There’s a big production going on at Proctors right now that most people will never see.
It’s directed by Jed Ellis, who’s been working in theaters for almost 40 years. He oversees a crew of 17, who are masters in their field.
The group’s not showcasing its artistry on stage, but rather in the lobby, in the mezzanine area above it, in the bathrooms, and at the edges of the auditorium.
As they worked last week, the scene was set with yards of clear plastic secured with blue painters’ tape. The air was clouded with dust. Scaffolding obstructed stairwells and scaled the box seating area in the auditorium. Men in hard hats were scattered throughout the space. Their role: to restore a portion of the historic theater.
Ellis and his crew have been on the job since the first week of August. Their gig will run until the beginning of October and then they’ll start up again next year.
The work is part of a years-long refurbishment project at the theater, slated to conclude next summer. Included in this segment is restoration of the auditorium’s columns and wainscotting, which are decorated with scagliola, a convincing-looking imitation marble.
“It’s plaster with embedded pigments to make it look like marble and it’s highly honed and polished,” explained Ellis, who is foreman for EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York City, the company contracted to do the work.
Workers are also in the process of painting the lobby and mezzanine area above it and are making repairs to decorative plaster. There’s intricate painting and gilding work going on in the box seating area in the auditorium and the restrooms are getting a makeover.
“This here is an area that we repaired,” Ellis said, pointing to an ornate patch of plasterwork on the ceiling in the mezzanine area above the lobby. “This was all missing. Where you see all the white plaster is all brand new. This was all in very, very poor shape.”
He rattled off some of the patterns imbedded in the plaster — Greek key, bay leaf, lamb’s tongue — gesturing with a hand marked with smears of black and gold paint.
The theater will be completely restored by the end of July 2015, said Proctors CEO Philip Morris.
“Thousands of people go through Proctors thinking it’s pretty beautiful and it’s actually never really been restored,” he noted.
There’s a lot of fancy footwork going on during the second-to-last act in the restoration project. Workers must maneuver around Proctors’ show schedule and still meet their deadline.
“I can’t start going A, C, F, B. You’ve got to get everything done in sequence and things have to happen rapidly,” said Ellis, a slight, energetic man with blue eyes and a short, grey beard bristling with hints of ginger.
When a Proctors show is scheduled to run, the workers have to do a disappearing act. Last Friday, Cirque Eloize was slated to perform, so all of the plastic sheeting had to go and equipment was stowed away.
“The guys were like, ‘You’re kidding me.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not kidding you.’ And then they say, ‘Well, we’ll have to put it all back down Monday,’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Ellis recounted with a grin. “They’re telling me they’ve got another [show] coming up.”
Despite the tricky logistics, it’s clear he loves his job and takes great pride in the finished product. Just like productions played out on stage, he said the restoration work is meant to convey a message.
“I want it to say that we are an intelligent, creative society, and this is the difference between civilized society and uncivilized,” he explained. “You create an atmosphere that people marvel at, that they can touch, that makes them wonder, that piques the interest, gets their juices flowing.”
The project is funded by a $455,000 grant from the New York State’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation through the Capital Regional Economic Development Council, along with a $200,000 match that came from private donations to Proctors.
“Like all of our projects, the community’s response to get it done was universal. All of the players who participated helped to make it happen,” Morris said.