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Thank you, Fisher Theater

Honoring the building that first elevated the arts at Exeter.

Karen Ingraham
May 9, 2018
Exonians perform in "The Liar" in Fisher Theater

Teddy Scott '18, Cody Nunn '18 and Anzi DeBenedetto '18 star in the 2017 production of The Liar in Fisher Theater.

When Chester Fisher '66 needed to hang lights for a mainstage theater production during his Exeter years, he climbed a tall stepladder, lifted a heavy fixture over his head and hung it from a pipe that ran from one pillar to another. Wires were snaked across that pipe and threaded down to the backstage area, where they were plugged into an electrical panel so that, Fisher says, “you had to contort yourself and use elbows and knees and feet to push switches and dimmers in order to do a lighting change.”

This precarious work took place in the Academy Building’s Assembly Hall, which served as mainstage for the student-run DRAMAT club for several decades, including when Fisher’s father, James “Jim” Fisher ’38, was enrolled. A Feb. 19, 1938, Exonian article notes that “… Jim Fisher will supervise the lighting effects” for the production of "Three-Cornered Moon" in the Chapel, as Assembly Hall was then known.

Influenced by his father’s experience and possessing a natural proclivity for technical work (he was an amateur radio operator by the age of 12), Chester Fisher joined DRAMAT after entering the Academy as a lower. He was elected as the club’s vice president during his upper year, with classmate Fred Grandy ’66 serving as president. Fisher confirmed for his father that little had changed in 30 years regarding the production hurdles involved in using a space designed entirely for something else. English Instructor B. Rodney Marriott, a longtime, passionate theater director and advocate for the performing arts at Exeter, told The Exonian in 1966, “It is ridiculous to put on a play in the Chapel” because of the poor acoustics, the inability to see actors’ expressions, the limitations (and dangers) with lighting, and the uncomfortable benches in the hall.

Things marginally improved when Marriott led a retrofitting of Harris House on Elliot Street, adding a small stage and 150 seats to the former parish house during the spring of ’66. The youngest Fisher, James “Jim” Fisher Jr. ’68, benefited from the upgrade, choosing, unlike his father and brother, to be on stage during his years at Exeter. He doesn’t count himself amongst the acting legends from those years, like Grandy and Jack Gilpin ’69, both of whom went on to have long, successful screen careers after Exeter. But he had fun, adding, “I bet I held spears and [had] one-liners in seven or eight shows.”

Even though neither of his sons would reap the reward, on stage or off, the elder Fisher felt compelled to help elevate the performing arts even higher at Exeter. An Academy trustee, he chaired the school’s ambitious fundraising campaign, The Long Step Forward, from 1966 to 1970. His family’s contribution would be a theater. His wife, Edith “Toto” Fisher, says her husband “felt so indebted to Exeter; he felt that Exeter had opened his eyes to the world.” He wanted to do the same for future generations of students, so he and his family’s foundation provided most of the money needed for the construction of a permanent theater, one that was designed to provide something that the other spaces had not: greater flexibility and opportunities for invention.

Construction on the building that would become Fisher Theater began during the winter of 1971 and finished in the spring of 1972. The theater’s director, Donald Schultz, described the new space to a local newspaper as an “educational theatre” where “students can build things and instruct on their own.” He later added that, unlike Harris House, Fisher Theater is a place where “students can work and not have the sense they can’t touch anything.” The Foster’s Democrat news article, dated April 18, 1973, goes on to describe the building:

"The Fisher Theatre is flexible enough to offer at least ten years of entirely original sets, according to Schultz. The flexible seating and stage arrangement allows for many different sets. The traditional frontal stage can be glorified by moving the light arrangement. The frontal stage itself can be adjusted to form a circular theatre or even a scatter theatre, where part of the actual staging takes place within the audience’s seats."

Opening night was May 12, 1972, and students performed the Gilbert and Sullivan opera "The Mikado." The formal dedication of the building occurred later that year, on Oct. 21, with a production of the musical "West Side Story," which included more than 80 students in the production and 15 scene changes. James Fisher was in attendance, in a theater that could now seat 350 people, and he reflected on the significance of the building that now bore his name: “The proof of the value of this institution will be fully realized in subsequent productions. Helping the students to grow through discipline of the mind, molding a sense of unity as a group, but also strengthening the students’ individuality, are all aims of this institution.”

It had become what he wanted it to be ... a gathering place and a place for people to try out their ideas."
Edith Fisher

Chester Fisher says that his father was most proud of the marked growth in the number of students who participated in theater or dance in the years after the building opened. Such interest compelled the Academy to add formal course offerings to the curriculum, beginning in 1972 with a course available to uppers entitled "Dramatics," which was opened to lowers in 1974. At a faculty meeting on Feb. 14, 1975, Principal Stephen G. Kurtz also announced his decision to form a Dramatics Department, a move proposed and championed by both Marriott and Schultz. Kurtz said in that meeting, “The creation of this small department is a step toward recognizing that Dramatics is a co-equal curricular offering along with Art and Music.” The department began with three course offerings, but in the years since, it has grown to encompass PEA’s dance program and now offers 23 courses in the performing arts, as well as actively supporting several student clubs, including DRAMAT.

The programming in the space has been so successful over the past 46 years that it’s created the need for a new, modern facility in which to support the hundreds of student thespians, dancers, stage hands and set builders who are drawn to the stage each year. That building, The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Theater and Dance, will open on the south side of campus this spring. When James Fisher funded the 1972 building, he knew it would have a lifespan — that something would eventually succeed it. His wife says he was “beyond rewarded” by what Fisher Theater had given Exeter. “It had become what he wanted it to be,” she says, “a gathering place and a place for people to try out their ideas.”

James Fisher died in February 2014 after a fall at the age of 93. His wife of nearly 60 years says, “He was a very curious man and passionate about the arts; he never ceased. He kept right to the end of his life being as curious and as accepting of new ideas.” His theater, she adds, and its impact on students, was “a dream come true.”  

A maker-space theater

When Rob Richards, now chair of the Theater and Dance Department, first entered Fisher Theater in 1994, he was struck by the architecture — the exposed beams and ductwork, the open ceiling. He thought, “I like this. You can add to this.” It was a space, he sensed, that would present opportunities for invention, that would challenge him as a director to use the facility in different ways. He wasn’t wrong.

Coffee mug in hand, Richards stands in the prop room 24 years and dozens of productions later and studies the trap doors that open onto the stage from below. He recalls the production of Macbeth that he directed, and how he enlisted the help of Gerry Hill, who is a technician in Facilities Management and whom Richards describes as “a creative genius who can make anything out of anything.” Richards wanted a way for the character Banquo to rise up through a layer of fog during the play. So, they removed the stairs and Hill rigged up some old Nautilus exercise equipment to raise and lower the actor. The effect, Richards says with a smile, was almost magical: Banquo’s appearance shocked the audience each time he emerged.

In a way, I have to reinvent the space every time I design."
Cary Wendell

Richards and Hill partnered on many such projects. The steel prop cage tucked against a wall off the mainstage is left over from the set of "Hamlet." Its staircase provided dramatic height for the play, and it has since served as a second point of access to the catwalk above. When acoustics needed adjusting in the mainstage, Richards tapped the late Gary Tuttle and his carpentry crew, who constructed a wall behind the audience seats to bounce the sound off of. They also relocated the light booth to improve its sight lines.

“The greatest thing about Fisher Theater, in my opinion, is that it has given us versatility … flexible spaces,” Richard says. “It’s sort of a maker-space theater.”

Cary Wendell, the theater’s designer and technical director since 1998, agrees. “Fisher Theater, because of its uniqueness and undefined architecture, is more like an experimental lab than a standard theater for my process of designing,” he says. “In a way, I have to reinvent the space every time I design. It requires of me an openness to experiment and a willingness to take artistic risks.”

That was James Fisher’s original hope, according to Mrs. Fisher. “It was to be this place where students could experiment to see if they liked theater, to act, to see if they liked production,” she says. “And it was [a place] to fulfill the desires of those who were more experienced and yearned for a real theater.”

The design focus, she adds, because of both budget and desire, was on “the workings of the theater,” the technology, lighting and production. It was designed and built to be functional rather than monumental. A space accessible to everyone.

You remember those moments or that kid who was particularly good in the role and the bond that you have with them.”
Rob Richards

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more apparent than in the seating arrangement in the mainstage. “It is roughly the shape of a Greek amphitheater,” Wendell says. “Because the seating wraps around in a partial semicircle, the audience is aware of being part of a communal event — they can see each other watching the show. The fact that [the seating] is raked (slanted) at a steep enough pitch makes for good visibility for everyone. This allows (and requires) the set designer to include the floor as a significant design element. A third feature of the space that makes  it unique, challenging and inviting is the fact that there is no architectural separation of stage and audience. This is partly because the floor of the stage is at the same level as the front row of the audience. It also has allowed us to remove curtains and expose the walls offstage to make for a raw look.”

“This [is] not an intimidating building,” Richards concludes, and that is part of what has made it a home for so many students over the years. “Sometimes the students who come here are folks who need a niche, they need a little sanctuary. … And theater is all about truth and releasing what’s going on in a community.”

Richards is standing in the scene shop. Giant puppet heads hang from the wall, handcrafted by him during the summer of ’94 for the satirical play "American Hurrah." The hood from the car he built for a production of "Grease" still sits in his barn at home.

“So many memories, so many shows,” Richards says, staring at the old props on the shop’s walls. “I don’t remember the order; I don’t remember the year. But you remember those moments or that kid who was particularly good in the role and the bond that you have with them.”


Finding Home

By Sarah Ream

Fisher Theater has had an enormous impact on my personal and professional life, and it seems fitting that I should pay a small tribute to this odd building before we bid it farewell.

As a student back in the early days of coeducation, it was in Fisher Theater that I made my first Exeter friends. They were a gang as awkward and uncool as I was. While everyone else on campus was busy grooving to Led Zeppelin on turntables in dorm butt rooms, we would stay after rehearsal and plonk away on a tuneless piano, singing show tunes and ballads from the Great American Songbook. Several of those fellow geeks are still close friends today. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we gave each other more than notes on Gershwin; we gave each other courage to be who we really were, a lesson that sustained me at Exeter and long afterward.

It was in the Fisher Theater Black Box that I directed my first play, an insignificant little comedy called "The Knack" – and learned something about management. As a new lower, I knew I had no clout. But I singled out the three best senior actors on campus and told each one that the other two had already agreed to do the play. It was almost opening night before they realized how I had corralled them all. But the show was a hit, at least by the standards of the day, and provided enough of a buzz to keep me directing and believing that a woman could aim at a career as a professional theater director.

Year after year, it provided a venue for engaged, curious people to come together and create work that none of us could have imagined on our own."
Sarah Ream

I became that director, as well as a teacher. When I returned to Exeter more than 20 years later, again Fisher had lessons for me to learn. Year after year, it provided a venue for engaged, curious people to come together and create work that none of us could have imagined on our own. Time and again, my students taught me. In the early days, they showed me how to use some new-fangled search engine (whatever that was) called Google to research everything from lighting plots to costume design. They suggested dances and music and references to popular culture for shows that dragged me kicking and screaming into the 21st century. (The first time I heard someone call a friend “phat,” I made him apologize.)

Fisher gave me the chance to collaborate with colleagues and alumni, too. I will never forget [History Instructor] Jack Herney addressing my cast of "Journey’s End" about the Battle of the Somme in World War I. Or John Irving ’61 talking with the cast of "A Prayer for Owen Meany" about his own experiences as a student at Exeter and how those shaped the book. In every case, the connections were powerful ones. Over and over, Fisher Theater has, despite the tin roof and incessant graffiti, been a safe place for people to share, to grow, and to do their best work. For that, I am very grateful.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.