Plans for Allen Theatre & Dance Center illogical

There is another part to the story regarding the proposed Center for Theatre and Dance. This article is a personal – and not Departmental – assessment of the project to date. As a technologist, I am quite excited about bringing to my students the tools of the 21st century, but I fear the price may be too high.

In Molly Cummins’ article “Performing Arts Center Continues to Ignite Controversy with Faculty” in the December 7, 1999 issue of the Record, Vice President for Alumni Relations & Giving Stephen Birrell commended Mr. Allen’s “bolder vision” for improvement to the theatre and dance facilities. His comments may sound quite positive, but speaking as a practitioner and teacher of both theatre and dance students, I believe Mr. Allen’s “vision” is not universal. His “vision” does not reflect current thinking and techniques for teaching in these disciplines in a rigorous liberal arts environment. Admittedly, my point of view could be considered narrow, but as the winners write the history, I believe this may be the only opportunity for your readers to hear this information. If you will indulge me briefly:

Neither the theatre nor dance department requested a new facility. Not that there isn’t a need. We were looking forward to the planned improvements to the AMT and Lasell outlined in the College’s Capital Plan. Dance is overflowing a facility that is undersized and inadequate, however charming. When the AMT was built, many residents in Williamstown were using outdoor toilets, television was new and Arthur Miller was a new playwright.

It came as quite a shock to us when Mr. Allen’s gift was revealed to us – after it was delivered to the College. In the midst of our excitement about the possibilities of exploring with our students’ new ideas and cross-disciplinary forms in a modern and efficient structure, we were also a bit uncomfortable about the excesses of Mr. Allen’s generosity. Weren’t there better uses for this resource?

As the planning proceeded, we began to understand why this gift had been made. The donor had very specific ideas about what kinds of performing art should be supported on this campus; unfortunately we didn’t quite fit the mold. His ideas centered on a large auditorium that would support – in his words – “marquee events.” As examples, he cited using the auditorium for out-of-town tryouts of Chicago, or possibly concerts by the Boston Symphony or Yo Yo Ma. We were to “put Williams College on the map” of theatre schools.

Yes, undoubtedly parts of the community would benefit from these marquee events, but they exact a very high cost in personnel and scheduling time. Blending them with a busy academic schedule would have required (perhaps will yet require?) a separate non-academic facility and staff devoted to these events or serious compromises in our teaching program. In addition, an auditorium large enough to house events like this would consume nearly all the resources of the initial gift, and the leftovers would leave little space to teach in.

Response to this difficulty was to suggest that my department conduct its classes and production work in both the AMT and the new facility. Not so much of a problem, if the new building had been next to the existing theatre. But another requirement of the donor was that the building be in a prominent location. Siting it behind Greylock did not fill the bill.

My department rejected the notion of conducting classes and production work in two separate facilities. We foresaw spending inordinate amounts of time and resources shuttling between buildings. Further, separating the production activities from the classroom is the antithesis of our educational core. Likewise, placing young, inexperienced performers in a cavernous auditorium is not the way to nurture young talents.

By reviewing the attendance at theatre and dance events over the past several years, we arrived at a capacity of 350 persons. A compromise of 550 good seats was eventually arrived at, as we agreed to subjugate some of the needs of our program to the greater need of the community. This number has grown to 650 seats because the semi-flexible nature of the large performance space will result in about 100 seats of limited view in its proscenium configuration. Remember that every additional seat – used or not – legally requires additional lobby, bathroom and parking areas.

The architects (Rawn and Associates) have made every effort to squeeze teaching space into the plans for the new structure. Their ideas are attractive, efficient and exciting, while less than we initially asked for – providing no room for teaching. The theatre department would actually operate one less teaching/performance space in the new building than is currently available in the AMT “complex,” but because adjacent rooms are planned to be sound-isolated from each other, we expected to schedule more densely than is currently possible in the AMT.

As the architects revised their design, it became clear that to provide even the minimal teaching and studio space in the new building, while maintaining the 650-seat requirement of the donor, would require more money. Allen generously made an additional $10 million more available to the project. But there was a catch. The College must hire a non-departmental director to manage the building. This person is not to be answerable to the Dean of the Faculty, but instead to the Provost. It appears the teaching needs of theatre and dance are slowly being marginalized as the donor – with the administration’s acquiescence – imposes his “bold vision” on his community.

As this building proceeds, I will continue to make every effort to see that it is the best it can be. It can still be a tremendous addition to this college. Whoever is the ultimate user, they deserve the best possible facility. Perhaps the inaugural season will be devoted to the exploration of Faustian themes.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *