It's a little hard to envision at the moment, with a few weeks' worth of painting and other finishing touches to go, but Charleston's Memminger Auditorium is poised for a new life as the city's most flexible performance space.

When its doors open May 23 and it becomes one of the busiest venues for this year's Spoleto Festival USA, history will be repeating itself in a sense.

Memminger opened around 1939 as the city's largest performance hall and soon became home to its symphony, ballet and other major arts events.

'Anyone who grew up here who is my age or older has lots of memories of being there for a host of different recitals and performances,' Mayor Joe Riley says. 'It was the place that Charleston had for a couple of generations.'

The auditorium fell on hard times after the much larger Gaillard Auditorium's opened in 1968. For years, it was occupied mostly by pigeons, largely because the Charleston County School District lacked the money to fix it up.

Spoleto Festival USA undertook the $6 million-plus renovation not just to give the city another theater but to cope with the temporary loss of its most popular venue, Dock Street Theatre. Spoleto and city officials also are working on an extensive renovation there, and Dock Street is expected to be closed until 2010.

While the rehabilitated Memminger will stir memories among older Charlestonians, a few changes will be dramatically clear.

Memminger will keep its original entry doors reached by the stairs along Beaufain Street, but it also will have two new entrances, including a ground-level door on the west that is handicapped accessible. This door will lead to both an elevator and glass staircase up to the lobby and new public restrooms on the ground floor.

Since 2000, Spoleto has used Memminger in modern, provocative ways, and its alterations try to extend that approach, says architect Mario Gooden of Huff Gooden Associates. 'Our intention was to play up the contrast between the modern and the historic, if you will,' he says.

Those with a ticket also can get inside by following a slightly raised plaza to an entry underneath the green scrim, or metal lattice, covered in star jessamine. The vegetation eventually will cover the 40-foot-tall lattice designed to screen a 3,400-foot addition from Beaufain Street.

This plaza space, site of a former scruffy parking lot, is the most transformed part on the outside. 'That's what we call the urban room, the garden lobby, the outdoor lobby or the public room,' Gooden says. 'We think it's going to be a great space.'

Inside, ticket holders will leave the lobby and enter a stark red vestibule that will block the lobby's light from the theater.

While the large windows, columns and proscenium remain inside, the fixed seats and the auditorium's gradually sloping floor are gone.

The festival essentially can use the former stage and audience area as one big 'black box,' a flexible space where seating and the stage can be rearranged depending on the type of performance and anticipated crowd.

For instance, it might have about 700 seats for performances of the opera 'Amistad' or fewer than 500 for chamber music concerts.

The auditorium's old seats were small and uncomfortable, but the new black box approach really stemmed from a conversation between Spoleto and other Charleston arts groups, says Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden.

'It wasn't meant to be a Dock Street Theatre substitute. It was meant to be a theater of its own with its own personality,' he says. 'What we're providing is not simply a bland frame in which wonderful performances can take place but something that has a signature itself, something that will get performers to express themselves in different ways.'

Spoleto will make heavy use of the theater in the next two months, but Memminger Elementary and other organizations will be able to use it later this year. After the festival, the city also plans to improve the outside by widening the sidewalk and burying power lines, Riley says.

Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His e-mail address is rbehre@postandcourier.com, and his mailing address is 134 Columbus St., Charleston, SC 29403.