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Setting Up Shop

Royal Tour Touches Down at New Davidson Complex

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For 12 days, the Royal Shakespeare Company is residing at Davidson College, teaching classes, reaching out to the community, schooling local actors, staging The Merchant of Venice, and helping the venerable liberal arts institution draw attention to its newest campus jewel. RSC's base of operations will be north of Richardson Stadium at the new $36 million Knoblauch Campus Center. Under its signature atrium, the complex links two new facilities -- a spanking new student union and a state-of-the-art theater.

A couple of touring attractions have already played at the new multipurpose Duke Family Performance Hall. The 11-performance run of Merchant begins this Friday at 7:30pm with a Press Night gala celebration on Saturday calculated to wow the media.

Davidson alum Carrie Van Deest, on staff at Milwaukee Rep, came down to coordinate the thick concentrate of events and festivities crammed into the RSC residency. The 1998 grad is openly envious of the new Duke facility.

"I feel like I was born too soon," she sighs dramatically. "We were always grumbling about Hodson (Hall) and the lack of space and sharing Cunningham (Arts Center) -- the lack of space and the lack of facilities. And now...gosh!"

The new Duke, with maximum seating for about 650, cost about $14 million of the $28 million construction costs. The remainder of the price tag for the Knoblauch Center is an endowment set aside to take care of ongoing operating expenses. Davidson also spent big -- or fundraised big -- to deliver the RSC, nearly $1.5 million according to Davidson prez Robert Vagt. They're getting their money's worth.

"Fifty RSC people will be here at any given time," Van Deest discloses. That includes RSC staff, not to mention the actors and technicians it takes to run the show -- and their education staff. We've got some people from their administrative staff coming over, one of their vocal directors, and one of their movement coaches. So it's dizzying."

This hyperactive educational residency will take RSC artists into classrooms where you would hardly expect Shakespeareans. Art History, Music, Psychology, and even Chemistry. Of course, the bulk of RSC's applied expertise will be directed at eager English and Theatre majors.

One of the prime beneficiaries will be Professor Cynthia Lewis, a mainstay of Davidson's English Department, who went to London and watched the RSC putting its final touches on Merchant in rehearsal. Since 1983, Lewis has taught a seminar in performing Shakespeare every two or three years, highlighted by a spring student production modeled on the methodology of an Elizabethan theater company.

Rehearsals for this year's effort, Love's Labour's Lost, began earlier this week. Thanks to the RSC residency, they're extra special.

"For the next two weeks," Lewis relates, "we're going to be starting to get the play up on its legs with the Royal Shakespeare Company visiting every other day to get them going on how to work out a scene, how to use your body and your face when you're doing physical humor. For the comedy session, we're going to have the actor from Merchant who plays Lancelot Gobbo, and he does an absolutely fantastic stint in this production."

The prospect of doing Love's Labour's Lost onstage at the new facility has Lewis as excited as her students. Audience will also be onstage at the versatile new space with seating capacity adjusted to a cozy 200.

Theatre Department chairman Joe Gardner has worked backstage throughout his distinguished career, winning CL's Best Set Design award in 1996 for his work on Charlotte Rep's landmark Angels in America. That play is no longer beyond the capabilities of Davidson College with their new high tech facility. The challenge is to hire outside professionals -- or train students -- to run the shows. Once audiences see what can be done at the new Duke, expectations for Davidson College productions may rise.

"This thing has a lighting board that's one of five or six in the US that is connected to the Ethernet," Gardner reveals. "So it's a full-blown computer, and apparently, you can download a whole set of light cues for a show. Or you can use software that allows you to see images right there on the lightboard of what you're doing, so you can see its effect on the work. The software has yet to be created that will take full advantage of this thing. But we're out there on the cutting edge anyway. We're set up. A lot of decisions were made like that, to go ahead and install electronics and things to prepare for the future."

Gardner was obviously a key player in developing the design objectives that were presented to Duke Family Performance Hall architects MacLachlan, Cornelius & Filoni of Pennsylvania. He also went up north to view samples of the firm's work and was gratified to find that their expertise bridged the gap between campus centers and theater spaces. Al Filoni, an experienced set designer, was particularly impressive to Gardner. His design specialty is opera, and his resume includes work with the National Opera.

Dealing with a firm steeped in theater ensured that Gardner didn't hear "you can't do that" when he presented his architectural problems. It also made Gardner comfortable with the blueprints despite the fact that his department considers a 650-seat facility oversized.

"There are wonderful little architectural touches that make it possible for that seating capacity to fluctuate a good bit," Gardner explains. "A convertible pit can become additional seats if you don't need an orchestra pit. Or it can become a stage apron. There are balconies that have loose seats that can be closed off. So when you want to, you can confine the seating to the center orchestra, and it's about 300 or 350, which is ideal for us. But when you expand all the balconies and use the pit, it goes up to about 650."

Better yet, Gardner feels the space retains a wonderful character in all its guises, including a customized band shell for symphonic performances. Not at all nebbishy, Gardner insists.

Over 15 years of talking, planning, exploratory studies, and proposals preceded construction of the new Knoblauch Center. It was not until the 1998-99 academic year, according to President Vagt, that the Performance Hall was bundled into the project.

Enthusiastic plaudits from Gardner and Lewis cite Vagt as the "miracle worker" who made it happen. But Vagt considers the project a tribute to Davidson students and faculty.

"We did not have a performance space that began to be worthy of all the students and the faculty put into it," Vagt begins. "So now I feel like we're there. We knew that we were going to create a campus center, and we also knew that our academics program needed a theater for not only our theater performances but also for our music, for the symphony, and the chorus. In addition, we needed a theater that would accommodate troupes coming in from the outside. But the principal impetus was our academic program. So as we looked at the campus center, we thought, 'What a great opportunity to take that campus center, which is sort of the living room of the campus, and attach the theater to it.' So it became a single project."

The RSC will be making themselves at home in that living room through March 2. It's their second visit to the Carolinas in less than a year. Royal's production of A Servant of Two Masters was the sold-out smash hit of the 2001 Spoleto Festival USA last spring.

Merchant of Venice is not only special, it's exclusive -- the only RSC production of the drama scheduled for North America this year. More info on the RSC residency can be found at http://www2.davidson.edu/news/rsc/rsc.html. *

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