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Volume 26, Number 12 — December 2018

Emory & Henry College’s new arts center opens

The interior of the main stage theater (photo by David Grace)
The interior of the main stage theater (photo by David Grace)
Additional photos below »

September 30, 2015

Lisa Campbell, the executive director of Emory & Henry's new Woodrow W. McGlothlin Center for the Arts, says, "We want people to know they're welcome here. You don't have to have a connection to the college. You don't need to be an alum or know anyone or be a student or anything. Come and check us out. Welcome, welcome, welcome."

The building has two lobbies to welcome visitors. The south lobby faces the new parking lot, and Campbell expects it is the entrance most of the public will use. This lobby is outside the main performance space. Filled with soft seating, it is a welcoming space for people to gather before and after performances. The action on the main stage is broadcast throughout the building so that performers waiting in the green room can watch for cues. Box office personnel can watch for an appropriate time to seat late-comers, and late arrivals can watch the performance until an appropriate time to take their seats.

The broadcast is also sent directly to the college's radio station, WEHC-FM. This means the station can live stream performances if so desired.

The main performance theater seats 461 and has a small number of box seats. It has been carefully designed with an ear to its acoustics. An orchestra shell at the back of the stage works with acoustical treatments on the ceilings and acoustic curtains. The college's music department will use unamplified sound, while the musical theater department and many guest artists will use the digital sound system. The new lighting system is also digital, although there are non-digital lights to create certain effects.

The stage has a full fly system, Marley floor over a sprung floor (necessary for dance performances to minimize injuries), small orchestra pit and a climate and humidity-controlled space at the back of the stage to store the new Steinway D grand piano.

"There are countless ways this will impact student learning for our students," Campbell says. "For the department of theater, there will be increased possibilities to teach all forms of acting with regards to space – work in the round, a thrust stage and movement oriented theater. From a design perspective, our students will now be learning in a space with a full fly system, which will dramatically increase their knowledge of design. In addition, they will be working on state-of-the-art equipment with digital lighting and sound systems and projections. This will greatly increase all of their skills in preparing them for their careers.

"For our music students, they will not only see a huge increase in quality of sound due to the outstanding elements of the orchestra shell and acoustic treatments built into the space, but they will be working on a stage that will greatly enhance their entire presentation skills as student musicians." All the college's musical performances will be held here, unless they require an organ; those continue to be held in the chapel. Christmas at Emory will also be held in the chapel, at least initially.

The scene shop is located directly behind the stage, so you can build and then move sets straight onto the stage. The properties mezzanine is above the scene shop. It has a dual function: production and practicum space. "There isn't technically any academic space in the building, but many areas will serve as lab space. A props class will be offered periodically and lighting classes will use the performance spaces to hone their skills," Campbell says.

The mezzanine level also connects to the second floor where the black box theater is. Scenes will be built in the scene shop, and a genie lift will raise them to the mezzanine level. From there, students can open a gate, roll the scenery off the lift and into the black box theater. There is a safety system to keep students from falling.

The new center also has a costume shop where students can design and create the costumes for productions, as well as storage for costumes. Thinking ahead, they've built a costumer's office and hope to be able to fill it one day soon. There is a large make-up room and two dressing rooms. Campbell is particularly glad that the dressing rooms have full bathrooms attached. "When we talk to equity actors they all ask for it. Usually you have to say "we're a college, we don't have that.' I can say "we have that.'"

The green room was designed to be a multi-function room. It serves as a traditional green room for guest artists, as a meeting room for groups on campus and as a temporary office for guest artists' management.

The gallery storage area and workspace are also located on this floor. This also provides educational opportunities for students.

"Our art students will have first-hand learning of preservation and presentation of art exhibitions in our new gallery work room that houses our permanent art collection. Our new curator also has great vision about depth of programming and integrating it into course work in museum studies that will give increased knowledge and career options to our students," says Campbell.

The WEHC-FM studio suite is the final offering on this floor. It contains a reception area, two offices and three production rooms. The broadcast booth connects with one of the production rooms. This feature will be used if there are several guests; they can be divided between the two rooms and see still and talk to each other.

The second level contains the north lobby and faces the main campus. Outside its doors are welcoming porches; inside is soft furniture where students can come and "hang out." "I'm excited about the porches," Campbell says. "They scream an opportunity to do something fun and creative when the weather is nice."

The black box theater is on this level. Its versatile platform seating can be re-arranged, so the theater can be used as a thrust stage (extends into the audience on three sides), theater in the round (audience surrounds the stage area) or the audience facing the stage. Depending on the configuration of the stage, it will seat between 75 and 125 people.

The black box theater is a multi-function space. Unlike most black box theaters (which are usually black painted rooms), it has windows with black-out shades. The shades can be opened for natural light when the space is used for a lecture or other purposes.

The gallery is on this level. In addition to its unique flooring milled from a beech tree, which had to be removed to construct the building, it has a grid system that holds the lighting and will support a great deal of weight if needed for art installations. The windows are UV treated to protect the artwork. Dan Van Tassell, the curator, hopes to exhibit new media pieces in the future. The gallery houses six guest artist exhibits each academic year. They are discussing displaying portions of the college's permanent collection in the summer. The collection will also be displayed on campus.

The final programming space in the center is the indoor amphitheater. "It's a new trend in architecture," Campbell says. "It will seat about 60 people, and we're still trying to decide how to use it. It will be a great spot to talk to school groups about an exhibit before they go into the gallery or about a performance before they see it. It's being used in October for a poetry slam, and the choral department is considering holding small performances, such as madrigals."

There are a lot of requests to use the public spaces for different activities. Campbell plans to develop a committee that will decide how to use the public space.

Lisa Withers, chair of the visual and performing arts division, says members of the department are so excited about the opportunities the center provides for students.

"We're beginning to change some of the more technical programs, pre-professional theater, the performance program in music and studio art programs may be moving to BFA and BM degrees, instead of BA. We're still rooted in liberal arts, but I think we'll start to offer more professionally-oriented programs, and that's really exciting. This space will allow that to happen more easily. We're also thinking of offering an arts administration program.

"One of the things that's exciting for the faculty is the staff we have here. Even though they are small, they are mighty. They are doing the stuff that we never had time to do. To get us out there, to attract audiences that we think we can really reach and communicate with for our students and our faculty. We're seeing this campus become an arts and culture center," Withers says.

The college is considering adding faculty, now that the center is open. Positions under consideration include a new music professor, and a graphic design and mass communications position.

"We're discussing all sorts of interdisciplinary conversations — that's one of the things I've been really impressed with. In the small amount of time Lisa and Dan have been here, they've met a lot of people on campus. They're talking to people in political science and psychology about how the arts can support their programs. That is just super exiting for us. We're grateful for them and their work and for the opportunities we're seeing," Withers said.

"I'm hopeful that we will take artists into non-arts classes and engage in different ways," Campbell says. "I've done that at two different schools, so I can develop the program. You just have to find the people who are willing to play with you and are willing to mess with pedagogy a little bit. I'm building bridges to find those teachers. There are a lot of people who are excited about the arts center who aren't in the arts. Some are thrilled because they just like the arts, and some because they're excited about the possibilities. They're willing to think outside the box a little bit about their approach to the arts."

The college recently joined a consortium of small rural colleges called Imagining America. The group focuses on social engagement and using the arts and culture as springboard for economic development. Tal Stanley, director of the college's Appalachian Center for Civic Engagement, and Withers are going to a conference and plan to apply for grants that provide resources to develop programs that are centered at the college but reach out to the region.

Campbell and Tassell also want to develop programs that reach out to the community and to schools. "We're going to have lots of fun," she says.

Campbell and her staff are looking forward to opening the doors and welcoming people in. "I can hardly wait to stop worrying about ordering packing supplies, dealing with building issues, ordering equipment, and start doing what I was hired to do. Come and visit us."

— The college's new gallery hosts exhibits throughout the year


Lisa Campbell

A student in the new scene shop (photo by David Grace)