"Welcome Home!" began the message from the artistic director in last summer's program at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. "It has been a long 647 days since we've been able to seat audience members in our own home." In fact, it took considerably longer than that for the company to end up where it started, in the newly-named. M. Kirby Theatre, its gorgeously renovated space on the campus at Drew University, in Madison, NJ. It's a fascinating blend of old and new; the existing building blends in seamlessly with the rest of the campus, yet the additions, including the facade with its many windows, create a warm and inviting identity for the theatre inside. As for how this was achieved--well, as Shakespeare says, thereby hangs a tale.

According to NJSF managing director Michael Stotts, he and artistic director Bonnie Monte began looking for a new space for the company "the day we got here," in 1990. Long in residence at Drew, NJSF occupied a theatre in Bowne gymnasium, an arrangement that was somewhat less than ideal. The real work began in 1993, when the theatre commissioned an architectural feasibility study, which determined that the gym could be successfully renovated. "Then," says Stotts, "in the course of the next five years, we went through four designs--three on this site, one on another site at Drew."

One reason for the lengthy process, says Monte, is that Drew established a number of parameters for the theatre's design. (She also notes that the school provides many advantages, in terms of amenities like housing, parking, libraries, and a charming, idyllic atmosphere.) "We assured them that the aesthetic of the building would match the aesthetic of the campus," she says, a decision that caused a number of compromises. "They didn't want a building on campus that was higher than any other--so there went our fly loft," she says. Furthermore, Stotts says, "Another requirement was that we retain two of the exterior walls. We spent a significant chunk of money on shoring up the walls and trying to match the bricks and windows."

According to architect Michael Farewell, of Ford Farewell Mills and Gatsch, the Princeton-based firm that oversaw the project, the original building "was completely inadequate. They were in the gym. It had a running track. It had been modified by the founders of the festival to act as a theatre. The stage had virtually no wing space. There were bad dressing rooms. They were functioning under onerous conditions."

Furthermore, he adds, the renovation project seemed "really daunting, because, it's a building with a strong historical character, and you don't immediately want to tamper with something like that." The solution was, he says, "to add an L-shaped addition to the building, which allowed for the house to be enlarged in width and for a new lobby to be added on. By making the house wider, the stage could be recentered and wing space could be accommodated on either side." In all, 9,100 sq. ft. were added to the building, including the lobby additions to the east wall.

Fisher/Dachs Associates was the theatre consultant on the 308-seat auditorium (including 74 balcony seats), which uses a modified thrust stage (50' wide by 34 1/2' deep) to create a strong feeling of intimacy. "The stage features a demountable platform system, so they can reconfigure depending on the needs of the show," says Joe Mobilia of FDA, adding that the system is by Secoa, with rigging by I. Weiss. Other items specified by FDA include a 300 dimmer-per-circuit lighting system (ETC Sensor dimmers) controlled by an Expression 3 console from ETC, a hydraulic stage lift, and a catwalk system.

The catwalks, Mobilia notes, were one of the big challenges in the project, which involved fitting many features into a small space. "The catwalks and the mechanical system had to work with the existing roof trusses of the original building," he says, adding that a pitched ceiling makes things complicated. "We really had to juggle all of the different elevations--followspot platforms, the undersides of the catwalks--to make it all work out."

The tightly-packed nature of the theatre raised issues for acoustician Russell Cooper of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough. "It's a wood-frame construction," he says of the original building, "so sound isolation was a major problem--from the outside world, and, also, because they had to put all the utilities and mechanical units in this wood-framed building." Cooper adds that they couldn't isolate these units behind a concrete wall, because of load considerations. "So," he says, "they created a corridor area house left with the electrical rooms and put the mechanical units on top of that. Then we built a very thick gypsum board wall, with lots of different layers. Then they decided that the only way to access the catwalks was through the mechanical room, so we had to put expensive acoustical doors in there." Other acoustical touches include silencers to quiet noise from the air conditioners, and some lightweight concrete below the seating risers, to isolate the rehearsal room below the auditorium. For equipment, the theatre uses a Clear-Com intercom system and, for effects, a Ramsa DA-7 digital console, EAW JF260 speakers, and Crest amplifiers.

In addition to the warm and intimate auditorium, the entire theatre casts an audience-friendly aura, with a two-story, glass-enclosed lobby affording a lovely view of the Drew campus, a gallery space called Le Petite Promenade, the Tree House VIP room, and a terrace that is perfect for opening-night receptions and other festive events. Farewell says, "Bonnie and Michael feel that the process of going into the theatre is part of the evening, part of the play. Much of our work has been about framing people in buildings or landscapes. Here, you move from the outside courtyard, up to the lobby, and into the house, and it all looks choreographed and framed. That was very deliberate and it's a shared theme in our work as architects and their work as directors and producers."

Other personnel involved in the project include general contractor Damon G. Douglas Company, of Cranford, NJ; project development services by Prudential Realty Group, of Parsippany, Turner Construction Company of Somerset, and Facilities Resource Management of Madison, CT; structural engineer Harrison-Hamnet, PC, of West Trenton, and civil engineer Bohler Engineering PC of Watchung, and traffic consultant Travers Associates, of Clifton, NJ. Richard Hoyes and Peter Rosenbaum were part of the Fisher/Dachs team, as was Anthony Nittoli, with Jaffe Holden Scarbrough.

Now that the building is complete, Monte and Stotts are already making new plans. For reasons involving both building restrictions and fundraising, they were unable to incorporate shops and administrative offices into the new theatre. Monte says, "The theatre really is functioning as a centralized performance and rehearsal space. We'd like to build another facility that centralizes our administrative and technical areas." Nevertheless, both of them take great pride in what they've accomplished. "People say it's unheard of to come in on time and on budget [$7.5 million]," Monte adds. "And the fact that we did that, with flying colors, has astounded a lot of people." She pauses. "Including us."