Student theater groups grapple with lack of performance space
Organizations struggle with limited options to rehearse, present their work
If you walk through the hallways of the Katzen Arts Center, you may hear familiar lines of Shakespeare’s works. It’s the AU Rude Mechanicals rehearsing for an upcoming play.
While they would love to rehearse their plays in a more private setting, that is often not an option for the theater troupe, Elizabeth Morton, the group’s executive director, said. This forces actors to practice in the hallways of AU’s designated performance facility.
“Sometimes, we are able to reserve a space,” Morton said. “But if we don’t, we really rehearse wherever, like in the random hallways of Katzen.”
Katzen currently offers only a handful of locations for performances and rehearsals, including the Abramson Family Recital Hall, the black box studio theater and larger classrooms. And with more than a dozen officially recognized performance groups and counting on campus, the demand far outweighs the number of spaces available.
Morton has been a part of AU Rude Mechanicals for more than three years, she said, and has routinely struggled to book rehearsal space. Each full play requires four to six weeks of rehearsal. That’s followed by tech rehearsals, when the lighting, sound and stage designer coordinate the technical elements of the play. Finally, dress rehearsals happen the week of the show.
“Ideally, for most theatrical productions, you want to have those rehearsals in the [same] performance space,” Morton said. “Oftentimes, we find ourselves not having rehearsals in a performance space and having to re-setup everything in a different location. We’ve learned to be very flexible, but it can be difficult sometimes.”
Laura Cottrell, president of Treble in Paradise, an a cappella group, said she understands the struggles Morton faces. Treble in Paradise performs at nearly 20 events each semester, both on and off campus, so planning ahead is as vital to the group’s success as anything else. They typically hold concerts in Kay Spiritual Life Center, Cottrell said.
“I can't remember the last time we didn't have some sort of issue booking a concert,” Cottrell said.
Cottrell is fond of Kay Spiritual Life Center and values it as a home for their concerts. However, she would love to have at least one more option.
“The acoustics are really beautiful and it's a really fun space, but it would be nice to have another option, I think,” Cottrell said.
The all-female a capella group helps run Acapalooza, an annual performance featuring all on-campus acapella groups. Other external groups from the D.C. metro area are invited to perform, too. However, this year, the planning for Acapalooza hit a snag early in the planning process, Cottrell said.
Kay Spiritual Life Center is booked until 8:30 p.m. on the night of the event, Cottrell said. They reserved a room in Kerwin Hall as a staging area. Once Kay Spiritual Life Center is free, they will transfer the performers there.
“There was nothing else available, which is pretty frustrating seeing as it’s a cool, big event for the whole campus,” Cottrell said.
AU uses an online system, 25Live, to schedule on-campus events. Club leaders can reserve rooms using the system. Booking space for performances and rehearsals can be difficult using 25Live, Morton said.
“You can put in a reservation and have it there for weeks, then have it knocked off for another event, and there’s not a lot of priority that’s given to student use,” Morton said. “If there’s an event or anything involving money from the University, they will immediately kick you out.”
Cottrell said they will commonly get their 25Live reservation booted in favor of another group or event. The removal becomes more troubling because performance groups compete for space with each other.
Shyheim Snead, who serves as director of the Kennedy Political Union, the organization responsible for hosting speakers like U.S. Congressman John Lewis and activist Malala Yousafzai, said that 25Live, although at times problematic, is the best system in place.
“I [know] the people who run 25Live and coordinate,” Snead said. “I play one game of Tetris, but they're playing it with hundreds of student groups. For right now, I think that having conversations like this, we can do more to get student groups and student leaders in conversation with folks who help schedule space.”
Michael Elmore, senior director of University Center and Student Activities, said that out of all the facilities on campus, not a single one currently prioritizes student use. While classes obviously come first, just one space prioritized for student organizations could do wonders, he said.
“There's not a single space for programs where a student organization gets first priority and that's something that, from where I sit, we ought to be able to change,” Elmore said.
The system software of 25Live is not the problem, Elmore said. It’s the lack of student-first space.
“The issue isn't the scheduling software, the issue is the space crunch and the conflicting priorities that everyone seems to have. So, carving out something that can be students-first would be a great step forward,” Elmore said.
Although there are a variety of areas, such as classrooms, on campus for groups to hold events, they are not favorable for performance groups because their shows require specific characteristics that a limited number of spaces offer. Turning these common areas into performance spaces is something groups face often, Elmore said.
“If you look at other spaces around campus, you're really talking about taking spaces that are meant for general assembly and turning them into more theatrical spaces,” Elmore said.
However, even Katzen needs to renovate some of their spaces for performance use, said Lisa Ager, Katzen’s facilities and operations manager.
“Our black box studio, we've rigged it to be for small performances, but it was originally intended to be just a classroom for theater,” Ager said. “So, we've literally installed more lighting, more piping and now some curtains are going to go in this summer to make it a performance space.”
The Greenberg Theater in Tenleytown was originally designated to be the school’s main theater and the Abramson Family Recital Hall in Katzen Arts Center was intended to be a smaller recital space. While some performance groups can use Greenberg, it is often booked and tougher to reserve because it costs more to use than Katzen, Ager said.
“At Katzen, we try to keep it as minimal as possible, it's really just recouping cost of a staff member being there and maintenance on the equipment. Greenberg might have to charge a little bit more because their facilities are more complex and they have much smaller staff than us,” Ager said. “So, they often rely on full-time staff to work overtime to make events possible.”
The University is considering renovating the third floor of the Mary Graydon Center. However, nothing is final, including what space might be able to for campus groups to use. President Sylvia Burwell is working on the University’s next strategic plan, which will guide the school’s growth over the next five years. She would like to release it in fall 2018, she told The Eagle in March.
Members of AU’s performing arts department hope performance space will be addressed in the plan. However, Ager said she has not yet been approached by University leaders about it. Elmore said a big hurdle for the University in approving another performance space is the question of it being fully used.
“They would, but there are competing priorities and does that mean if we built another theater, that it would get used fully? And there's maybe some skepticism as to whether you would have full use of a second theater space,” Elmore said. “So, we have to prove that somehow, if you build it, will they come?”
As for what students can do, Elmore said relaying all these needs to student representatives and administrators is the most effective way to go about bringing change.
“We've been encouraging them to get their voices out there and advocate for themselves in the planning process a lot more,” Elmore said.
With big changes expected in Burwell’s upcoming strategic plan, Morton understands that performance groups are low on the list, but hopes something is done.
“I understand why our very specific need of a performance space is low on the list, but it kind of sucks that it keeps not happening,” Morton said.
This story was originally published in the April print edition of The Eagle.