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J. Shane Mercer, Published July 12 2009

Trollwood lifts curtain on new theater

A worker used a hollow bit to cut holes in a slab of rock where hand railing was to be installed at the Trollwood Performing Arts School’s new campus in south Moorhead.

Less than two weeks ago, little cylindrical, stone evidences of such work graced the new Trollwood amphitheater even as the set was being constructed for this year’s musical, “The Wiz,” which opens Wednesday.

Ongoing finishing touches notwithstanding, it’s clear that the new multi-million-dollar Trollwood Performing Arts School campus in Moorhead is a whole different venue from the old north Fargo site, where Trollwood made its home for three decades.

Michael Walling, stage director for “The Wiz,” called the new site “one of a kind in the region.”

“I think it’s something that this dual city should be very proud of,” said Walling, who is based in New York City and has been working with Trollwood for 19 years.

One of the most striking features of the new site is the set of four wooden arches spanning more than 170 feet across the amphitheater stage. Each arch is composed of two 50,000-pound halves, which are bolted together.

In addition to adding aesthetic value, the arches support a roof over the stage, a feature lacking at the old site. Jack Mehler, the scenery and lighting designer for “The Wiz,” said the roofing allows for more lighting options and more latitude in bringing people and objects into the scene from above.

Thanks to the roof, they haven’t had to stop any of the rehearsals this season due to weather.

“And that’s a first in the history of Trollwood,” Walling said.

“We can be in stormy weather, which we have been, and still be quite active on the stage and never have to stop because the stage is covered. Plus we have beautiful indoor space to rehearse in as well. So all of this is quite unique, and we feel quite fortunate.”

Impressive though they are, there’s certainly much more to the new amphitheater than arches.

“I think you can see there is not a bad seat in the house,” said TPAS Executive Director Vicki Chepulis.

The seating wraps around the curved stage front of Imagine Theatre, with seats aimed toward the center of the stage. Its Greek- and Roman-influenced design manages to come off as both grand and intimate.

The old, sometimes-wobbly plastic yard chairs from the old Trollwood site have been replaced by permanent, outdoor theater-style seats. There are also stone benches with additional grass seating areas on either side of the permanent seating.

Lighting poles used to obstruct views at the Fargo site. But poles at the new site are located behind the seating area.

That means “there’s no obstructed view whatsoever,” Chepulis said.

The Trollwood stage itself also got an upgrade. It now boasts about 25 percent more space than the stage at the old site.

Mehler, a freelance lighting and scenery designer based in New York state who has worked with Trollwood for years, said the new facility has more of a sense of permanence about it and feels more like a real performance venue than the old site did.

“It’s more of a place,” said Mehler, who served as a consultant during the development of the new site.

The new campus is also home to Marcil Commons, which serves a number of functions, including housing TPAS staff and providing an indoor practice space.

Despite moving to the new home, Trollwood still has a presence at the old site in Fargo. The school uses both campuses to house its programs. And while the new home is in Moorhead, TPAS remains part of Fargo’s public school system.

Of course, it’s always hard to leave home. John Ford-Dunker had a role in last year’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and is the Scarecrow in this year’s production, which is a re-imagination of “The Wizard of Oz.” He loves the new site, but he also misses the old Fargo campus, saying there was something magical about it.

Even so, when talking about the new site, he said there’s “definitely a magic about this place, too.”

Ford-Dunker said he’s honored to have the opportunity to be part of the first and last shows at the new and old sites, respectively.

Ginny Glaser, who is a veteran of several TPAS productions and plays Dorothy in “The Wiz,” said she’s also honored to have that opportunity. And she said it’s really the people that make Trollwood “amazing.”

“It will always be a home to me,” she said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734