.
Behind the scenes, new mechanical equipment will help increase the efficiency and speed when raising and lowering curtains and moving stage sets.
For those who work day-to-day in the building, though, other updates are equally important. New heating and air conditioning systems, LED lighting, painted walls and unspoiled carpet. Offices are bigger.
For the Department of Music, the rehearsal rooms for all music ensembles, which include the Concert Band, the Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Band and the Wind and Percussion ensembles, were refurbished with new acoustic sound materials to make them suitable as instrumental spaces. Speakers were replaced. New doors were installed to control sound getting through them “both inside and out,” Wilson said.
“All those niceties,” he said.
The Department of Theatre has expanded space for making costumes, designing stage sets and dressing rooms.
It is much different than before. During the shutdown for renovations and COVID, “Cats” and “The Bald Soprano” were staged on the Chamberlain Field Pavilion. “The Wolves” took place in the gym at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.
“There were students who went for four years without being on our stage, which is not optimum,” Ray said. “But I think they will leave this experience going, ‘I learned more during that period about how to do theater. How to make theater. How to turn challenges into opportunities.
“If you’re working as a professional, the world is not going to be as flexible as we’ve been the past few years for you. Deadlines are important; showing up is important. For everyone.”
From 2018 until fall semester 2020, when the Department of Performing Arts moved back into the Fine Arts Center, ensembles in the Department of Music rehearsed in the 540 McCallie Avenue Building.
“Not ideal, but it worked in a pinch,” Wilson said.
Choral groups still rehearse in the 540 McCallie auditorium because of its acoustics.
For live ensemble performances, the department has been “creative in finding performing spaces during the renovation,” Wilson said, using local churches, the auditorium in the UTC University Center and the auditorium at Chattanooga State Community College.
Both Wilson and Ray said that returning from a “way things were” to a better “way things are” is much more preferable.
“I love a challenge and I love change,” Ray said, “but I’ve been saying every day that, ‘When we get some new system back to a new normal, that’s a good day,’ you know?”