President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Berlind Stage Gives New Life to Art
March 10, 2004
Two highlights of the fall term for me were theatrical productions in the fabulous new Berlind Theatre. Gifts from generous donors—including Broadway producer Roger S. Berlind '52—enabled McCarter Theatre and the University to create new performance, rehearsal, classroom and support spaces in a skillfully designed addition to the McCarter building. The University's Program in Theater and Dance shares time with McCarter in the 350-seat Berlind Theatre, whose stage actually abuts McCarter's principal stage, facilitating exchanges of equipment, staging and lighting. This physical connection between the two spaces is symbolic of the collaborative spirit that is making this joint undertaking such a rewarding experience.
The world premier of Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Anna in the Tropics, was Berlind Theatre's inaugural production. Directed by McCarter's artistic director, Emily Mann, the play went straight from Berlind to Broadway. The inaugural production by the Program in Theater and Dance was no less of a success. Big Love, written by Michael Mee and directed by Davis McCallum '97, a lecturer in the program, is inspired by what some believe to be the earliest surviving play in Western literature, Aeschylus's The Suppliant Women, which tells the story of 50 sisters who flee an arranged marriage to their 50 cousins. The audience's proximity to the stage and the actors enhanced for me the creative energy and impact of the play.
For both McCarter and the theater and dance program, the Berlind Theatre has attributes that other campus performance spaces lack. McCarter's Matthews Theatre, named for long-time Princeton theater supporters, Marie and Ed Matthews '53, has the advantage of a balcony, wings, 1,100 seats and a four-foot raised stage. This means, however, that it does not have the same intimacy of the Berlind Theatre, where everything from the slope of the seating, to the absence of a balcony and of side wings, to the lower stage, makes it possible for actors to look each audience member in the eye.
Theater and dance students are accustomed to intimate spaces. Most of their artistic experiences have been in black-boxes (small, usually with no raised stage, and minimal lighting and scenery), in the 90-seat Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street, or, for dancers, in the Hagen Dance Studio, which can accommodate 50. The Berlind Theatre makes it possible to reach a larger audience and to take full advantage of state-of-the-art lighting, sound, and staging, while maintaining a relationship with the audience that is usually only experienced in smaller settings. For our dance program, which held its spring festival in the theater in February, the size of the stage itself presents enormous new possi-bilities for the serious exploration of this art form.
The clever design of the theater by nationally renowned architect Hugh Hardy '54, including careful attention to sound-proofing, maximizes the shared use and versatility of support spaces, such as dressing rooms, set design space, even loading docks for both McCarter and the program. Moreover, the rehearsal spaces (McCarter and the program each has its own) can be transformed into what Emily Mann has called a "theater in the room," a laboratory for more experimental works or collaborations between actors, choreographers, musicians and other performers. The program's rehearsal room has special floor material that allows our dance program led by Ze'eva Cohen to practice, and to conduct classes and collaborative experiments. Berlind also includes a seminar room. All of these aspects of the new space help to ensure that Berlind will feel like home to the students in the program.
Housing the program at McCarter reflects the University's goal of exposing students to professional artists, and professional critics and scholars, to give them clearer insight into both practical aspects of drama and dance and the roles theater and dance play in different cultures at different times. Over the years, thanks in large measure to collaborations forged between theater program director Michael Cadden, Emily Mann, and McCarter's managing director, Jeffrey Woodward, students have had opportunities to learn first-hand from some of the most creative and talented playwrights, actors, producers, directors, and scene and costume designers. Now, thanks to Berlind, these opportunities have been expanded. As Professor Cadden has noted, access to this larger professional space presents new challenges. All involved in the program have to "up their game," to create productions that play to an audience that does not just include their roommates and families. In Big Love they reached for a new level of professional quality, and they hit the mark.
With the production of two new plays written as senior thesis projects, along with a Princeton atelier production of Amos Oz's The Same Sea and a revival by McCarter of My Fair Lady, all scheduled for this spring, the Princeton community has much to look forward to in this new home for the arts. Oscar Wilde wrote that "The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life." The Berlind Theatre complex has given new life to art. It gives this generation of students a chance to learn from, and reach for, the stars.