Our Beautiful, Collaborative Fishbowl

Before the Performing Arts Building (PAB) was constructed, the Music Department had been largely in Prexy, the Theatre Department in the old building in the canyon, and the Dance Department found places to practice in the gym. The new spaces are breathtaking, but the unification of the performing arts in one building should be seen as the greater achievement. As you walk through the atrium and see a class using the steps for a staged reading, past the Studio Theatre and Performance Lab being used for various dance and theatre events, and look through the large windows of the dance studio at a class’s rehearsal until they all start looking at you and you continue on your way — all while some piano music drifts through the entire building from the student practice spaces.

“I loved the old theatre building,” says senior theatre major Walker Holden, “for my design class last spring our final project was creating a requiem for the building. We created installation projects. I hung these strips of fabric and projected falling snow. You could interact with a full-size projection of an actor performing from ‘Waiting for Godot.’”

Although Holden was fond of the old building, a nostalgic sentiment that many music majors hold for Prexy and even a few dance majors have for their old stomping grounds in the Sports Center, she does not deny the luxuries afforded by the new space. “[Black Box Theatre] used to mean something very different than what it means now. Now we have this beautiful new black box theatre that’s huge and has a high ceiling and capacity to hang lights and can easily be transformed. The old box theatre was cozy but small and had a low ceiling and limited audience capacity. We’ve doubled the audience space.”

Holden held the first thesis performance in the new Black Box Theatre when she directed “The Successful Life of 3” last semester. She faced the challenge of having to be the first theatre major to use the space; the technical staff was getting used to how everything worked and fit together as they were rehearsing. But sometimes the subtler changes, like the type of people who surround the work you’re doing, take longer to adjust to.

“I think people that are coming here as freshman and are spending time in the building with other majors will have more of an opportunity to forge those bonds. I definitely think the school can do something to facilitate that, or at least the departments can.”

“We’re trying to have people that have a multidisciplinary approach,” says Professor of Music, Virginia Hancock. “Hence the Meredith Monk event that involved everybody. It was a limited audience, but it was enormously successful.”

Holden agrees, saying “It was the perfect way to inaugurate this building.”

“The idea is that there can be interdisciplinary events with everyone in the same vicinity, in the same building,” says Hancock. The communal energy of the PAB, if used correctly, has the potential to create an enriching environment for all three disciplines as they incorporate aspects of each in combined efforts.

“Right now, we’re just trying to get adjusted,” says Hancock. “Particularly in theatre and dance, because of the new spaces they have.”

Dance-Sociology senior Olivia Jensen says of the new Dance Studio, “I don’t know anybody with a studio that incredible, and it’s extremely functional.” The Dance Department, the only department without a corresponding major, is often marginalized, with its previous primary space being the Sports Center’s Gym 2. “I didn’t have a problem with Gym 2, except it ostracized us from the rest of campus,” says Jensen. The problem was not with the practicality of the space itself, but in the constraints on when it could be used by dance students and where they would have to practice otherwise. “Even if you don’t just want to dance on your own, you have actual academic work [in the Dance Department],” says Jensen. “When I would be working on choreography for class I would have to go into a racquetball court, which was fine in some respects but not in others. It worked, but it felt like you were in an institutionalized insane asylum, and the floor was unsafe.”

Apparently one of the first things that other performing arts majors have learned about dancers is that they care deeply about the floor they’re dancing on. “I can’t describe how important it is,” says Jensen. “Not just for comfort but for safety.” The racquetball courts had been concrete based underneath the wood floor, providing no give for dancing, making it a potentially hazardous space.

Beyond the practicalities of practice space, the PAB has also granted the Dance Department much needed visibility—maybe even too much. “People know we function and are part of an academic setting,” says Jensen, particularly within the performing arts community. “Putting all of the performing arts in one building just makes so much sense. It’s what made me able to collaborate with as many people in my thesis show as I did. I think the parc is an important place for the performing arts’ broad solidarity. You can just hang out in there and figure out what everyone is doing, you can hear the music majors ranting about their compositions. I know everyone that works in the parc, it’s just a nice space to have.”

Jensen has become the poster-child of the type of collaborative effort that was brought up when the idea of putting the three branches of the performing arts under one roof came into being. “I somehow pushed myself to be as collaborative as possible. I had three music majors who composed my entire sound score, Madeline Valanno, Dylan Richards, and John Pape. I’ve never heard of the music and dance departments working together so closely before on such a large-scale project, but why not? Aren’t they meant to go together?”

However, Jensen is worried that the PAB might be misleading, especially in regard to the Dance Department. “My fear is that this building will attract interest that the College doesn’t have the resources for or is not willing to put the resources into in order to sustain. [The PAB] makes it look like we support the arts in a really concrete way. Structurally, the Dance Department is still incredibly under-resourced. Having this crazy nice dance space is nice, but I’d much rather have my teachers have tenure.”

The Dance department manages to keep only one full-time professor, Carla Mann, while Minh Tran and Hannah Kosstrin remain at the school on a part-time visiting basis, although their time here goes well beyond that allotted to visiting professors in any other department (Minh’s been here for six years). The technical support is nonexistent, with Jensen and others hoping to put on dance performances having to outsource help in lighting, staging, and sound to the Theatre Department. While the technical staff would have been able to receive pay for working on a theatre production, music majors have to rely on their goodwill in order to have their shows set-up.

The building can be seen as a facade in other ways as well. While the spaces are functional and often beautiful, some oversights and incongruities in its construction suggest the primary motive for it being built is suspect. “I feel like a lot of the design of the building is for rich people walking through to see kids doing performing arts and be pleased with it,” says Jensen. “We are here for the trustee gaze.”

“Obviously I want people to fund the arts, and the performing arts specifically, but it is a huge fishbowl. The number one goal of the design of this building was to entertain rich donors. The extent to which that is true and for dance specifically, makes me uncomfortable. The observation windows are common in children’s dance studios but would never be seen in a theatre space. There’s coverings for all the windows so you can block outside light, but there’s no covering for the observation window. You can’t stop people from looking at you, which I find non-consensual and objectifying.”

While many of these idiosyncrasies might appear easy to brush aside as relatively inconsequential, or seen as signs of ungratefulness—meager arguments against the construction of this beautiful new building which is a vast improvement for all parties involved—everyone I spoke to was incredibly pleased with having the new spaces to work in, but felt strange in how they felt they might be utilized by the College for publicity and financial gain. The objectifying nature of the space is apparent enough, without taking into account the ways in which that focus detract from the building’s functionality for the performances for which it was supposedly built. “It’s not just that I don’t want people looking at me when I’m figuring out some weird choreography, it’s that I couldn’t shade the interior window in the performance lab and it caused light pollution.” 

In an English class that takes place in one of the PAB’s glass-walled rooms, this phenomenon is non-detrimental but still apparent. Holden says, “I’ll be sitting in Ibsen-Shaw and a tour of trustees will peer in at us and be like, ‘yes…the students are living the life of the mind.’”