I first stepped into Swirnow Theater on Aug. 25, 2018, the day after I arrived at Hopkins. I hardly knew it then, but that space was to become my second home at a school that seems to care very little for the arts.
The theater, although shoved behind Bamboo Café with no real entrance or even proper signage, was everything I had ever wanted in a theater. It was a blank slate, a black box with the ability to become anything we imagined it to be. That August the floor still bore the marks from past shows, including the Barnstormers’ spring 2018 production of Pippin.
Each year the two theater groups that use the space design and build four different shows from scratch. Since I arrived on campus, I’ve watched an apartment, a traditional thrust stage, an art gallery and a two-story club in Berlin rise from nothing, all built in a matter of weeks.
For mainstage productions, rehearsals run five hours a day six days a week. As a designer, I don’t even have to be there most of the time. Yet I spend most of my time in that space — sometimes up to 40 hours a week — for weeks on end. Theater can be incredibly time-consuming, but I love it. More than anything. Not just for the community that it has brought me but for the space itself. A space that, despite its flaws, has allowed student theater to grow for the last 20 years. A space that has allowed tech kids like me to have a role in arts programs at Hopkins.
Swirnow has been my home at Hopkins. It has allowed me, and so many other students who’ve walked through its doors, to pursue a passion outside of the classroom that we would have never otherwise had the chance to experience. It becomes whatever we want it to be, a makerspace in its own sort of way.
So of course I was devastated to hear that Swirnow, along with the rest of Mattin, would be torn down — perhaps as early as spring 2020. This decision was made without the prior consultation of the groups who will be most affected by the renovations and without any concrete plans for the student center itself or how the school plans to create a permanent, not to mention interim, home for the arts.
While the Student Government Association (SGA) deserves credit for taking our concerns seriously and acting to address them, there are still a number of questions for which we need answers. The Recreation Center’s expansion is supposed to provide a permanent home for the facilities currently housed in the Mattin Center. That is not a satisfactory solution. Dance practice studios might be appropriately relocated, but the large drum sets, grand pianos and equipment in the Visual Arts building should not and cannot be feasibly rerouted to the Rec Center. Needless to say, a theater in the gym would be an impossible feat.
I’m incredibly concerned about the location of an interim theater space. Arellano is the most likely location. But as the other main theater space on campus, it already hosts five theatrical productions every year, as well as a number of comedy shows. The space is also used for classes, tutoring, sorority events and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. While it was the original home for theater groups, Arellano is basically a classroom, with too many entities sharing the space. Its technical features are also limited.
Relocating to Arellano would mean fewer productions for every theater and comedy group on campus, with fewer cast members and fewer behind-the-scenes opportunities. Up to 50 people can work behind the scenes of a mainstage production in Swirnow, doing everything from hanging lights to stage management to building the set. In Arellano, most of those people would be unable to participate. And for the few who could, the space’s constraints would leave few opportunities for design.
At the same time, I share the hope for a new student center with its advocates. A centralized student space with revamped arts facilities would bring the arts into the center of student life at Hopkins. It would provide a real lobby for the theater and dance spaces, instead of an obscure entrance behind Bamboo Café.
I’m excited for a new, real theater space and bigger practice rooms. As much as I love Swirnow, it bears the marks of a space designed by people who knew or cared little about theater. The ceilings are a foot too low, making it difficult to hang lights. The entire theater is oriented sideways, so the booth can barely see the stage. For some reason, there’s a totally inaccessible box office behind the Bamboo kitchen. The construction of a new space is an opportunity to improve upon these problems, but this will not happen without proper input from students and the technical director of Swirnow.
I want this project to succeed because I want to give future students access to the same opportunities that I’ve been so lucky to experience. But the building won’t be finished until long after we’re gone, and the administration’s primary responsibilities are to current students, not to future ones.
Swirnow Theater has been for me what a student center should be for everyone: a home outside of academics, a refuge. I don’t know what I would do without it. That I can’t imagine my life at Hopkins without Mattin is a testament to how important these spaces can be for the entire community and of how necessary a student center is. But it’s also a reminder of how much is at stake.
Sophia Lipkin is a freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y. majoring in International Studies and Mathematics. She is involved in Barnstormers and Witness Theater.