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December 6, 2023

Thespian action heats up this year as productions improve in quality - Grocely Overrated

By Jonathan Groce | May 1, 2003

Something amazing happened this past year: Hopkins theater and performing arts were suddenly taken seriously. And no, I am not referring to Theatre Hopkins, the professional company housed on campus. From Witness to Dunbar Baldwin Hughes Theatre to Modern Dance, the past year was a veritable revolution for the performing arts on our modest campus. Along the way, notable productions and developments meticulously contributed to the new image. Unfortunately, beneath the surface, glaring problems remain.

The good news is that the improvements are significant. The creation of the Arts Certificate was a considerable step in the right direction to establishing a solid community, awarding the talented and dedicated, while working to eventually establish a theater program. Collaboration between groups and institutions has benefited all parties, as witnessed by the strong relationship between Peabody and the Barnstormers in The Secret Garden, not to mention last month's dance concert which featured, among others, the Modern Dance Company and The Ladybirds. Furthermore, SAC Chair Elise Roecker claims "dance is starting to emerge as a stronger presence on campus," and I'd have to agree with her. With the emergence of several dance organizations, including the Egyptian Sun Dancers and JOSH, the energy and the motivation is there, but the groups need administrative and student support.

Sara Marten, the SAC Performing Arts liaison, says, "the quality of the [theater] shows has definitely improved." Admittedly so, many productions in the past year were well worth seeing, including the surprise hit from Witness Theatre, The Blue Cranberry Hour. Run on a shoestring budget, the play succeeded where others have failed and was genuinely entertaining. The Barnstormers' The Secret Garden, a noble performance of the mature musical, was noteworthy for the casting which including talented vocal majors from the Peabody Conservatory, namely students who could actually sing.

Aside from creative work, the number of productions is down from previous years. This can be blamed on the deterioration of Arellano Theatre in Levering Union. Always considered a joke, this near-historical stage once held a lively production of The Who's Tommy only two years ago. Now, with the addition of the Swirnow Theatre in the Mattin Center, the larger groups have moved onto finer, more ambitious productions. The Arellano Theatre, however, has become the black sheep of the Hopkins theater community. The space is suitably intimate for smaller productions, such as Throat Culture and Witness, but groups are no longer allowed to build any sets in the space and only minimal props can be stored backstage. Also, the administration gave the old production room to Orientation, severely limiting storage space for props and costumes. Without sufficient, permanent storage areas, the theater groups are crippled.

Rehearsal space remains a serious difficulty as well. There are simply not enough sufficient rooms on campus large enough to house an entire a capella group and assorted orchestral members. Imagine rehearsing a musical with full accompaniment in a room with poor acoustics. With multiple groups competing for the coveted Swirnow, rehearsals, the Second Decade Society room and the Glass Pavilion are quickly booked as well.

Many dance and a capella concerts are held in Shriver, and groups are curiously forced to pay $250 for maintenance to remove and replace a shell used for the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra. Such fees are beyond ridiculous, penalizing the performing groups and their limited budgets. For an institution with considerable financial revenue, this remains an eyesore on the Hopkins arts community.

Arguing for more funding is expected here, but perhaps I should address the inherent problem here. Over 15 groups are registered with Student Council, and the Student Activities Commission allocates a considerable proportion of relatively limited funding to performing arts groups. As expected, the majors (JHU Band and The Barnstormers) have more influence and structural support to request more productions. With so many groups competing for space, perhaps we should either limit the number of productions per group until a stronger fiscal system is established or build a new theater for groups to rehearse, while not simultaneously taxing the current arts funding. In addition, theater, dance and performing alumni need to give to specific arts programs, rather than the University's construction funds (unless there is a proposal to break ground on a new stage).

Without a department for the performing arts, any changes are bound to be severely modest. The University is not likely to financially nourish the marked improvements and developments with the support it deserves. After the dedication of the Mattin Center in 2001, the University appeared satisfied with its support of the arts. Arellano needs to be demolished soon, but in its place, a new theater must be built immediately, preferably over the summer. Even if the theater groups lose a semester of Arellano, the future benefits of a redesigned theater space would be enormous.

While I hold my breath, the performing groups need to respond to the high bar raised by the exceptional productions of the past year. I expect only the best from Hopkins theater and dance companies, and only the best will result in the actualization of the ideal arts revolution.

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