February 24, 2003

Building the arts

By Michael Terrazas mterraz@emory.edu

There is a term in the performing arts—“organic”—that refers to the distinctive and highly individual phenomenon of an arts production taking on its own unique personality.

Used particularly often in theater, “making it organic” is what happens when actors are allowed to explore their artistic instincts about a play, the performance of which “grows” out of these choices. This occurs to some extent in virtually all productions, but some directors are particularly devoted to letting the shape of a performance evolve from the singular combination of a work, a group of actors and their talents, and a performance space.

Though it already has played host to a range of impressive, even spectacular, performances, the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for Performing Arts is still somewhat of an empty vessel. Clean, pristine and looking every cent of its nearly $37 million price tag, the Schwartz Center sits regally on N. Decatur Road, awaiting the full and burnished life that will be imbued upon it only through the work and creativity of its inhabitants.

And those inhabitants—specifically, faculty, staff and students involved in Emory’s music, theater and dance programs—are thoroughly enjoying the business of taking this spiritually unadorned canvas and filling it with the rich colors of art and beauty.

“When you look at great facilities where people have come away really thinking, experiencing and talking about the music that happens there—Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall in Boston—none of those halls has any kind of distinct architectural personality,” said Steve Everett, associate professor and chair of music. “The personality is created by the fact that people walk away hearing the music in such a great way that it then becomes something they’re drawn back to.”

Much has been made about the Schwartz Center’s specs—its understatedly elegant Emerson Concert Hall, its performance studios for theater and dance, its rehearsal, classroom and practice spaces—but what really makes the building special is the role it will play in Emory’s educational mission. Similarly accoutred performing arts centers on other campuses often bear the burden of having to pull their own weight economically; indeed, in his previous job at the University of Florida, Schwartz Center Managing Director Bob McKay had to pay his and his employees’ salaries through revenue generated from performances.

But, blessed by the Flora Glenn Candler Series endowment, the Schwartz Center can schedule artists guaranteed to sell tickets—but it is not forced to. It also can allow performing arts faculty and students to grow artistically without having to worry about the bottom line.

“At many universities, the music, dance and theater departments are somewhat stepchildren to the performing arts facility and have a hard time getting access [to perform],” Everett said. “You get that conflict of public appeal versus a pedagogically sound approach to performance growing out of the goals of the department.”

Besides its stated educational purpose, the Schwartz Center also brings with it a deceptively apparent commodity: space itself. To be sure, having first-class facilities in which to showcase their talents is a boon to Emory’s three performing arts departments, but nearly as important is the simple fact that they are free of the logistical burden of having to juggle and rearrange shared space.

“Before, we had to squeeze into available times at the [Mary Gray Munroe Theater] or the Performing Arts Studio,” said Anna Leo, associate professor in the dance program. “Both [the theater and music] departments tried their best to accommodate us, but they have their own packed schedules.”

Dance is able to schedule shows at its own leisure in its own dedicated space; the program also can spread its teaching between studio space in the P.E. Center and now in the Schwartz Center. Everett voiced similar delight for the music department, as did Theater Emory Artistic Director Vincent Murphy.

“The biggest thing is that this is the home for the Playwriting Center [of Theater Emory],” Murphy said. “We just did by far the biggest, most extensive Brave New Works series we’ve ever done—17 major projects incorporating 39 different scripts—and that shows the breadth of things you can do when you have a dedicated space.”

A beautiful irony of the Schwartz Center is that, at the same time it is making life easier for music, theater and dance by separating their needs for space, it is fostering new avenues of artistic collaboration by bringing the departments together, for the first time, under one roof.

“That’s going to make all kinds of things happen,” Murphy said, “because we’ve just never been able to see each other.”

“Inter-Play,” the multidisciplinary performance Murphy directed for the Schwartz Center’s Feb. 1 dedication ceremony, actualized this artistic synergy in a piece that combined talents from all three departments.

“It was great to see a theater alumnus who’s doing vaudeville play off [pianist] Will Ransom,” Murphy said. “And then you had dancers moving up and down the aisles and the orchestra playing; this is just a seed idea of where this kind of thing might go.”

Finally, the Schwartz Center opens untold possibilities for creative/performance faculty to stage their own works. Just last weekend, Feb. 21 and 22, Murphy’s, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, a theatrical adaptation of the poetry of Ted Hughes, premiered in the theater lab. Leo choreographed Triptych for V, a three-part dance concert to be held March 21–23 in the dance studio. And the music department’s performance faculty, from Ransom (Mary Emerson Professor of Piano) to Emory Symphony Orchestra Director Scott Stewart to vocalist Bonnie Pomfret and others, all are appearing in Schwartz Center opening festival events this spring.

“I waited [to premiere Triptych] to be able to perform it in this space,” Leo said. “We’re going to be removing the drapery, trying something new with the space—experimenting with what it can do.”

That’s really what the Schwartz Center is all about: Giving talented faculty and students—and not just in performing arts but in departments such as creative writing and visual arts—a malleable facility which it is their responsibility to bring to life through their work. The smell of new carpet and fresh paint may sensually define the Schwartz Center for now, but before too long its walls will fairly reverberate with the lingering sounds of piano keys and string sections, ghosts of moving bodies and echoes of crisp dialogue.

Talk about organic.






Index Find Help Find Sites Find Jobs Find People Find Events