Just over four years ago, Penn State Harrisburg’s student theater volunteers were struggling for room on stage.
At times, they had to seek theaters off campus because there just wasn’t enough space.
“Prior to this building, the theatrical offerings were very much based on—we have a small space and we only have this much room. We’re going to do a show specifically based on that,” said Adam Gustafson, musical director of the Kulkarni Theatre. “Now, I feel like it is the other way around.”
Penn State Harrisburg opened the doors to its Kulkarni Theatre in August 2016. Named after retired Chancellor Mukund S. Kulkarni, the theater features 355 seats (more than their previous two theaters combined,) a new lighting and sound system, upgraded backstage areas for the actors, and, yes, a bigger stage.
“There have also been massive changes on campus. On top of that, the programing is changing as well,” Gustafson said. “Our arts programs, in large part due to this space, have taken major leaps forward in what we’ve been able to offer both on the theater and music side.”
With the renovations came the theater’s most advanced lighting and sound system yet. The new LED lighting system allows whoever is in control to change the stage’s lighting scheme directly from an iPad. According to Matt Mitra, the theater’s technical director, the new advanced lighting and sound system is on par with Broadway and other high-end theaters.
Not only does this increase the theater’s production quality, but it gives students a chance to work and learn with an advanced system. Before, all the lighting, sound controls and costumes came from outside the theater. Now, the college offers a full experience for students, including lighting and sound control, set building, costume designing and more.
“We really are operating with state-of-the-art technology,” Mitra said. “Just to be able to learn on the equipment, and to use it, it’s an incredible opportunity for Penn State and also for the students.”
The first student production in the updated space was “Avenue Q,” which Maria Enriquez, Penn State’s theater professor, called a “rated R version of ‘Sesame Street.’” The show follows a puppet named Princeton who tries to find his purpose in life. Along the way, he meets a number of other puppet and human characters, gaining life experience from them.
According to Mitra, “Avenue Q” had one of their highest attendances. “It was quite the experience. We really hit a grand slam with it.”
Along with their student productions, the theater hosts lectures, orientations and the “Mukund S. Kulkarni Cultural Series,” a series of performances from national and international artists.
According to Teri Guerrisi, arts manager of the Kulkarni Theatre, the goal of the cultural series is to educate and entertain Penn State students through a blend of modern and traditional performances. Some of their past performances include Namaste India, a folk and classical dance group, Nobuntu, a female a capella group from Zimbabwe, and the Fitzgeralds, a Celtic fiddling and step-dancing family from Canada.
“I’m not trying to brag, but this has become the premier venue on campus,” Guerrisi said.
This year’s fall student production will be Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The production will be guest-directed by Robert Campbell, theater teacher at Capital Area School for the Arts. For the spring musical, the team is stepping outside its usual zone for Joe Masteroff’s “Cabaret.”
Even though the space is mostly used for Penn State students, Guerrisi wants community members to know that the theater is available to them, as well.
“I think we were a bit isolated at times,” she said. “We hope this brings community people here on campus—that they feel welcomed, not only to our venue but all parts of the campus.”
Enriquez is excited to continue high-quality productions on the Kulkarni stage.
“The work that we do at Penn State Harrisburg is comparable to the work that other universities are doing,” she said. “We’re no longer just a commuter campus. We’re able to offer high-quality productions and high-quality events to our students because they want that and they deserve that.”
For more information on the Kulkarni Theatre and upcoming shows, visit harrisburg.psu.edu/kulkarni-theatre.