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Hiram College’s New Black Box Theatre Opens with HAIR

Published on April 2, 2011

Hiram - Hiram College’s Theatre Department opened the doors of its new Renner Black Box Theatre on campus last weekend with sold-out performances of the 1967 hippie-rock musical, HAIR.

The new theatre, built in a space formerly occupied by three art studios in Frohring Art Building, was just recently completed. The cast of 22 diverse student performers with varying levels of stage experience had nine weeks to rehearse before performing to sold-out crowds on March 24-26.

Directed by Theatre Department Chair Betsy Bauman, the anti-Vietnam War production was staged as part of the college’s investigation into the theme of war. (Bauman also served as costume designer for the show. The Musical Director was Dawn Sonntag.)

The new theatre offers more flexibility than a traditional set, featuring a rounded, movable stage with large terraced steps encircling it. The smaller, more intimate space seats 50-100 people on risers, allowing Hiram theatre students to interact more with the audience. This proved to be effective and sometimes unnerving to HAIR audiences, who were subject to close encounters with actors and actresses disrobing to various degrees, gyrating and shouting obscenities, according to the script. It also brought the audience uncomfortably close to the bitterness, tortured idealism and confusion expressed by the young characters as they faced the prospect of being drafted into a war they were opposed to.

Audience members were carried along in the wave of rebellion that hippies waged – not only against the war – but against The Establishment and the strict conformities imposed by governmental, educational and religious institutions, as well as parents. As they faced the very real threat of trading in a carefree youth for the horrors of war, the ‘tribe’ of hippies in HAIR sang and danced their way into a communal last hurrah punctuated by a certain sweetness, free love, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, long hair, wild clothes, transcendental meditation, political protests, hero worship, flower power, and whatever methods of escapism they could devise.

When the defiant HAIR first burst onto the stage 44 years ago in New York, it was unrelentingly offensive to The Establishment, which condemned it for its blatant use of profanity, partial nudity, promiscuity, rebellion, irreverence, illegal drug use, anti-patriotism, draft-dodging, sarcasm, etc. But to hippies and non-violent sympathizers since, the daring production captured the tarnished hopes and lost innocence of a conflicted generation. It catapulted onto Broadway and ran for 1,750 performances before being staged throughout the world in later years, and becoming a feature film in 1979.

HAIR also birthed a rich soundtrack of enduring rock classics like “The Age of Aquarius”, “Hair”, “Easy to be Hard”, “Good Morning Starshine”, “Let the Sunshine In” and more. The cast sang a total of 32 numbers and kept up a dizzying pace of choreography and costume changes as they spread out onstage, up on catwalks and down the aisles of Hiram College’s black-walled theatre.

The band, barely visible in the pit behind the stage, brought the soundtrack to life under the guidance of Associate Musical Director Kurt Sauer with   keyboard, guitars, drums and percussion. The use of gunshots, strobe lights, and the sound of choppers overhead completed the Vietnam-era trippy effect of the show.

While larger productions are still put on at Hayden Auditorium, Hiram College’s new black box theatre has introduced additional opportunities for study in theatrical performance, technical theatre and design, and theatre history and dramatic literature. The art department, which previously used the space for student work and displays, has relocated to Gelbke Hall.

The $2 million project is being carried out over two phases. The just-completed construction phase cost $850,000 and includes the black box theatre, asbestos removal, plus heating and air conditioning. The second phase will involve a complete renovation of the Frohring building.

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