Evoking the gods, for art’s sake

As ironworkers "topped off" the metal supports of the new Berlind Theatre in an age-old ceremony, McCarter Theatre came a step closer to realizing its dreams for the new, $14.1 million facility.

By: Jeff Milgram
   In a 1,300-year-old ceremony designed to bring good luck, ironworkers "topped off" the metal supports of the new Berlind Theatre by lifting the final beam, with an evergreen tree and an American flag attached, onto the steel frame Monday afternoon.
   As far back as the year 700, Vikings decorated buildings with trees. The trees were supposed to appease their gods and the spirits of the trees that were cut down to build their wooden structures, McCarter’s artistic director Emily Mann told the throng of construction workers, McCarter staff and Princeton University officials who gathered to mark the end of one phase of construction.
   Before the crane lifted the beam, people signed the girder with Magic Markers.
   "There’s still a ways to go, but it’s a milestone," said Jeffrey Woodward, McCarter’s managing director. "You can see the complete outline of the building."
   Ms. Mann was both relieved and excited. "At last. … This is exactly what McCarter Theatre needs for the next step" in theatrical growth, Ms. Mann said.
   The $14.1 million structure, being built adjacent to the south side of McCarter, will include a 350-seat proscenium theater, two rehearsal halls, classrooms, offices and other support areas. It will be used as a second stage for McCarter and as the principal performance space for Princeton University’s Program in Theater and Dance.
   Ms. Mann said the new theater will permit McCarter to expand the number and variety of productions, specifically productions of international classics, including Shakespeare.
   The new building also will provide space for public readings and workshops to foster development of new plays.
   McCarter’s board president, Peter J. Ventimiglia, said, "It is, for us, a fulfillment of a dream."
   He said the new building will permit the board to better support the theater’s artistic programs.
   "It is a dream fulfilled," Ms. Mann said, her arm linked with Mr. Ventimiglia. She said the new space will dramatically improve the level of theater in the Princeton area.
   The new theater is named for Broadway producer and Princeton alumnus Roger S. Berlind. Groundbreaking was held in September and construction began immediately. Completion is projected for late next spring.
   The new theater was designed by Hugh Hardy, another Princeton graduate who specializes in complex building projects, including the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City.
   According to McCarter spokesman Dan Bauer, the "topping off" ceremony was forgotten when buildings began to be made from concrete. The ceremony was revived about 10 years ago, he said.