Revamped Marroney Theatre takes a bow at UA

It’s true what they say: Good things come to those who wait.

After a seemingly endless hiatus, the transformation of the Marroney Theatre at the University of Arizona has been unveiled. Home to many generations of theatre students, the historic venue has undergone a cosmetic upgrade, gaining cutting-edge technology and improved functionality.

As the Marroney opened over the weekend with a production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the student ensemble performed on a newly minted setting: the Craig T. Nelson Stage, in honor of the university’s famed alumnus.

The theatre’s remodel is a testament to commitment and innovation, symbolizing both a nod to tradition and a leap into contemporary relevance. I spoke with key figures in the project to understand the vision behind the renovation, the obstacles faced, and the opportunities the revamped theatre will offer to the university community and the public. Dr. Brant Pope is the interim head of the School of Theatre, Film & Television. Matthew Marcus is an assistant professor of practice in Sound Design.

What were the main goals you aimed to achieve with the Marroney renovation?

Brant Pope: The preface would be that we wanted this facility to reflect the world that our young people are going into, a world different than my generation. So, live theater, multi-multimedia, mixed kind of live performance and screen performance. This new theater, after the renovation, has the capacity for live theater as well as screen performance.

The other capacity is for things we haven’t thought of yet. There’s been a tremendous build out in terms of audio-visual infrastructure, and cables going from here to there that didn’t exist before. And there’s way more of it than we need that we’re using right now – which means there’s more of it for somebody to envision something that we’re not currently doing in terms of passing data around from place to place.

Can you talk a little bit about the history of the Marroney?

Pope: It was built in 1953 – named after Peter Marroney, who built this department from a one-person (department) to what it really became by the time he retired. He was the head of the theatre department, a nationally known person of his generation. The theatre was his legacy, and it was meant for what exactly theatre was at the time: live theatre. When the former Media Arts merged with Theatre in 2011 – 2012, and we created the School of Theatre, Film and Television, we’ve never really fulfilled that name. This is the first time we’re actually fulfilling the potential of that name: live theatre as well as film and television. And this space is a perfect expression of that because we’re able to do everything that our school does.

When did the inspiration to remodel begin?

Matt Marcus: A long time ago. This project has been through quite a few iterations and morphings. And how it was originally envisioned is not really much like how it turned out. A lot more is included in this; the original vision was to do a couple of things. Some really basic things – like seats. And at the time we were talking about digging an orchestra pit, but the more we thought about it, the more we realized what a tremendously bad idea that would be in here. Mostly because it would displace a lot of stuff downstairs that we don’t know where to put. Also, if you ask me, this is not built to be a pit-type theater.

Now it serves solely as an apron.

Yeah, it’s always been like that. There is an orchestra pit in there; however, it’s about two feet deep, which makes very little sense. I mean, in the acoustic days, even if it was all string players, I think you’d struggle to get in. In the front row, you’re two feet from the trumpet player, so it’s not the best situation in the world. 

Is the number of seats the same?

303 seats, without taking out the ones that you need to take out for a technical position. It’s more like 275 because we have to remove seats to have an audio position in the house, which is necessary for a musical theatre production or any type of production with live audio.

How do you decide which shows are mounted here as opposed to the Tornabene (Theatre) across the yard?

The drivers are primarily revenue. We have three classes remaining of Music Theatre training program for students. So, to fulfill our obligation to them, we do two musicals a year. Right now they’re senior, junior, sophomore. So two more years after this year. We programmatically must do that. So the musicals, unless there’s a tremendous reason, are going to be in here, both size and scope and revenue. 

Marcus: And it has the technical infrastructure to do it much more easily than the Tornabene – which you could have done fantastic musicals in, but it’s a bit of a heavy lift. And with fewer technical theater students as well, who would provide the design and workforce for installing those shows.

What were the biggest challenges in the renovation process?

Marcus: The biggest challenge was that it was a renovation and not a complete rebuild of the entire facility. Like I was saying about the orchestra pit – if it was a completely new facility,
you would design it properly. It would be not simple, but you would design the orchestra pit and the seating in proximity to it. So there are a lot of things you discover when you’re renovating an old building that you don’t know when you go into it. So I think that was probably the biggest challenge.

Pope: And because this was a combination of donor-funded and university-funded [project], you’ll never have the total amount you would like to do it anyway.

Marcus: That was another challenge: This was envisioned as one thing, and money started to be solicited for it. And there were donors for this kind of initial vision. Then there was a changeover in leadership, and so that changed. We had some money the university was matching, and then everything shut down (during the pandemic). We couldn’t do anything for a couple of years. When everything shut down the university found itself unable to provide the matching funds that it had initially thought it would be able to provide.

What are some of the specific features or technology you’ve installed in the remodel?

Marcus: Well, the main thing is there’s a permanent projector. It’s a 4K Christie 20,000-lumen projector. For a room this size, that’s a lot of light. It’s essentially for film screening. But one of the cool things about it is it could be used for other stuff; it’s not locked down for that one purpose. So we’ve got the super-bright projector that’s always in here. 

Also, there’s a screen that’s going to be permanently mounted. It will be flown in whenever you want to do something. This is happening with “Much Ado About Nothing” in a month and a half. We have a set on the stage, and there’s also a screening event in some dark time when there’s not a performance or a rehearsal for “Much Ado About Nothing.” All we need to do is fly the screen in, right at the proscenium opening. 

Pope: We’ll be able to not only do our productions, but when we have the time to fit it in, we partner with Arizona Arts Live to do really unusual things that are too funky for their big house in Centennial Hall. Obviously, we have to serve our schedule first, but we’re able to do a couple things here with them. 

Excellent. I was just about to inquire if you’ve initiated outreach efforts or partnerships associated with the reopening.

Marcus: Another big deal about one of the things we did, is we upgraded all the power infrastructure on the stage, which was way out of date and not enough to do anything remotely modern. 

Pope: Matt, will you tell him about the sound system?

Marcus: I will. So, I designed the sound system and one really cool thing is the flexibility of it. Ordinarily for a film sound system, you’d have this left-right-center speaker behind the screen, which obviously is not possible to do. Nothing’s impossible; there’d have to be a whole staff to change it over every time. So this is a really great compromise (It’s really not much of a compromise). It’s a full surround system. Right now, it is at its maximum for a film mix.
It’s a 7.1 system, which means left-center-right. That’s 1, 2, 3; side-side, that’s four, five, and then back-left, back-right. That’s seven. 

And is the design primarily for student work?

Pope: I think a combination of student-faculty work, and also guests. Guest filmmakers could come in, because it could actually stand on stage and do a stop-and-go with the film in a teaching way. So, we’ve got great capacity to do any of those things.

It’s future-oriented. But the other cool thing about it is not only can it do this kind of standard surround mix that people mix films to. Sometimes, it can be a completely flexible immersive audio system where each speaker has a separate amplifier. That’s what we’re doing in some stuff with “Sweeney Todd” where there are some positional things going on with sound effects where it sounds like it’s coming from here or there, and it moves around. And so that becomes like a 17-channel sound system with the ability to even add on to that.

It sounds like you’ve made the effort to create a design that respects the theatre’s historical significance while meeting modern standards and expectations.

Marcus: That’s the idea. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, especially the audio system, that film students either can’t do or don’t do right now, because there isn’t time. But there’s a great aspiration to increase that… there certainly is an aspiration in the future for students that are more interested in audio to be able to concentrate on that part of the film production.

What message do you want to tell the students, the alumni, and the theater community about the future of not just the Marroney, but the entire department?

Pope: If we had renovated the Marroney in 2005, it would be a much different renovation than it is now. The renovation reflects our belief that we’re broadening our understanding of our art form — that live theater is going to be an important part of the future. But that it no longer defines what we do. It’s part of what we do, that live theater, film, television, and media is the world that they’re going into.