The birth of a stage: Examining the conception and life of the ’62 Center

This is the first in a series of stories exploring how the College undertakes new building projects. The stories were originally produced for the course ANTH 232, “Town and Gown,” co-taught by David Edwards and Chris Marcisz, and revised and abridged  for publication.

Just days before announcing the creation of the arts complex that would become the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, the College informed Bernie Bucky, then chair of the theatre department, of its plans. According to Bucky, then-President Hank Payne had been in “secret negotiations” with the donor, and Payne had called the head of the Williamstown Summer Theatre Festival right after the plan was consummated but long before the department was invited to participate in the process.

“We fought and fought and fought, and like so many of those battles, we lost,” Bucky, who has since retired from the College, said.

Bucky had arrived at the College in 1975 with a mandate to start a theater program, and he had chaired the department for 18 years by the time the ’62 Center was conceived. At the time, the theater program operated exclusively out of the Adams Memorial Theatre which, renovated from the ground up, exists now as a part of the ’62 Center. The old AMT was cramped and cluttered, with a clear divide between the public spaces and those reserved for the making of art.

Bucky cited a small, black-box theater that had been attached to the AMT as one of the most prominent fights surrounding the new complex. Costing less than $1 million, the theater had suited the needs of the department extremely well. “It was just lovely,” Bucky said. “And the architects insisted we tear it down.”

At the heart of the ’62 Center’s conception, Bucky said, was a conflict of interest. “We had an interest in having an updated facility, the festival had an interest in something glorious and the College had an interest in keeping one of its major donors very happy.”

According to Bruce Decoteau, senior project manager for the College, the total cost for the project was $52 million. The major donor, whose gift of $20 million made the project possible, was Herbert Allen ’62, an American businessman and philanthropist.

Broadway in the Berkshires

According to Cosmo Catalano, the recently retired production manager of the theater department for over 30 years, Allen’s original intent was that the donation not be for student use — it would go exclusively towards building a commercial theater to be used by traveling companies during the academic year and, of course, by the Williamstown Theatre Festival during the summer.

Allen disputes this. “I didn’t have an original intention,” he said. “I called Phil Smith, who used to be the admission director, and he gave me a list of about ten things that the school needed, and of the ten things the only one that that interested me was the prospect of a theater.”

Allen’s first plan was for the building to be built at the base of Spring Street. In his own words, he wanted the theater to “do the town some good. Thousands of people would spill out and it would create vitality on the street. That idea didn’t sell.” Eventually, it was decided that the theater needed to be rolled into a renovation of the AMT.

Looking back, Allen emphasized the community dimension to his plans for the theater: “It was intended as a multi-purpose theater and the primary use would be for Williams, but it would also be of communal value, that the local grammar school, high school, when the theater was dark, would have access to it.”

Allen also envisioned theater productions that would include the whole student body. “Over a four year period, why couldn’t every student at least walk across the MainStage doing something?” For Allen, this is the essence of a liberal arts education: “You don’t get involved in drama because people are born to be actors, because people are born to be theater majors. You do it because you get them interested in things they don’t know about.”

At the same time, while he might have imagined the MainStage as a space for everyone, Broadway was never far from his mind. He wanted to bring Broadway professionals to the’ 62 Center to conduct workshops, perform and teach students in the art of musical theater. This never happened quite the way he imagined. Instead, the College has favored more experimental, though still acclaimed, programming, bringing to the ’62 Center a diverse range of artists, from Taylor Mac to the New York City Ballet.

In Allen’s mind, it was an opportunity missed, and he has little doubt that the ultimate fault lies with the faculty, who never recognized what the ‘62 Center could do for theater in the Berkshires. “I think primarily they were afraid of the professionals,” he said. “When you mention professionals to amateurs, there’s a certain jealousy that comes up.”

“What I’d like you to do,” he said, “is count the dark nights on the MainStage. It is not being used. The theater department, which is here to teach you theater, can do that over in Tony’s Sombrero. They don’t need a theater for that. You need to both teach and perform theater.”

“Future generations would be living in our mistake.”

Sandra Burton, professor of dance, was part of the committee that recommended William Rawn and Associates to design the ’62 Center. Although she is diplomatic and carefully sidestepped the controversy that surrounded the birth of the building, Burton spoke with authenticity about the dance department’s development and growth. Previously quartered in Lasell Gymnasium, the dance department, she said, possessed a resilience and creativity that the architects of the ’62 Center were inspired by. “Our students and faculty went into this process joyfully because that was how we lived: very tightly packed together,” Burton said.  “I’m really proud of us for living in that condition and being productive. It was inspiring. The architects were inspired. They would come and watch us work, pay us surprise visits and walk around and take notes.”

However, as faculty and students became more committed to the project, Burton says, there also came doubts that the project would not turn out right. “Along the way, the insecurity that you won’t get it right is very real, that you’ll make mistakes,” she explains. “This is something that colleagues talked about a lot – that if we didn’t get it right, future generations of students and faculty and the public would be living in our mistake. That was always looming.”

David Gürcay Morris ’96, professor of theatre, graduated from the College a few years before the ’62 Center was built. By the time he returned to teach, the old AMT where he had his apprenticeship in theater had been replaced. He remembers once, as a student, when a friend invited him and other classmates and faculty to a workshop performance, during which she stripped naked. The performance took place in “The X,” a studio buried deep in the recesses of the building. The space that replaced The X is now the Directing Studio. It is on the main floor, facing directly onto the hallway from the parking lot to the theaters, and its walls are made of glass. “That room,” said Gürçay-Morris, “is not the place I would reveal myself.”

The future

The question of the day, though, is not where the building came from. It is where it will be going next, for despite the expansive performance spaces that allow large audiences and that are mostly empty during the school year, the building as a whole is now too small and the teaching spaces too few. Despite being labeled a palace initially, the building has no room for the dance department to grow into. One proposed solution is for the faculty to move their offices to converted rooms in the adjacent Greylock Hall. Ironically, Allen had once suggested the same plan, though in his proposal this was to allow his Broadway stars to have more spacious changing rooms.

And while the building needs more space, Gürçay-Morris expressed the sentiment, shared by other theater faculty, that the enormous resources of the ’62 Center have inspired the department to ramp up productions — in a way that might not always be in the best interests of students. As he put it: “There are so many fantastic things in the new building, but it also left behind a lot of the smaller, more intimate, more I-don’t-care-if-I-trash-it, space that really allowed us to own it, to do things in a different way, on a different scale.”

“Not to be really cheesy and Williams-y,” he said with a laugh. “But there’s the saying, ‘your goal the sky, your aim the star.’ I feel like the building says you can have the star, no problem …” He explained that the scale of productions modeled by the building is much higher than what students will experience in the first years of their professional careers, and he worries that students who go on to work professionally might become disheartened.

He understands that a building like the ’62 Center has to have an outward facing façade for the public, but he laments the lack of spaces for students who want to invest deeply in the process of making. “I wish that everyone, faculty and students alike, understood that we put our outward faces on the threshold because that’s where we theater artists welcome in the audience to see the work that we’ve made. But on this side over here, it can just drop away and we can be down and dirty in the act of making art.”