No, no, a thousand times no!
Opinion by Larry Murray
We may have seen the last performance of a major musical in Boston’s Colonial Theatre as the road company of Book of Mormon gave its final performance. 1700 people made a special trip to see it, and surely left with happy memories. But once the curtain came down, and the load-out was completed, how long will the ghost light sit center stage until the next show arrives?
The future of this gorgeous theatre is anything but upbeat at the moment.
Earlier this week, the Boston Globe reported that Emerson College has plans to turn the historic Colonial Theatre in Boston into some sort of student cafeteria. The news alarmed not only their students and alumnae, but average people, especially the theatre and historic preservation communities. It has cast the arts college as out of touch with the role the grand old theatre has played – and should continue to play – in the performing arts in Boston. No wonder that once the story got out, the backlash began, and thankfully it appears that the final decision will soon be made not by those who are making the proposal, but by the College’s own trustees. One can only hope that they will consider the long term impact to the college and its supporters if they go ahead with such a harebrained scheme. Instead, they should scold the bean counters and those eager to make money off of demolition and new construction and instruct their planners to use some real creativity to find a way to re-energize the facility as a performing arts venue. Repurposing a historic structure of this magnitude is too important to leave to hacks.
The interior is not landmarked, so it is possible to change the configuration of the cramped seating to more copious accommodations that would have more popular appeal. Careful selection of design and fabrics would enable greater comfort without losing the historic feeling that Boston is famous for.
And while Emerson is the current steward of this theatre designed by the great Clarence Blackall, there are a million of us who have purchased tickets to see performances there. In that sense we all have a vested interest in the theatre since it is part of our history too. In 1984 I stood under the Colonial marquee next to Mayor Ray Flynn as we watched a recreation of the chariot race that took place with real horses on stage the night the Colonial first opened in 1900 with Ben-Hur. Its history is legend.
“What drives this in great measure is placemaking and establishing a stronger physical identity for the campus. The idea is that the visitor center, the Emerson cafe, the Colonial, and other academic and student-life activities on the ground level would provide a stronger and more interesting and more animated mark for the portal that leads you into Emerson.” – Emerson President Lee Pelton in the Boston Globe
In plans that some have seen, portions of the walls have been removed, and where the stage curtain used to be, “a movable door/acoustical wall that would set off space for a small black-box theater, to be created on top of the current stage, with its own entrance. Alternatively, the wall could be raised, converting the dining hall for possible larger productions on the main stage. The theater’s balconies would remain largely untouched,” the Boston Globe article went on to say.
In earlier reports, those involved with the redesign of the theatre indicated that it was financially unsustainable and that its heating and air conditioning systems were past their prime and had to be replaced. But even with a cafeteria there is a need to heat and cool the facility, so the argument is disingenuous. In fact, turning a theatre with a raked floor into a flat surfaced hall for students would not only forever change the sight lines, but also cost a fortune just to accomplish in the first place. Planners need to think these things through when saying that they can reverse the damage easily.
According to Laura King’s story in the Berkeley Beacon, Pelton is quoted as saying that serious discussion of the Colonial’s purpose likely won’t take place until Emerson’s Board of Trustees meets on Oct. 28-29, 2015. The main focus now is repairing mechanical systems in the theatre, specifically electrical and heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, Pelton said.
“The single fact is that we’re not renewing the lease [with the Citi Performing Arts Center],” Pelton said. “How the Colonial is used after that date is uncertain.”
The college chose not to renew its three-year lease with the Citi Performing Arts Center. In addition to bookings for the Colonial, Citi also operates in the nearby Wang and Shubert theatres. Joe Spaulding, the President of the entertainment conglomerate wrote “It has been a wonderful relationship, and based on the college’s evaluation, we hope to be back operating the theatre.”
The controversy goes far beyond Boston and is as widespread as its many students. Even Frank Rich, former critic and columnist for New York magazine writes: “It is astonishing that Emerson College, which thinks of itself as an institution furthering the arts, would be preparing to deface the Colonial Theater in Boston.
“This legendary Broadway tryout house was where I, as a college student, attended and reviewed the very first performance of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies in its legendary original Harold Prince-Michael Bennett production, previewing on its way to New York in 1971. As Follies fans know, the show takes place in a fabled old theater about to be demolished for a parking lot.
“What Emerson is planning to do to the Colonial is an egregious example of life imitating art. Those who care may want to sign this petition with the hope of being heard” Rich wrote on his Facebook page.
So the time to act is now, especially if you want to be sure that Emerson knows what is at stake. There is a petition circulating which you can sign here.
Below is the official explanation from Emerson.
October 8, 2015
Dear Emerson Community,
I am writing to let you know that the Boston Globe has published an article regarding the possible future use of the Colonial Theatre. The article is based on architectural drawings that the Globe obtained without Emerson’s permission. It represents only one of several options that the College is considering for the future use of the Colonial.
As I wrote to you previously, our planning regarding the future use of the Colonial Theatre has been guided by several objectives:
Preserve the remarkable history of the Colonial.
Reanimate and resuscitate the performance space inside the facility.
Serve the best long-term interests of Emerson faculty and students.
Educate and train the next generation of leaders in the performing arts.
Expand campus social space.
Repair and replace mechanical systems and deferred maintenance needs.
One of several plans under consideration, represented in the drawings, is to reanimate the Colonial as a multi-purpose, theatrical performance venue, expand Emerson’s social and dining spaces, provide performance space for Boston’s burgeoning small theatre companies by creating a black box theatre to complement the main stage when it is not in use, and convert the 600-seat orchestra to a 300-seat modular, reversible dining area available to the Emerson community and its guests.
We have been engaged in a thorough, thoughtful, and deliberate process to explore and examine the Theatre’s potential long-term use. We are not in a position to make public other options and discussions we are having with individuals and organizations at this time.
The College has an enviable and proven track record of being a good steward of Boston’s historic spaces, and we will live up to that responsibility in regard to the future of the Colonial Theatre, ever mindful that we are also a learning community.
Any proposal selected will be reviewed and voted on by the Emerson Board of Trustees; discussed with faculty, students and staff; shared with the City; and will go through a rigorous community engagement process. This is consistent with Emerson’s longtime demonstrated commitment to and investment in sustaining and advancing the arts in Boston and preserving the City’s historic Theatre District.