More than a year after the announcement of the largest single gift in the College’s history, plans are beginning to take shape for the new theatre and dance center. The preliminary plans locate the building on the south end of Spring Street on a lot including the current site of the American Legion. The project could cost more than $30 million.
President of the College Carl Vogt ’58 confirmed that the preferred lot for the building includes the property currently occupied by the American Legion. “If we have what is now the Legion site, it would move the whole project further up Spring Street, further away from the wetland area, further away from those residential areas. It would also create a kind of parkland area back toward the wetlands and up toward Doughty House, and the thought is that if we were able to do that, then Doughty House would be able to remain where it is,” he said.
The Williamstown Community Association, a local activist group, expressed concern at the initial announcement of a Spring Street site because it would be too close to the wetlands and neighborhoods in the area.
According to Director of Public Affairs James Kolesar, the College is still in negotiations with the American Legion. “We can still do it without the Legion property; we can still put a fantastic building there, but it would add flexibility to the design,” he said.
The American Legion rejected an offer of $500,000 from the College earlier this month, because they wanted to stay on Spring Street, post Commander Richard “Bud” Trombley told the Advocate. Vogt said the College and the Legion are trying to find a satisfactory solution. “There are some discussions going on right now about an alternative possibility of providing a place on Spring Street that would be satisfactory to them and to us. One of the possible places would be next to Robin’s Restaurant,” Vogt said.
Regardless of the final footprint, the building will cost more than the original gift of $20 million by Herbert Allen ’62. “At the Faculty meeting last spring, President Payne said that the costs had gone up significantly and that it was clear that the source of that extra funding would be from funds that were not otherwise coming to the College,” Kolesar said. “ Officially, nothing’s really changed since then, that’s still true, it will be more than $20 million, but no one really knows how much more.”
“We’re looking at designs that could take it into the $30 million range, and we’re also looking at something that would be less than that,” Vogt said. “We have a very generous and well-intentioned donor who’s put up $20 million and depending on how this project evolves we may be seeking additional moneys, either from him or from other donors.” The College has not officially begun to seek additional funding, according to Vogt.
When asked if he had been contacted about increasing his gift, Allen said, “in terms of a specific request for money, absolutely not.” However, he did not rule out the possibility of an increase. “The architects have come up with a very exciting preliminary plan. That excitement will spread to the Williams community and they’ll probably see that they can do even better than they had originally planned. My feeling is that they’ll want to invest more,” he said. “I would review any request without prejudice.”
Professor of Theatre and Chair of the Department David Eppel and Assistant Professor of Physical Education and Coordinator of the Dance Program Sandra Burton recently returned from a trip to Europe with the Architects, William Rawn and Associates, and the Theatre Consultant, Iain Mackintosh, where they looked at theatres and talked about design concepts for the project. The preliminary plan calls for two theatres, a large theatre with a capacity of 600, significantly more than the Adams Memorial Theatre’s 479, and a smaller theatre with 200 seats, as well as dance studios, and possibly an acting and directing studio and offices.
Of the large theatre, Eppel said, “It’s not a size we ever wanted. Mr. Allen wanted a big theatre. In the beginning we were very much against it because none of us can use such a big theatre.” However, Eppel said, the architects have designed a theatre in a horseshoe shape that “can be made into any number of different looking spaces and different size spaces…so if you had less people in it, it doesn’t have to look empty.”
The new facility will also require the creation of a new staff position to oversee the scheduling of all the spaces. “We’re entering a whole new world of scheduling,” Eppel said. Although all parties agree that the facility will need someone to coordinate the scheduling, there has be
controversy about the specifics of the position, and to whom this director or coordinator would report. “Generally speaking, when you have large facilities of that kind that have to be filled…that requires an independent party,” Allen said.
“The person should be steeped in the theatre, should work closely with the department and the dance program in scheduling everything and should work with us in researching companies and groups from all over this country and abroad to work into our academic schedule,” Eppel said. “But the thing that we are very clear about is that that person is very much a part of what we do, not some outside person who schedules things, but someone within our department, who works with us, understands the needs of the department and the dance program and we all work together.”
Vogt agreed that the academic needs of the theatre department and dance program will be the first priority for the new facility. “Whatever we do, it’s going to be made clear that the primary purpose here is education,” he said. “It would be someone who in all likelihood would report to the Provost, but would have to be a colleague of the theatre department and integrated into their needs. The last thing we want to do is kick them out, and we’re not going to.”
Another change from the theatre department’s current home in the Adams Memorial Theatre is that the theatre department will have use of the facilities for the entire year. Currently, the Theatre department moves out every summer to make room for the Williamstown Theatre Festival. “One of the things we’ve been promised, which is very exciting, is that we’ll have the space during the summer. It’s our intention to have workshops and conferences and training programs and visiting artists to come here during the summer so that our business can continue for the summer,” Eppel said.
Some see the new facility as a natural home for the WTF. “It seems to me coherent that they would operate in the best theatre in town,” Allen said.
However, at the present time the WTF has no plans to move their operations from the AMT. “It is my hope that there will be projects that we can embark on together,” Eppel said. “I do think that there are opportunities in the future to have joint projects. In terms of buildings, I believe the festival has made a commitment to staying in [the AMT].” “There’s no plan for the Williamstown Theatre Festival to stage productions in the new facility,” Kolesar said.
The construction of a new facility for theatre and dance inevitably raises the question of theatre and dance in the curriculum. Although there are no concrete plans to make any changes in the curriculum as a result of the new facility, Eppel and Burton are hopeful that the project will have a positive impact both on the present curriculum and on future curricular developments. Burtan said, “As far as the dance program goes, we look at this as an opportunity
to improve and to be able to become even more of a presence on campus, to offer the students who really are actively involved with our program more resources and a chance for dance to become a stronger presence on campus and hopefully a part of the curriculum.”
Eppel said he could envision a department of theatre and dance. “Theatre and dance are natural partners. It’s not new, and it’s certainly not a trailblazing thing, a department of theatre and dance, but that’s way into the future, and that is an issue for the faculty,” he said. “But it seems to be a natural direction in which to go, and then dance takes its rightful place in the academy as an academic department.”
Vogt said there are no plans to change the curriculum or add faculty as a result of the new facility, but that it is possible the new facility could generate more interest in theatre and dance, and as a result of the increased demand, the curriculum might expand. “We think the new unified science center, because of all that it has, will probably attract more science-oriented students, and we might expect that in theatre and dance. Our shared curriculum that exists today is going to exist then, but if there’s more demand for it, we’ll do it through our normal processes,” Vogt said.
Vogt stressed that the project is still in the very early stages. “We need to see what [the Legion’s] ultimate decision is going to be. We need to go through [the zoning and permit] process. I don’t know if it’s a two-year or a three-year process.”