Rising from the Ashes: The renovation of the Margaret Jonsson Theater

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Margaret Jonsson Theater, which is scheduled to be remodelled. Photo by Lauren Hill

During the fall semester of 2019, the familiar landmark of the Margaret Jonsson Theater at the University of Dallas was closed indefinitely to the public. Though the building was, and is, still dear to the drama department, both professors and students have been able to adapt and excel artistically and academically. 

As the academic year continues, the possibility arises of finally returning to the stage in the fall semester of 2022. 

In 1956, during the genesis of UD, the Margaret Jonsson Theater did not bear this name. The building was originally designed as a chapel but served as the cafeteria for UD students, faculty and staff. 

It was not until approximately 1972 when the late philanthropist Erik Jonsson, then mayor of Dallas, offered to gift the institution with funds to renovate the building and transform it into the present familiar landmark on campus. Named after his wife, Margaret, the theater held a thrust stage and 80 surrounding seats, creating an intimate space combining ideals from the Greek amphitheater and the Elizabethan thrust.

Unfortunately, in August 2019, during the set design and construction for the mainstage production of “Arms of the Man,” a mold infestation was revealed to be within the seating and the stage itself. 

The summer before the semester, air conditioning was not run within the building, which caused the water from the drainage system below to rise and create the ideal humid atmosphere for mold to grow. Though the possibility arose to remove and replace the mold-infested seats and stage, asbestos presented another difficulty. 

The situation forced the cast and crew to move into the then three-year-old drama building on the west side of campus. Though the stage bore resemblance to the original presentation, the scene shop and the dressing rooms were lost, and 80 seats were reduced to 55. The usual 10-time production run was cut short to two, and several guests were turned away upon the reality of a sold-out theater. 

“I was sad I always wanted to be in that theater. All this time that we’ve been doing these plays … Every time we imagine holding the auditions [for senior studios], we’d have them in the theater, like during our freshman year,” said Gillian Jones, senior drama major. “It was disappointing, but we had the opportunity to improve on what we had.”

“In some ways, COVID-19 only delayed the inevitable. We have to find a solution, which is why we’re in upstairs Haggar right now,” said Professor Stefan Novinski, chair of the drama department. “We have to rehearse somewhere while we build somewhere else.”

As the drama department continued on, a pressing question arose: was the theater salvageable enough to renovate the original structure, or would it have to be demolished and replaced with a new auditorium? Fortunately, engineers deemed the building structurally sound and liveable after the mold and the disturbed asbestos were removed.

According to Novinski, the current plan for the building is to establish a new copy of the original stage, expand on the seating, construct a technical director’s office, maintain a proper shop and dressing rooms and establish Americans With Disabilities-approved bathrooms for appropriate audiences.”Once we identify an architect we’re looking at architects right now and get a plan and a budget together, then hopefully … we can begin construction as early as the middle of next semester and be ready to go for the fall,” he said. “The Margaret Jonsson Theater was and will be again an incredibly special place to perform, to direct, and create theatre … It has this unique compression of space and time that’s truly exciting. Our actors are able to feel and work with an audience in a very intimate way,” said Novinski. “Over the last two years, we’ve gone backward and forwards so many times over the state of the Margaret Jonsson Theater … And now it seems like the phoenix, rising from the near ashes.”

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