Wayne State’s new $65 million performance complex will help promote Detroit’s legacy in performing arts

Wayne State’s new $65 million performance complex will help promote Detroit’s legacy in performing arts
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Back in 1961 Wayne State University purchased the First Church of Christ Scientist building and refitted it to become the Hilberry Theatre, which would house the graduate repertory company.

Since 1963, there have been more than 5,600 performances enjoyed by more than two million patrons. As a result, the facility is showing its age.

“Space limitations and near-constant use of the stage have prevented taking advantage of mixed-use opportunities in collaboration with the Detroit arts community,” the university says.

No more.

The $65 million performance complex in Midtown that will renovate the current Hilberry Theatre and create a large addition for a state-of-the-art venue for theatre, music, dance and arts-related events.

The Wayne State University Board of Governors has unanimously approved a $65 million performance complex in Midtown that will renovate the current Hilberry Theatre and create a large addition for a state-of-the-art venue for theatre, music, dance and arts-related events.

The integrated Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex will be the performance home of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts programs from the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance. It will also feature programming from the Department of Music and house the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center and the Jazz Underground. In addition, the existing Hilberry Theatre’s 23,000 square feet and a 71,300-square-foot addition.

“This space will allow us to create synergy between our nationally recognized theatre, dance and music programs,” says Matthew Seeger, dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts. “It will also allow us to promote Detroit’s legacy in the performing arts, including jazz. In addition to creating our home for the 21st century, the Hilberry Complex will further solidify Wayne State’s role as an artistic leader and serve as a magnet for our committed audiences and patrons.”

Work on the project has been in planning for several years thanks to a grant from the Kresge Foundation.

Of the $65 million cost of the project, $55 million will be funded by bonds approved in February by the board of governors. The balance will be funded by private gifts, including generous support from Gretchen Valade.

​Work will begin this fall with construction of a new 350-seat main theatre on the corner of Cass and Forest, adjacent to the current venue. The new facility will feature a full-thrust stage with appropriate wing space that allows the Hilberry to pursue more complicated productions and smoothly transition between productions.

The facility will include dressing rooms, makeup rooms and green rooms. The theatre will feature up-to-date lighting, sound and video infrastructure, ensuring students and audiences experience the latest in theatrical and dance production.

Adjoining scenic, scenic art and costume studios, as well as scenery storage areas, will be constructed.

There will also be a modern café, a patron lounge and a gallery showcasing the history of the Hilberry program.

The historic Mackenzie House, currently located next to the Hilberry, will be moved to a new location on Forest Avenue within the same block.

December 2015, Wayne State announced a $7.5 million commitment in support of the Gateway project from Gretchen Valade. The primary portion of her commitment – $5 million – will restore and update the current site of the Hilberry Theatre, which will be renamed the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center

Once the new theatre is completed, the current Hilberry Theatre will be reconstructed into the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center. This portion of the project was made possible by $9.5 million in gifts from Valade as part of the university’s $750 million Pivotal Moments campaign. The campaign celebrates the life-changing moments the university has helped ignite and creates new ones. The goal is to raise the dollars by 2018, the 150th anniversary of the university’s founding.

Valade’s gifts have also provided for an endowed chair in jazz studies and an endowed scholarship in jazz studies. Her gift is also designated for renovation of the current Studio Theatre located, renaming it the Jazz Underground.

The project will also provide much-needed space for the Wayne States award-winning dance program and will allow the program to significantly expand its offerings.

“The immense talent of our students and faculty at last will have the arts facilities to match,” says Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson. “The Hilberry Complex will make Wayne State a true destination for culture and the arts, which supports our goals to provide leadership in the revitalization of Detroit as well as meaningful and mutually beneficial interactions with our community. I can’t wait for opening night.”

Ernie Hudson
Photo by Gage Skidmore
S. Epatha Merkerson,

Wayne State’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts has some very impressive alumni including:

  • Garth Fagan, recognized as “one of the great reformers of modern dance”  and his choreography for The Lion King
  • Ernie Hudson, best known for his role as Winston Zeddmore in Ghostbusters and now on Grace & Frankie, earned a bachelor of arts degree from Wayne
  • S. Epatha Merkerson, who starred as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in Law and Order and now plays Sharon Goodwin on NBC’s Chicago Med, received her bachelor of fine arts degree from Wayne
  • Tom Skerritt, known for his roles in MASH, Alien, Top Gun, A River Runs Through It, Up in Smoke, and the television series Picket Fences
  • Jeffrey Tambor, who was in Taxi, Starsky and Hutch, and Three’s Company and his latest work, Arrested Development
  • Sonya Tayeh, who joined Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance in 2002 and has choreographed for Madonna, Florence and the Machine, Kylie Minogue, and Miley Cyrus

For a complete list please click here.

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