December 3, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 42°F


Hangar Theatre works to renovate performance building

Water sloshes backstage at the Hangar Theatre as actors’ and crew members’ hurried feet move across the flooded floor. In the lobby, the audience waits to be seated in the shabby seats of the theater. Small puddles accumulate in all corners of the room.

Lisa Bushlow, executive director of the Hangar Theatre, works on rewiring the theater with other crew members Friday. The renovations to the theater will allow for more performances year-round. Matt Rigby/The Ithacan

Lisa Bushlow, executive director of the Hangar Theatre, said water leakage is always a problem.

“Our patrons are used to waiting in the lobby with water up to their ankles,” she said.

With the coming renovations of the current building, however, the Hangar Theatre hopes to recreate an arts-and-education building for all seasons that will be both safe and sustainable by June 2010. A groundbreaking ceremony will be held Monday to honor the commencement of the building’s renovations.

Originally an airplane hangar built in 1934, the building was converted to the Hangar Theatre in 1976. Since then, the arts program has been growing in importance among the Ithaca community, but the building has been slowly falling into disrepair.

In June 2008, the theater went public with its capital campaign to raise $4.6 million — $4 million of which was approved to renovate the building; $600,000 will be used as an endowment for the future upkeep of the building.

To date, the campaign has raised 81 percent of its goal, most of which has been raised by the Tompkins County community. The Hangar Theatre will continue to accept pledges through December 2010 to fully meet its goal.

People who gained their first experience in dramatic performance at the Hangar Theatre are also included in raising funds. Affectionately titled by the board, “alums and chums,” the cast and crew members of past shows, played a large part in the campaign.

Shelley Semmler, co-chair of the community campaign and vice president of Institutional Advancement at Ithaca College, said the board decided to call on the “alums and chums” because of the importance of the Hangar Theatre to their current professional careers.

“The idea is that there are some very famous people in theater that got their start at the Hangar,” she said. “We have people — actors, designers, directors, producers, costume designers — that we never asked for support before, so this campaign has really galvanized that effort.”

Mary Beth Bunge, development director of the theater, said prior to raising the money, the board of the theater dedicated a lot of time to planning what would bring a lasting fix to the building’s problems by coordinating ideas with Holt Architects.

“Like a lot of nonprofits, we have to Band-Aid a certain amount of things,” Bunge said. “When we got into the ‘capital campaign,’ we took that planning time and said, ‘What is it going to take to fix [the building] and do it right — not patch it — but make it last a good, long time?’”

Semmler said the renovations are necessary just to keep up with health codes.

“It’s become very unhealthy environmentally,” Semmler said. “The bathrooms and back rooms are very substandard. The common remark of anyone that goes on a tour [of the theater] is it’s unbelievably grungy.”

Much of the renovations will be dedicated toward making the building safe, including leveling and raising the floors to prevent flooding in the summers. The building will also have heating and insulation installed so that it can be used in the winter.

At present, the year-round education program has no permanent residence and must move to different auditoriums and classrooms in the college community.

Bushlow said this education is what has made the theater such an important part of town.

“Our mission is different from other theaters [in the area] in that 50 percent of what we do is education-based,” she said.

Bunge said she hopes the renovations raise the bar for performers.

“We’re really committed to offering a theater experience pretty much to everyone, regardless of age or income level,” Bunge said. “Just by having a year-round facility, we’re only beginning to imagine what all other possibilities could be.”

For more information on the theater’s capital campaign, go to