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The Grand Reopening of Hillside Theater: Recapping June 8th Celebrations

Elizabeth Maske June 12th, 2024
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On June 8th, Taliesin’s Hillside Theater reopened its doors in an event coinciding with the 157th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday. The event, jointly hosted by Taliesin Preservation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, marked the successful completion of a $1.1 million restoration project, bringing together family, friends, and architecture enthusiasts to celebrate the revitalization of this historic landmark.

Over the years, restoration became imperative as the theater exhibited signs of deterioration. Sidney Robinson, architect and former emeritus educator at the Taliesin School of Architecture, beautifully summarizes the impact of the newly restored theater, describing the revitalized space—not as a dramatic transformation—but as a reflection of his long-held imaginings. He recounts how, when seated in the former theater, he instinctively tended to remedy its imperfections. Now, he sees what he once only dreamed of.

Despite a rainy start to the June morning, the skies cleared in time for the arrival of over 150 guests. The event commenced with a ceremony featuring poignant speeches from Stuart Graff, President and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation; Ryan Hewson, Director of Preservation at Taliesin; and Carrie Rodamaker, Executive Director of Taliesin Preservation.

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Preserving Heritage, Envisioning Tomorrow

Stuart Graff opened the ceremony with a speech emphasizing Hillside Theater’s cultural significance. He begins by sharing the history of Hillside, established by Wright’s aunts as a coeducational boarding school that pioneered a hands-on approach to education later embraced by the Taliesin Fellowship:

“We’re standing now on the grounds of the historic Hillside Home School, created by Wright’s aunts in the late 19th century to bring progressive education, learning by doing, to the good people of this community. It began as a place for children to be educated by exploring the world around them. In time, it became a place where architects and artists would learn their crafts in the same way while also apprenticing in the studio of America’s greatest architect. Wright called this group the Taliesin Fellowship, an interdependent group of people from across the globe working in harmony with the world around them, with these beautiful landscapes, to create something bigger and better than any of them, including Wright, could do alone.”

Detailing the Fellowship’s diverse pursuits—from architecture to farming, cooking, and the arts—he illustrates how varied artistic activities—including singing, acting, and music—laid the foundation for the Hillside Theater to become a vibrant hub for cultural expression. At the core of this discourse lay the transformative potential of art, which Graff depicts as a vehicle for fostering understanding across cultures:

“Created from what was once a gymnasium, redesigned and then rebuilt after a fire and restored today, [Hillside Theater] was a place not only for the Fellowship to gather, but a place for the surrounding community to come and experience theater, films, and other works of artistry from around the world. This is so important that in his autobiography, Wright discusses the theater and catalogs more than 200 films from European countries, from China and Japan, and from Mexico that were shown by 1943 in the theater and only 44 from the US, enabling the audience to see, in Wright’s words, ‘To see for oneself as deeply and richly, the life of other parts of the world.’”

Shifting gears to the Hillside Theater itself, Graff details its groundbreaking design, highlighting Wright’s pioneering use of “reflex” seating arrangements and a thrust stage, which helped to foster a sense of communal involvement that “redefined the relationship between performers and audience members.” Beyond architectural innovation or entertainment, he describes the theater as “a space for personal and communal transformation.” Graff closes by reaffirming the theater’s pivotal role in promoting cultural exchange and collective engagement, in line with Wright’s vision for the space, adding that “our efforts to preserve and revitalize this space are driven by a commitment to serving our community.”

Acknowledging the collaborative effort that made the restoration possible, Graff recognizes various organizations and individuals, including the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures grant, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and the private donors and corporate partners who made this a reality.

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Reflections on Restoration

Ryan Hewson took the podium to express his gratitude to the gathered audience. In a heartfelt address, he celebrates the collective effort that brought the restoration project to fruition, extending his thanks to all present for their support and participation in the celebration.

Hewson reflects on the honor of being entrusted with the stewardship of Wright’s remarkable buildings and legacy, crediting this to the spirit of ‘learning by doing,‘ instilled by Wright’s family and embodied by the Taliesin Fellowship from which Hewson himself was trained.

Expressing appreciation for the dedicated teams involved in the restoration efforts, Hewson highlights the contributions of individuals who worked tirelessly to bring the vision to life:I would like to individually recognize the preservation team that worked on this. It was a small group of just two gentlemen who were out working on the building continuously,acknowledging the tireless dedication of Kirk Stenerson and Kevin Dodds. He continues, “The work on our gardens was done by our landscape team: Amy Schertz, Joel Hooks, Mike Degen, and Patrick Jazwiecki. Working in the office and helping to support the work were myself, Adam Charles, and Kyle Dockery. Kyle also oversaw the work on artworks in the theater.”

Noting that this work would not have been possible without this small, dedicated group of people, Hewson expresses with profound gratitude, “They make Taliesin magical for me.Hewson emphasizes, “As Taliesin may have been the vision of one individual, it took a community to make it a reality,” underscoring the collaborative effort that fueled the multi-year restoration process.

Transitioning to the highlights of the restoration work, Hewson provides insight into the various initiatives undertaken to revitalize the space. “We started with a drainage and waterproofing initiative to help solve some water infiltration,” he explains, adding, “We also had to completely reconstruct the stage due to that water infiltration and rebuild the structure. And then there was much cleaning that had to be done.” On structural enhancements, Hewson elaborates: “The basement below the stage and below the dining room received structural augmentation. We essentially built a building inside of a building, slightly easier than building a ship inside of a bottle.

This augmentation facilitated the creation of two greenrooms for performers and actors, a bathroom, and a storage and control room. “All that space is actually accessible, and we were able to do a few other smaller accessibility upgrades,” he notes, emphasizing the commitment to making the space available to as many people as possible.

Hewson also delights in integrating new technologies to expand the theater’s reach: “We were able to install a multi-camera streaming system that will be used for the first time tonight,” adding with a laugh, “Don’t worry, we tested it.”

In close, Hewson leaves listeners with Wright’s words on maintaining Taliesin from An Autobiography: “Taliesin was grateful for care, took what grooming it got with gratitude, and repaid it all with interest. Taliesin’s order was such that when all was clean and in place, its countenance beamed, wore a happy smile of well-being and welcome for all. It was intensely human, I believe.”

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Celebrating Restoration and Rebirth

Carrie Rodamaker, Executive Director of Taliesin Preservation, addressed the crowd with a comprehensive overview of the day’s events and thanked them for supporting Hillside Theater and Taliesin. Rodamaker would later open the concert, highlighting the significance of the reopening coinciding with Wright’s birthday: “Good evening, and welcome back to Hillside Theater! For those joining us in this room and for those joining us for the first time ever via livestreaming, this is a historic night. After six years, $1.1 million, and your unwavering support, we are delighted to have you here with us. And, it is the 157th birthday of Frank Lloyd Wright, which makes this celebration even more special—this day, this time, was specifically chosen to rededicate and reopen the theater.”

She expresses gratitude towards several individuals who have played crucial roles in the event’s success. Sidney Robinson, a long-time friend and supporter of Taliesin, is recognized for his underwriting support of the concert and camera equipment and his vision, which led to the livestreaming of the theater performance. Additionally, Kelly Oliver, a former apprentice under Frank Lloyd Wright and a builder of the original theater, is warmly welcomed, along with his family. Lastly, Carrie expresses appreciation for Natalie Hinckley and her team at Hinckley Productions, whose dedication and support made the streaming capabilities possible, emphasizing their vital role in realizing the dream of making the theater accessible to all.

An Open House

Following the speeches, guests participated in guided theater tours led by Ryan Hewson and attended a presentation by Kyle Dockery, Collections Coordinator with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Visitors learned how the preservation crew integrated modern upgrades with Wright’s architecture and how precious artifacts, including the theater curtain and the two bodhisattvas that flank the stage, were meticulously restored.

The day’s festivities included a pop-up gift shop with signed books by featured authors Sidney Robinson and Kristine Hansen, hors d’oeuvres presented by chef Jena Blocher of Riverview Terrace Cafe, a champagne toast in the Hillside Drafting Room, and culminated with a sold-out performance by Third Coast Percussion, marking the beginning of a vibrant new chapter for Hillside Theater.

Notable Guests

The event was attended by several notable guests, including Tim Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s grandson; Minerva Montooth, former social secretary for the Frank Lloyd Wright Fellowship and wife of the late architect and Wright apprentice Charles Montooth; Effie Casey, artist, Fellowship Member, former Taliesin Music Director, and wife of the late Taliesin architect Tom Casey; and William (Kelly) Oliver, a former member of the Fellowship, who helped build the original Hillside Theater. As one might imagine, there were many touching reunions, including that between Tim Wright and Kelly Oliver, who had not seen each other since the 1950s when Kelly was an apprentice living at Taliesin, and Tim was a teenager. Sidney Robinson and Effie Casey sat in the seats once reserved for Mr. and Mrs. Wright.

The Performance

Third Coast Percussion’s performance heralded a vibrant future for the theater. Members Robert Dillon, David Skidmore, Sean Connors, and Peter Martin delivered an enthralling program. Attendees commented on how exciting it was to watch the ensemble’s synchronistic movements and interwoven melodies fill the entirety of the Wright-designed stage.

For visitors who have not experienced the theater since it closed for repairs in 2019, hearing music in the space for the first time was transformative. It quickly became apparent how much life had been missing. As music plays, it engulfs the entire building, connecting each room and awakening the entire Hillside complex.

Third Coast Percussion skillfully transformed minimalist motifs into a rich tapestry of sound, merging intricate rhythms to create a dynamic auditory experience. Their reorchestrated version of Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis” and “Amazon River” utilized mallet percussion instruments, melodica, desk bells, and the almglocken to fill the room with dreamlike soundscapes. Their rendition of Jlin’s “Perspective,” featuring movements titled “Obscure” and “Dissonance,” explored new expressive heights by incorporating mixing bowls, bird calls, gongs, tambourines, and unconventional percussive sounds.

The performance, made available for viewing via livestream by Sidney Robinson and Hinkley Productions, marked the start of a new era for Hillside Theater. As Hewson aptly remarked, “The possibilities for the space now are pretty endless; there’s a lot of really great ones.”

Livestream viewers had the privilege of seeing the ensemble’s range of instruments and precise execution up close, thanks to the carefully curated film production, which offered varying angles from multiple fixed cameras and an on-the-ground camera operator. The coverage brought the action to viewers’ living rooms, capturing splashes from water-filled bowls and revealing instruments out of view for the in-person audience.

In 2011, Third Coast Percussion became artists in residence at Taliesin, an experience that led to the creation of David Skidmore’s multi-movement piece, “Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.” Skidmore reflects, “Wright’s use of common patterns—like simple geometric shapes—layered together in unusual ways immediately makes me hear music.” Third Coast Percussion’s return to Hillside Theater signifies a continued exploration of the rich dialogue between architecture and music; it underscores Taliesin’s compelling allure as a place for creative immersion. We eagerly await the revelations future performers may also unearth within these historic walls.


To read the evening’s program, click here.

 

Dinner
Following the performance, several guests joined for dinner in the Hillside Drafting Room, catered locally by RedBarn Catering and featuring cakes from Just Bakery. The atmosphere was elegant and inviting, with music played by musicians Majestica Lor on the cello and Brett Petrykowski on the viola. Sunlight gently filtered through Wright’s ‘abstract forest,’ casting patterns across the room as guests mingled.

The dinner provided the perfect ending to a day of celebration, bringing together attendees to share their appreciation for the restored theater and its promising future. At a heartfelt moment, Stuart and Carrie stood to thank everyone involved. Stuart closed the evening by saying, “There is nothing quite like the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright anywhere because it is so pervasive across so many different fields, and that doesn’t happen without all of you. So, from the bottom of our hearts, our staff, and the communities that we are serving. You know we are 501c organizations, thankfully supported by the taxpayer… and that means our jobs are to ensure the public benefits from every single thing we do, and that happens because of all of you. So, truly, from the bottom of our hearts and the hearts of everybody who has been inspired by Wright, we are deeply grateful for all you have done for us and your ongoing and continued advocacy for the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, so thank you.”

The event was covered by WMTV15 and Architectural Digest, but the story is only beginning. For those interested in following the journey of the newly restored Hillside Theater, be sure to sign up for our newsletter at the link below and check out the theater’s new webpage, which offers details of upcoming performances and resources for performers.