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Remake/Remodel

The turnout for the third and final public meeting regarding the future of Albany’s historic St. Joseph’s Church necessitated a move to a larger room. On July 23, approximately 50 people filed into the Public Works Building on Henry Johnson Boulevard to offer suggestions on reuse ideas for the local landmark. The meetings were held by Historic Albany Foundation, which received the deed to St. Joseph’s from the city in early June. The foundation is exploring funding sources and options to make the building financially feasible. The church, which has been vacant for more than a decade and was declared a hazard by the city in 2001, is in dire need of structural and restoration work.

Something old into something new: Community members meet to decide the future of St. Joseph’s Church. Photo: John Whipple

Matthew Bender IV, chairman of the St. Joseph’s Reuse Committee, opened the meeting with a proposal to convert the 1860 Gothic Revival church into a “fiber-optically wired, high-tech elementary school” that would be part of a multisite instructional center operated under the auspices of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The conversion might be modeled on RPI’s Voorhees Computing Center, Bender said. The Voorhees Center is located in a former seminary chapel and contains a “building within a building” created out of three- quarter-height partitions encasing a beehive of computer terminals. The proposal did not elicit a response from attendees.

Proffered reuse ideas ranged from a library—an option put forth by committee member and president of the Ten Broeck Triangle Preservation League Helen Black—to an African-American museum, a suggestion from Albany Common Council president Helen Desfosses. There were several requests for consideration of a multipurpose arts and cultural space and/or reception hall, as well as simply stated wishes for the church to be made accessible to all city residents, and for its “beauty and grandeur” to be preserved.

Wednesday’s meeting featured a slide show presented by HAF employee Bill Brandow, a committee member. The slides pinpointed the building’s trouble zone, a pitched intersection of the roof that leaked water into the timber column underneath, endangering the roof’s support and rotting the surrounding plasterwork. Last year, the roof was stabilized with extensive scaffolding, paid for with a city grant. The column’s larger-than-life-size, hand-carved cherub was shown resting comfortably on a sandbag. The slides also highlighted the building’s assets, including its soaring, cathedral-style interior, and an intact collection of stained-glass windows.

In addition to city money, St. Joseph’s received a $300,000 grant from the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. But the state money needs to be matched; so far, HAF has received $23,000—$20,000 of it from an anonymous donation. Bender said that the committee will examine other adapted historic structures, including the Nott Memorial in Schenectady, and that a trip is planned for next month for members to visit the Martin Luther King education center, formerly St. Mary’s Church, in Buffalo. At the meeting’s conclusion, committee member and HAF executive director Elizabeth Griffin emphasized that public input is still being sought, and encouraged anyone with ideas to submit them by writing, e-mailing, or calling the foundation. Suggestions not implemented for the church, she added, will be considered for the neighborhood’s other vacant buildings, including nearby St. Joseph’s School.

—Ann Morrow

Ahoy, Matey!

Berkshire Theatre Festival director Eric Hill squats on a chair behind three tables, looking like an osprey waiting to swoop down on the figures below. Hill then moves among the 23 assembled cast members, whispering to them, “think pirate.” The “Act V Fight, 10-12” rehearsal—the battle between Peter Pan and his Lost Boys, and Captain Hook and his Pirates—starts in the warm-up: various swashbuckling grimaces and grins begin to sneak into the vocalizations. It’s the fifth rehearsal in a 20-rehearsal process until the first preview of Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, a new adaptation by John Caird and Trevor Nunn—two directing stars of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company—of J. M. Barrie’s classic tale.

Then the troupe splits into Lost Boys and Pirates, each on their own wing of the rehearsal hall. Captain Hook (Walter Hudson, crackling with energy) stands center stage and says in perfect sotto voce, “I smell acting,” and the battle begins. For the next hour, 22 actors move through a focused and comic, yet riveting, “battle.”

The Pirates cheer. Hill, director of some of BTF’s best productions the past three years (Moby Dick Rehearsed, Camelot, My Fair Lady), moves upstage left, and the Pirates and Lost Boys repeat the first phrase of the fight. “Let’s go back and do it again.” The cast again moves through the first phase, Hill stopping them when the count is off, and then they clash with more hyperbolic intensity, as if this were a Harold Lloyd silent comedy.

“No Tommy acting, “ Hill says as he stops them. With Hill’s encouragement, the crew tries out bigger movements and more interaction, yet the focused presentation of the bodies—the sweep of an arm, the striding of a leg, the twisting of a neck as it’s stabbed in the mock fight—become even more exact as they become more energetic. It’s mimed chaos, but each actor is visible, and each story within the battle is clear. This is a stunning achievement so early on with so large a cast in so complex a fight: At the fight’s conclusion, Hill says, “Care to see that again?” and the cast does the fight exactly backwards.

During a brief break, Hill—a Suziki trained actor-director—talks about the rehearsal’s objective: “Mornings are for physical work. We do table work [analyzing the text] in the afternoon.” One of the schisms in theater is between those who work “inside out” (finding the emotional connection to the words) versus those working “outside in” (those finding physical presentation of the text), and the two viewpoints often clash. “I don’t focus on all the emotional motivation. I leave that to the actor. I need to get the physical life of a play. The actors need time to figure that [emotional life] out. ‘We’ spend too much time talking, and I see too much dead-from-the-neck-down theater. I rearrange the exterior of the actor.

“I want the contributing energy from the actors. I want to make sure the ownership process is there from the beginning. It’s important that they feel that authority. Precision is everything,” Hill concludes about the exacting presentation of each actor, then the fight begins again. “Stretch and lean. Good. Good dynamic tension. Don’t think there’s dialogue and fight movements. They’re all connected.” And the next phase of the fight is worked with a physical cleanness that makes getting each pause an exact act of company precision.

—James Yeara

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