The din of power tools echoes inside the cavernous main theater at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. In seven weeks, the cacophony will be replaced by the soulful voice of Patti LaBelle.

Construction crews are working hard to complete the $2.8 million Ruth Finley Person Theater renovation by the Aug. 14 deadline.

When LaBelle steps onto the upgraded stage two days later, Rick Nowlin will breath a little easier.

"It is going to feel great," said Nowlin, Wells Fargo Center for the Arts executive director, on Tuesday. "The renovation has taken a lot of work, and to see it realized, we are all going to be proud."

The three-month project will finally turn the 1,600-seat theater into a purpose-built performing arts venue, said Kyle Clausen, director of marketing.

When the arts center took over the theater in 1981, it had many quirks. The theater was built in 1974 as part of the Christian Life Center, and a baptismal pool took up a large backstage area.

Performers such as Bill Cosby and Tony Bennett had to climb a set of steps up and over the pool to the stage.

"It wasn't built with artists' access in mind," Clausen said.

The fiberglass pool was outside collecting rainwater earlier this week. Choral risers and closets for choir robes were removed, adding 300 square feet of stage and 700 square feet backstage.

A new spacious dressing room is being built and loading doors are being installed backstage — shows currently load equipment through the lobby and front of the house.

"We're maximizing every square inch of space," said Marc Hagenlocher, director of operations. "It's going to be one of the nicer backstage experiences."

The project will improve the audience's sightlines to the stage, enhance the acoustics and raise the ceiling above the stage to accommodate some dance and acrobatic acts, Nowlin said.

"We think people are going to be pretty blown away when they show up in August," he said. "Everyone is going to go 'wow!'<TH>"

Other improvements include refurbished seats, additional fire sprinklers, increased seating for people with disabilities and a new LED aisle lighting system.

"Everything inside has been changed out," Hagenlocher said. "We've taken it back to the walls."

Berkeley-based ELS Architecture and Design, whose work at the center began in 2010 with renovation of the lobby, is leading the project that Nowlin said is on schedule.

"Six weeks into this, and look what has already happened," he said. "I have great faith that we are going to be able to do it."

Donors include the Ernest L. and Ruth W. Finley Foundation, the Lytton Rancheria-Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, Alan and Susan Seidenfeld and the board of directors of the Luther Burbank Memorial Foundation.

The theater renovation is the first phase of a four-part, $10 million project to upgrade the center. Subsequent phases will include elevator installation, bathroom renovation, improvements to the outdoor spaces and a new roof.

The next three phases of the upgrade will be done over the next three to five years while fundraising continues, Nowlin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or