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Springfield gets a very Springfield arts hall
February 2, 1984
What an awful title. One of mine, I'm afraid.
This opinion column (in fact a backgrounder) was a companion to a report I made about the new performing arts auditorium at Springfield's Sangamon State University, which can be read here. As is the case with so many of these pieces, there is a good deal of what we must now describe as history in this account of how that auditorium came to be.
This version differs from the original in no important way.
In the 1960s, Springfield suffered a frenzy of uplift, and not a moment too soon. Not only did it lack a major college, a shopping mall, and other accouterments of the advanced metropolis, it could not boast of a performing arts facility worthy of the name. Its local symphony sawed away in a high school auditorium, and a fledgling ballet company was banished to the local Masonic Temple.
The issue became one of civic pride. A reference in Look magazine in 1969 to Springfield as an "archetypal rural state capital" left the city's sophisticates without a defense: After all, what could be more rural than listening to Beethoven in a high school? Influential locals, forgetting the presence since the 1870s of the vausevile theater known as the Illinois statehouse, began complaining that a major state capital without a proper performing arts hall was a disgrace.
Thus it was that Springfield's upper crust went off half-baked, as it were, and decided that an arts auditorium would be good for Springfield. (One of the endearing traits of civic-minded elites is their assumption that what they want is good for their communities; the habit is traceable, I suspect, to their lifelong use of the patrician "we" instead of "I." )
Most of the agitation came from the patrons of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. Local business and professional men had long been generous in their support of the SSO, whose programs for thirty years even came to resemble the bonds portfolios of its backers—safe, but generating very little interest. Sadly, most of Springfield's potential multimillionaires apparently either emigrated as young men or never got out of reform school in the first place and thus never realized their promise.
The solution was to make the taxpayers pay for it. In the late 1960s, plans for a downtown convention center were expanded to include a "civic theater." Master plans for the city's two new colleges—Lincoln Land Community College and Sangamon State University—called for construction of modest auditoriums. But even the larger of these, the one planned for SSU, was too small for general public use. So hopes were pinned on the Convention Center.
Alas, a combined exhibition and performing-arts facility quickly proved too costly. In 1975, when ground was finally broken, members of the convention center board acknowledged that the building was unsuited for any event more demanding acoustically than an ice show. Sniffed the Illinois Times in an editorial, "Springfield has chosen to cater to the pocketbook, not the intellect."
Thus thwarted, local arts backers turned again to SSU. Design of the school's auditorium had already been completed when local arts lovers lobbied the General Assembly for a further $2.7 million to enlarge the facility from 1,200 to 2,000 seats. There was a face-saving quid pro quo demanded by the General Assembly: The state would furnish a building, but locals would have to equip it with lighting, a stage lift, and other appurtenances.
Thus did SSU, whose enrollments were running as much below projections as costs for the auditorium were to run ahead of them, acquire a first-class performing arts facility as part of its $20 million Public Affairs Center (PAC). The burghers of Springfield once again were able to look their cousins from Fort Wayne in the eye.
It's a nice place, considering that it had to be built by lowest bidders. Niggardly funding by the General Assembly forced architects to use cheaper split-faced concrete block as the basic building material inside the hall instead of the brick which graces the rest of the building, with the result that the space puts one in mind of power stations in Minsk. The obligatory red carpet doesn't add elegance, just incongruity. And its distance from the city proper has stirred complaints from some patrons who seldom venture from the 62704 Zip Code area without first reminding their families where they put their wills.
It is also true that the PAC itself, like the university, suffers from needless structural complexity resulting from its ambiguous mandate. There is a sizable segment of the community (mainly male) which finds the prospect of Brahms so harrowing that it feels the need of some pre-concert calmative, preferably on ice. For a while, the auditorium management humanely made available a cash bar in the PAC's Atrium Lounge before performances. The lounge is one of the building's successes, a balcony with a view of the main lobby below and a looming skylight above. Indeed, after two drinks, one can get positively metaphysical. Trouble was, patrons had trouble finding it. This is surprising, considering the ease with which many first-nighters navigate the twisty corridors of the income tax code. The bar was moved into the main lobby.
Still, one must count the auditorium a qualified success. The acoustics are balanced and accurate, if a little thin in the lower register. The seats are comfortable, the stage commodious, the support facilities sufficient to their tasks. But while the issue of what the auditorium has meant to Springfield remains a lively topic, a more pertinent question is asked less often, in fact hardly at all. That is, what has the auditorium meant to SSU?
Part of the answer is buried deep on Level I of the PAC. Few of the public have seen it. It is a studio theater, designed for experimental stage productions, a box of a room which might accommodate on movable bleacher-type seats, ringed on all sides by a railed balcony. In its scale and flexibility it is more in keeping with SSU's own mandate than the 2,000-seat auditorium which sits atop it like a hen on an unhatched egg.
The studio theater has mounted no performances, however. It has no proper floor, lights, or rigging. In a sense the theater is the legacy of SSU theater director Guy Romans, who died unexpectedly not long ago. Romans was controversial, ambitious, and egotistical. (A student newspaper parody of one of Romans' courses was titled "The Effect of Me Upon the Universe.") Romans' entrance onto Springfield's staid arts community was like a cherry bomb going off in the paté.
SSU professor Regan Smith is planning to revive the theater program dormant since Romans' death, with a production this spring of Madwoman of Chaillot. It will not be staged in the studio theater, however. Smith told me the other day, "When they were building the PAC, they had to cut some money out, so they cut all that stuff out of the studio theater. There's nothing there now but bare conduit." When and if the auditorium is able to raise the funds to replace its temporary lighting system upstairs, those lights will be available for use in the studio theater, but how long it will be before that happens is impossible to say.
Smith insists that SSU is committed to theater. "Theater is public affairs," Smith explains, referring to the university's original mandate, "and that's the way Guy always saw it." However, Smith sees little likelihood of the university outfitting the studio theater any time soon; there simply isn't the money. As a result, Smith will put on his Madwoman in Brookens Auditorium in the university's library, on a stage more fit for lectures.
Why not use the auditorium stage upstairs? ' 'Scheduling would be a problem," notes Smith. More to the point, "It's too big. There's no way we're going to be able to go on that scale." The auditorium was not built for drama, he says, but for "the big shows, the panoramas." Scale has its effect on actors as well. "If you're an actor and you have to play to a semi-full house, well, you can understand how you'd feel."
In short, SSU has one performing arts facility which is too big for its needs, and the one which is appropriate to its needs lies unfinished. Revealingly, when the university's foundation organized a fund drive in 1982, it was to finish the public's auditorium upstairs, not the university's theater in the basement.
The rationale in favor of a larger hall at SSU was never made explicit, for the simple reason that it didn't exist. Unable to speak the truth plainly without rousing the ire of taxpayers across the state, the parties involved resorted to mumbling, even in print. Consider this remarkably opaque statement from the firm which designed the PAC: "The fine arts component of the building does not represent an independent or freestanding function, but has an integral academic focus, taking its character and essence from the fact that it is part of a comprehensive university community resource." The university in its own descriptions of the facility does not even hint at any "academic focus," integral or otherwise.
SSU finds itself with a hall it didn't want and which it can barely afford. SSU has appropriated some auditorium dressing rooms for use by its soccer team. And more backstage space will apparently be lost to Convocom, a TV consortium of which SSU is a member, which will beam enlightenment to the savages of Pike County. The university's situation reminds me of newlyweds who must eat out of chafing dishes because no one thought to buy them plates. ●
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