Eugene’s Very Little Theatre is beginning a $1.5 million renovation next spring, with a $200,000 lead donation from Herb Merker and Marcy Hammock. Designed by Eugene architect Otto Poticha, the community theater’s renovation will come in several different phases, with the first providing wider seats, improving sightlines to the stage and offering more seats and access for wheelchair-bound patrons.
“The seating area is not very good,” says Rich Scheeland, VLT’s Capitol Project Committee chair, of the current configuration. “It has very little leg room. The seats are from the 1950s. They’re 17 to 19 inches wide, which is tight for people today. The seating area will be raised and sloped more, and it will be stepped instead of a continuous slope like it is now. The new seats will be 24 inches wide and have a lot more legroom.”
The next step will be to make improvements to the stage by increasing its depth and replacing the rope rigging system. “The original design had the stage starting much farther back, with the seats not as close,” Scheeland says. “As a result the stage is under a curved ceiling, so when you’re trying to fly something, or take something up and down, you run into a curve, and it’s very problematic.”
The final phases will include an enlarged scene shop and additional storage for props, furniture and costumes.
In addition to five main stage shows VLT does every year, it also has an outreach program called Minority Voices Theatre, which gives minorities and underserved communities an opportunity to see plays about their issues.
“We did a play called I Am Your Neighbor, highlighting the trials, tribulations and victories of recent immigrants,” Scheeland says. “We did a piece called The Training Bra Monologue, associated with Ophelia’s Place. We also did a series of personal monologues by transgender young adults.” Ophelia’s Place is a local nonprofit dedicated to helping girls make healthy life choices.
He adds that VLT did its first play entirely in Spanish, called La Gringa, under the banner of Minority Voices Theatre. VLT has been active in Eugene since 1929. The building on Hilyard Street was built in 1950. The original building, designed by architect Claire Hamlin, a member of VLT, was built during a time when “little theaters” were popping up everywhere.
“There was kind of a ‘little theater’ moment around the country,” Scheeland says of the organization’s history. “One of [the founders] said, ‘If we’re gonna do that, it’s gonna be a very little one.’”
The organization built itself a theater, though it wasn’t finished as designed. “It was supposed to have a tall rectangular stage house in the back, and the audience was supposed to go almost all the way to where the big curtain is,” Scheeland says.
As a result the front row in the theatre is several feet below the stage, but also very close to the stage. Patrons have had to look almost directly up at the stage, making for a very uncomfortable evening. With the stage moving back, and the floor being raised, under Poticha’s new design, it will be a much more comfortable viewing experience. ν
While VLT has been closed due to COVID-19, it is still doing some work online at TheVLT.com. If you would like to contribute to the renovation, you can make a secure donation through VLT’s online system. For more information go to the website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.