“My girlfriend says it’s called Brutalist,” said the young man driving me, as he put his foot down on the accelerator and we headed up the hill from the student union, and the gigantic concrete structure loomed into view.
“She is correct,” I replied, tightening my grip on the go-cart railing. They had been provided to ferry us old-timers around the hilly campus. We gained speed, and the young man ferried me past the looming concrete to the dorms I’d last seen a quarter century ago.
My college reunion was this past weekend. I was fortunate enough to go to Colgate, a small liberal arts institution nestled in the rural hills of Central New York. It’s known, among other things, for being a beautiful campus; its classroom buildings and dormitories are a Platonic ideal of what academic buildings are supposed to look like, their limestone and granite facades capturing the light and transmuting it into a golden glow. It has its own lake, at the foot of the hill where the college stands; I lived across from it in my sophomore year, and would be woken up each morning by the rays of the morning sun bouncing off the surface of the water in a blazing, fiery dance. The fields of the local farms roll on for as far as can be seen; it’s been a particularly wet spring upstate, so the trees and fields were even more beautiful than I remembered, the green practically exploding from the landscape. In the hearts of those who graduated – and quite possibly in reality – it is the most Edenic place on this earth.
And yet, below the hill where sits the academic quad, just past the student union, emerging from among a brace of trees, there is one building that looks completely out of place on this picture-postcard campus. An alien fortress, all ribbed grey concrete, with angular outcroppings jutting out haphazardly. A gloomy, forbidding fortress.
It’s the Dana Arts Center. The theater building. And it’s therefore where I spent much of my time when I was a student.
There’s a good chance that the theater on your own college campus is housed in a similar structure. Many colleges and universities didn’t have buildings dedicated to theater, or even theater departments until the late 1960s and early 1970s. This corresponds to the initial establishment of M.F.A. programs in places like Yale University. It also corresponds to many American campuses (like Colgate) finally becoming co-ed, after traditionally being all-male institutions, which among other changes allowed them to mount a wider variety of theatrical productions.
As a result, college after college in this country has arts centers that were built according to the tastes and fads of early 1970s architecture – most notably Brutalism, with its unadorned concrete surfaces and blockish designs claiming to represent an uncompromising honesty . And so, college after college that undertook construction at that time, especially arts centers, are festooned with these unsightly, unwieldy concrete monstrosities.
After I’d settled in this weekend, I went back to explore Dana, and the Brehmer Theater inside it where I’d performed so long ago. The theater was almost completely unchanged – and still absolutely impossible. The various components of the arts center – the theater, music studios, an art gallery – had been designed to fit in the same building in an interlocking fashion, making the whole thing something of a huge jigsaw puzzle. The space for the different departments radiate out from a central staircase ringing the lobby, making it feel like a strange hive of some sort. The result of this, however, is that they built the theater to fit in the space, regardless of how it impacted its ability to function as a theater. Brehmer is a very deep theater – it’s gloriously huge, really, a bigger stage than most of us will ever perform on again – but the house is significantly wider than the stage, meaning many of the seats wind up having obstructed views. The wideness of the stage is the result of two side-stage areas, which are a novel and potentially arresting idea – that winds up being unusable given how few seats have a good viewing angle for action set there. And there’s limited wing and fly space, which means you’re hindered from using the kind of scenic elements that the stage’s size cries out for.
And there’s no real way to renovate the theater to change any of this. Heck, you probably couldn’t tear down the theater even if you wanted to. This gigantic block of a structure, this densely packed collection of concrete slabs, seems destined to outlive all of us. So it’s a basic fact of campus life. Year after year, students who want to create art, filled with youthful idealism and vitality, must do so within this out-of-place, out-of time, unwieldy, grim, dark fortress.
And I dearly love it.
Not simply because it’s where I gave my first performances. It’s obviously where I learned how to do what I do – but its imperfections and grotesqueries were a huge part of teaching me those lessons. You always have to compensate for something – there’s never all the technical resources you might wish for, there’s always some inherent obstacle in the performing space that you need to overcome. And the arts are always an afterthought, despite their crucial importance, to any organization – you have to fight and scrape for everything you have, and improvise furiously when it isn’t enough.
Making theater is an endless battle. What better place to learn that lesson than a fortress?