Sunday, February 25, 2018

Back to the Future?

In 1968 Trinity School, a private school in Manhattan, broke ground on its new Hawley Wing.  According to Trinity archives The New Hawley Wing brochure detailed sixteen modern classrooms, four science labratories (sic), seven music practice cubicles, and new research library, and a language labratory (sic). The brochure left out one interesting detail.  In the basement of the Hawley Wing was an approximately 75-foot long, 20-foot wide room.  On one side and one end the walls were formed by the cement foundation.  Cinderblock completed the remainder of the room.  The room was designed as a rifle range.  All through the end of the 20th century and well into the 21st a fuse box outside the long room provided evidence of the range.  Two circuit breakers remained clearly marked over the years with their original intent, “Rifle Range”.  When last I checked in 2008 this evidence of the range remained intact.
I have no idea whether any shots were ever fired there.  Apocryphal or not, I recall hearing that the social upheaval of the late sixties and early seventies helped set about the dissolution of the school’s rifle team, leaving the “range” available for other purposes.  When I arrived at the school in 1981 that meant an office or two and either a costume closet or a percussion rehearsal room.  The space has been repurposed numerous times, enough so that memory fails.
Sometime in the seventies an enterprising student engaged in a semester-long senior project undertook to convert part of the space into a black box theater, what became known as The Basement Theater.  It had a playing space of 20 feet by 22 feet, approximating Shakespeare’s Globe.  For decades it housed productions directed by faculty and students, as well as classes in theater, public speaking, and various other activities.  Most years it witnessed at least three or four productions at minimum.  Joan of Arc, Lizzie Borden, and Princess Diana have all done a turn in the Basement.  We waited for Godot.   
The creation of the Basement Theater was part and parcel of a roughly forty-year period of theater flourishing at Trinity.  There were musicals, an annual musical Cabaret, several faculty directed main stage and Basement productions each year, an annual student directed Shakespeare production, student directed one-act plays, student directed independent studies, and theater courses as electives in the curriculum.  It was possible for students to take a different theater class every year from seventh grade through graduation.  Trinity had a well-earned reputation for its excellent and diverse theater program. 
There is a legacy from this program still alive.  Alumni working in all aspects of theater and film:  actors, writers, directors, composers, producers, stage managers, teachers, managing arts organizations, board members, donor/supporters, (and apologies for any other capacities I’ve overlooked). 
There are times when the program received enthusiastic administrative support. Even at its height, those of us who taught and directed had to defend the value of the arts to administrators, faculty colleagues, and the community at large.  There was always a lurking concern that too much theater might make it harder to enter the Holy Trinity of Yale, Harvard and Princeton.  There were, alas, times when administrators were indifferent, inept, or intrusive.  Decisions to make cuts in the program caused the loss of courses in the curriculum, affected the number of productions taking place each year, and ultimately student participation.
More recently it was determined that the space that was probably home to over a hundred productions over the years was no longer needed as a theater space.  The small, intimate space where so many classes in creativity, where so many student actors learned what it was like to work close to an audience, where alumni would return for nostalgic visits at reunions, is now filled with exercise equipment, presided over by the physical education department.  It reflects a change in what Trinity and our society as a whole values. 
Now, as a society, we are faced with a proposal from our president that schools will be safer places if teachers are armed.   One hopes that saner minds will rule the day at Trinity.  One fantasizes that as we slide backwards, arming ourselves against our fears, that the onetime Basement Theater will be repurposed again, back to its origins.  Take out the barbells and the treadmills. What better use for the place than as a range where faculty can hone their marksmanship skills in house.  Range to artistic sanctuary to range.  Let’s hope the pendulum never swings in that wide an arc.      


1 comment:

  1. At least in the case of Yale, having done theatre in high school often helps students get in.