The idea for the Arthur Miller Theatre originated in 1997 when University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger proposed it to the Board of Regents, saying, “This is a community that loves the word, that loves performance. This is vital to what we are as a community and as an institution.” When the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright was approached by his alma mater, his response was a simple postcard. “The theatre is a lovely idea,” he wrote in fall 1997. “I’ve resisted similar proposals from others, but it seems right from Ann Arbor.” The venue would be the only theatre in the world to bear his name. The project was enabled by a gift of $10 million from Charles Walgreen, Jr., a 1938 graduate of the College of Pharmacy, for the construction of the Walgreen Drama Center which would include the theatre.
Expressed as a translucent glass cube levitating above a multi-hued masonry base, the Arthur Miller Theatre transforms into a luminous glass beacon at night, recalling the illuminated marquees of vaudeville era theatres. The 280-seat theatre, named after the esteemed American playwright and U-M alumnus, represents the most public component of the Charles R. Walgreen, Jr. Drama Center. The theatre room is configured as a highly flexible courtyard format theatre to showcase both professional and student productions, and to create a new cultural destination for both the University and the broader Ann Arbor community. Designed for proscenium productions and able to accommodate an orchestra of up to 16 players with forward seating rows removed to expose the orchestra pit, the space will more often be set up in a wide thrust stage configuration with seating on three sides and extraordinarily intimate dimensions between actor and audience. Incorporating a range of the most current theatrical, audio, and rigging equipment, the Arthur Miller Theatre allows artists to work with contemporary systems in staging productions while providing generous flexibility to anticipate future technologies. Acoustically, the theatre room is designed principally for the spoken word, with highly reverberant finishes and extremely quiet mechanical systems to heighten the audibility of voices. The space derives its raw but warm sensibility from the concrete box that encases it, precluding the intrusion of external noise that might break the theatrical spell of a production. Stained white oak leaning rails defining the seating galleries and parterres provide tactile and visual warmth for the patrons.
The theatre presents itself to the main lobby as a heroic sandblasted concrete portal, marking the theatre entrance. The 40 foot high glass enclosure of the lobby reveals the presence of the theatre to the North Campus Quad, visible through a concrete column portico from a great distance. A steel and glass monumental stair, connecting to the theatre mezzanine and second floor, is suspended within the lobby like a theatrical set, providing access to the “front door” of the Departments of Theatre & Drama and Musical Theatre during the day. Monumental neo-primitive wood benches set between the 3 story concrete columns provide generous surfaces for socializing throughout the day and at intermission.
The Center and Theatre were designed by Kuwabara Payne McKenna and Blumberg Associates of Toronto.
© Photos by Tom Arban Photography
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