Walking through the Wendy Williamson Auditorium at the University of Alaska Anchorage invokes a creepy, Halloween-like mood. The spookiness comes complete with decrepit equipment, mysteriously interrupted building features and an elevator shaft that leads to nowhere.
Normally, neglected construction such as this would only be found in abandoned, haunted houses or condemned structures. Despite these quirks, the auditorium houses several successful performances each year. This is the first year that the university has provided any money for renovations.
So, why is UAA home to a theatre that is poorly built and lacking in the equipment needed to do justice for the performances that it houses? There are two parts to this answer: First, when the Williamson was built in 1972, there were not enough funds to afford the original 2,000-seat house plan. Some auditorium employees still rumor that the plans were then literally folded in half. Second, until this year, the university has not allocated any of the budget for repairs or care of the auditorium.
“They pay the electric bill, that's about it,” Theater Manager Van Clifton said.
Both Clifton and UAA Event Facilitator Wayne Mitchell feel very passionately about the auditorium. Mitchell was a UAA student in the 1980s and now works as technical support for the auditorium. Clifton and Mitchell want to see it renovated and brought closer to the condition it was originally meant to be in.
Initially, the Wendy Williamson Auditorium was to be decked out with a 2,000-seat house that included a center isle and ample handicapped seating. The construction happened before the merger of Anchorage Community College and the University of Alaska system to create UAA. The proscenium thrust stage was supposed to be longer than what exists there today. There was also a plan to have an elevator lead up to the top of the audience seating and the control booth.
Building errors made that should have been avoided have also created problems. The cement floor of the control booth is too low. Before a wooden platform was set up to raise the lighting and sound equipment and chair in the booth. The people who were working in the booth sat too low to see the stage through their window.
Today, behind a locked door, forgotten trash has been accumulating in the bottom of the useless elevator shaft since the 1970s. The auditorium stands with old, tattered curtains and abandoned corners of technical catwalks. To add to that haunted feeling, there are lighting bay windows that don't look out onto the stage like they're supposed to. There are catwalks and rooms filled with old technical equipment that can't be used.
The lack of working equipment in the auditorium hurts the quality of service that Clifton and his employees are able to provide their performers.
Last February, when the National College Theatre Festival, hosted by the UAA Theatre Department, came to perform at the Williamson, they submitted a list of technical demands for their show. Clifton had to tell them that they could go to the Web site to see what equipment was available, but that they should call him so he could tell them what actually works.
“When this was first built, everything was state-of-the-art,” Mitchell said. “But the problem was only half of it worked.”
Aside from replacing some light bulbs, and doing an emergency curtain repair after the 800-pound curtain had rotted off of its pole, the university had not provided any money for renovations since the original construction.
Now, the house curtains hang stale with dry rot and are held together with safety pins. Several of the ceiling panel lights don't work and only half of the lighting circuits are functional. The sound monitors in the green room and the dressing rooms have not worked for years. “We have 12 speakers up there, and on a good day maybe two of them work,” Clifton said.
Both Mitchell and Clifton argue that keeping the theatre in good condition is very important for the university.
“It's one of the community's only brush with UAA,” Mitchell said. “It gives the university a black eye with the battering its been through.”
“They let it rot. It just went to hell,” Mitchell said.
“It's always been a dream of mine that the university would someday kick in some money to help with the operating costs of the Williamson,” Clifton said.