Cap & Bells needs recognition

“The Adams Memorial Theater is a generous gift to Williams; it is also a challenge – a challenge to the College to show what it can contribute to a very important art. In meeting this challenge for the first time, drama at Williams, represented in Cap & Bells, has been put to an exacting test.” – Professor Roy Lamson

The preceding were the opening words of an essay included in the program for “Marco Millions” the opening performance in the Adams Memorial Theater produced by Cap & Bells, Inc (C&B). The Record would go on to publish a review of the same show that began with “Cap & Bells… gave its first permanent home a royal housewarming.” And thus began the story of the Adams Memorial Theater (AMT).

As everyone knows, we’ll soon begin the story of a new theater complex, which incorporates the existing AMT (minus the Downstage) as well as a 550-person Broadway-style theater and a black box studio theater that might be the most flexible theatrical space ever. But unlike the words spoken of the AMT, no words spoken or published about the new complex have included the name of the organization which until the late 1970’s called the AMT its home: C&B.

In order to understand and appreciate why this is inexcusable, we need to understand the history of the AMT and theater at Williams.

C&B, the oldest student theater organization on the campus and in the whole nation, was formed in 1898. It was the only theater organization at the College until the formation of the Williams Little Theater (WLT) in the 1910s. In the 1930s, WLT faltered, a newly incorporated Cap & Bells bought out its equipment, and C&B became the sole producer of theatrics at Williams.

The year 1937 saw one of the biggest steps up in C&B and Williams theater history, particularly with the donation to the AMT. By 1941, the theater was complete and opened to a completely sold out performance of “Marco Millions,” presented by C&B. The show was so successful they had to add a second show, which also sold out.

From here on out, the Williams College Bulletins tell an interesting story about the way theater was run at Williams. With the completion of the AMT, a committee, aptly named the AMT Committee, was formed to decide what shows would be put on. The committee was comprised of five members: one chairman , two more faculty members and two representatives of C&B.

In 1955-1956 there was a call for the disbanding of the committee, leaving only the director (at the time David Bryant) as head of the AMT to work with C&B. The Williams College Bulletin for 1958 reflects this change by stating: “Cap & Bells acts as the producing agent for all productions at the Adams Memorial Theater.” It goes on to explain that four of the productions done through C&B were sponsored by the Drama Department (formed in 1947-48) whose chair acted as director of the theater.

Little to nothing changed until 1977. The course catalogue made no distinction between the academic department and the extracurricular organization. It cited the AMT program as being operated by the drama faculty, with student participation in theater being rewarded by “membership in Cap & Bells, the undergraduate dramatic organization.” Theater, the drama department and C&B were synonymous. According to Jon W. Spelman’s thesis, The Place of Williams College Dramatics in Educational Theater: History and Prospects (1964), this could even be seen in the financial support lent to C&B: “The official financial importance assigned to Cap & Bells can be seen in the fact that the AMT had the second largest budget allotment granted by the Student Activities Council” (p. 43). Also note that the money being given to the AMT was used by C&B, further proof that they were one and the same.

The College Bulletin of 1977 completely excised C&B from any relation to theater. The department of drama was renamed the department of theater (whose production wing was not C&B, but rather Williams College Theater a year later to be renamed Williamstheatre) and the major was instated. Like today, in order to complete the major a student must work on eight productions, all of which must be Williamstheatre, not C&B. C&B suddenly became just an extracurricular activity, losing any control in the AMT (with the exception of two cramped rooms for storage). So much for C&B’s “permanent home.”

This brings us to the 2002 school year, where little has changed since 1977. As some might recall, the Record published an article in the fall explaining the growing strain between the theater department and C&B. As part of a new policy, the theater department chose to eliminate one of the performance spaces that it had been allotting to C&B in the past. The past twenty-five years have seen the once illustrious C&B, producer of some of the biggest and most lavish shows in Williams history and the most important force in the development of theater at Williams (in fact it was C&B members who petitioned for the instating of a major), pushed aside in its own home.

As of right now, none of the plans for the new theater specifically mention C&B. In fact, C&B, once the sole producing agent of the AMT and whose members would not be left off any theater committee, was not even asked to have a representative on the committee for the new theater.

The best we at the organization have received is “wait until it gets built and then talk to members of the committee to see if they let you have space.” There is no guarantee, as is clear from the fact that the name C&B did not appear on any of the plans or information on the new complex, leaving just a pervading sense of anxiety and fragile hope.

In light of the history of theater at Williams, especially since the building of the AMT, completely ignoring C&B is inexcusable. Until the 1970s C&B was theater at Williams and even since then, we have put on shows that have sold out the 479-person Mainstage (most recently “Into the Woods” and the 2000 Frosh Revue) – not a small feat, nor one that is accomplished often these days. This year alone, over 1,600 people have come to see our performances, with another 500 expected for our final two shows. Extra-curricular or not, C&B has a full season and is just as successful within the community as it ever was.

Since the moment C&B was relegated to an extracurricular, the academic community has found it acceptable to keep C&B at its mercy, changing policy when it chooses to do so without regards to C&B and going so far as to build a new theater without the input of the organization whose home was the AMT. But the history and the numbers speak for themselves. C&B is not just a small extra-curricular activity on campus. Theater at Williams – both on the extra-curricular and the academic level – owes what it has become to the rich history of one organization: C&B. This must be recognized and, more importantly, C&B must be recognized in plans for the new theater and in the policies that will be used to run it.

If you want more information, or if you want to express your opinion to one of the campus’s oldest and most prominent organizations, e-mail the Cap & Bells Board at capandbells-board@wso.williams.edu.