Merc renovation will give actors, directors theatrical options

By Marcy Stamper

To most people in the audience at The Merc Playhouse, when actors were off-stage, they were simply out of sight until the next scene involving that character.

But a quirk of construction – converting a nearly century-old mercantile store to a theater – meant that the stage-right exit (on the actors’ right and the audience’s left) led nowhere.

Actors were stuck waiting in a dead-end cubicle until their next scene – or until the end of the show – if the staging required them to exit on the right side.

It may not seem like a serious problem to audience members, but the dead end had a big impact on how directors planned shows and blocked out action on the stage.

For example, if the play called for a sitting room with a foyer leading out to the street and lots of coming and goings, the director had to set everything up so that all that action occurred on the left side of the stage.

Directors and actors have been creative over the 17 years The Merc has been producing theater. They often used the two aisles in the audience to give actors more options, but it has imposed some awkward restrictions, said Missi Smith, The Merc’s executive director.

“Things got trapped,” said Smith. “For people who see the shows, it’s not a big deal, but for the directors and actors, it gives them a whole new place to use.”

The Merc is adding a narrow hallway alongside the windows on Glover Street that will create a genuine stage-right exit. The walkway will have an insulated wall, which is expected to help muffle road noise, said Smith.

Once the stage-right exit is available, actors may continue to use the aisles, but they will be able to cross over from the right to the left sides of the stage using the existing passageway at the back of the theater, behind the audience.

Creating a stage-right exit has been on The Merc’s wish list since the capital campaign. It came up often in a survey completed by actors, directors and stage managers, said Smith.

Adding more seats was a higher priority, and the renovations done four years ago increased the seating from about 100 to 150. Adding the new hallway will eliminate seven regular seats, but the total capacity will be preserved using folding chairs, said Smith.

The construction is being done with money left over from the building-improvement fund, part of the capital campaign that allowed the Merc to purchase the building in 2012.

The theater will close for a few weeks while the work is being done. It will reopen for rentals and other activities in September.