The sciences may have claimed Wheaton’s most recent addition to campus structures, but the performing arts are next on the list for new facilities.
In May 2012, the Wheaton College Board of Trustees established four Strategic Priorities, one of which was to “Enhance Music and the Performing Arts.” In the Strategic Priorities document, the trustees said that “Wheaton’s most pressing facility need” is new facilities for the Conservatory of Music, due to the fact that the current buildings “lag far behind the caliber of our program and in some cases are unacceptable for our current program.”
On Nov. 8 and 9, students, faculty and staff were invited to a series of forums to provide their input. The design team in charge of the planning, headed by the Los Angeles-based firm Pfeiffer Partners, is currently working to gather information about the needs and desires of the many involved parties. For this reason, they hosted the event to hear what students and faculty hoped to see in their new digs.
During the forum, those in attendance raised concerns and ideas about the future performing arts facility, and the design team asked the audience questions to better understand how to meet their present and future needs.
Junior music education major Cady Reycraft said she would like to see a new performance hall on campus.
Reycraft also said she thinks a move to a more central location on campus could help the Conservatory become a more integral part of the campus community.
“(Conservatory students are) like a little family — there’s 60 or 75 of us per year — and that’s who we spend the majority of our weeks with, and I don’t know that that’s necessarily a good thing,” Reycraft said. “I do think that moving it to a more central location could help bridge the gap.”
Michael Wilder, dean of the Conservatory of Music, arts and communication, said in an email that moving the performing arts buildings towards the center of campus could enable more interaction between the arts and sciences.
“Proximity is a powerful variable in fostering communication, integration and synthesis,” Wilder said. “I welcome ways that the location of buildings, offices and community spaces will encourage integration and exchange of ideas.”
According to Wilder, the Conservatory currently uses at least five buildings on campus, but he said that there are multiple reasons these locations are insufficient.
“We have known as a college for a number of years that our music and performing arts facilities were not adequate in serving the present program,” Wilder said.
The Conservatory’s two primary buildings — McAlister and Pierce Chapel — are used by over 200 majors and one in five of all Wheaton non-music majors, as well as over 1,700 students involved in Wheaton’s Community School of the Arts.
“The primary performance venue in Pierce Chapel, a building that was built in 1924, is without air conditioning and was not designed for music use,” Wilder said. “Missing in that building is adequate soundproofing of teaching and practice spaces, humidity control for pianos, adequate access and much more.”
According to Wilder, the Conservatory is not the only department that could be finding a new home, however, as Wheaton’s theater program may be joining in the move. Wilder said he sees the potential sharing of facilities as an opportunity to increase the collaborative efforts among the arts.
“The music and theater programs at our college are currently situated on opposite sides of the college,” said Wilder. “We currently find lots of excuses for getting these groups together and would welcome locations that would place the arts programs in closer proximity to one another.”
Mark Lewis, co-director of Arena Theater and professor of communication, said having more space for exchange between the arts, a place where “water cooler” conversations between departments can take place, is important.
“It’s exciting that we’re talking about a new performance hall on campus for a program — the Conservatory of Music —which desperately needs it,” said Lewis.
He also said that having a building that would offer shared space among the arts is reflective of the current trajectory of the arts programs.
“In the world outside of Wheaton College, the distinctions between (the different art forms) … are all collapsing. People are starting to think about the arts in terms of synthesis,” said Lewis.
He does not view the 140-seat black box theater in Jenks Hall as inadequate for Arena Theater’s current needs, but he said that the space does not allow for those outside of the theater to get involved.
Annie Benson, a sophomore communication and theater major, said that, while a new space for Arena Theater could be useful, she is content with their current home.
“I think it’s exciting, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, because Arena Theater is not about the space, it’s about the people,” she said.
However, Benson said having more room to expand the program would be beneficial.
“A new space could enhance performances and our ability to do bigger productions,” she said.
Some students, such as junior Nolan Carter, a music major with elective studies in theater, already straddle the divide between the arts.
“I think there is definitely a need for the two (programs) to be combined, and I think a concern (should be) not maintaining the program we have, but making the best program we can possibly have here,” Carter said.
Carter, who is also a member of the Concert Choir, has few issues with Pierce Chapel aside from the building’s interior aesthetics. He said Edman Chapel, however, where Concert Choir and the other large music ensembles perform, has “terrible acoustics,” making it difficult for singers to perform.
Additionally, music students are required to give recitals throughout the year, and Carter explained that scheduling rehearsals and performance can become complicated due to the few appropriate venues.
The future of the performing arts on Wheaton’s campus is still in the planning stages, with the exact location and the number of new buildings it could include is still unknown.
Wilder said the next step will be to provide the trustees with an outline of the new facilities in May 2013 so planning and gathering support from donors can begin.
For now, students and faculty must make do with what they have, including a recently renovated Pierce Chapel, which gained a resurfaced stage, new lighting and windows over the summer.
“In the meantime, and because this is a project that could easily take seven to 10 years, we want to serve our students as best we can,” Wilder said. “For that reason, we have made improvements in Pierce this past summer and will continue to try to make best use of the buildings we presently occupy.”
Additional reporting by Circulation and Advertising Manager Peter Cunningham
Photo Credit: Allison Freet