Subscribe to The Brown Daily Herald Newsletter

Sign up for The Brown Daily Herald’s daily newsletter to stay up to date with what is happening at Brown and on College Hill no matter where you are right now!

Subscribe

Columns, Opinions

Performance spaces at Brown have historically been inaccessible to student groups — it’s time for the PAC to change that

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, November 1, 2020

Construction for Brown’s new Performing Arts Center is well underway. Students are eager to return to campus once it is safe to do so, and reconnecting with performing arts groups will be a priority for many seeking to rebuild their college communities and make up the time lost to COVID-19. However, the University has historically failed to provide accessible infrastructure to support artistic groups on campus. The opening of the PAC presents an ideal opportunity to re-engage with student performers who indicated excitement about the building when designs were announced, but in recent times have felt their needs ignored. Looking forward, Brown should incorporate student voices into the administration of the PAC, so that it can truly fulfill its mission to “inspire innovative art-making, enable new forms of artistic collaboration and serve as a hub for performance at Brown.”

It’s no secret to students like Lily Edgerton ’21, artistic director of Fusion and co-director of Brown’s student dance association, Body and Sole, that “one of the largest issues (amongst) dance groups has always been space.” There are few campus spaces that are accessible to student groups and have suitable equipment for rehearsals. For the 22 student dance groups at Brown, only five rooms available for booking have adequate floors, mirrors and functioning audio systems. Time within these spaces is highly coveted for dance groups, and if one group has a last minute cancellation, “there is always another dance group ready to take that space,” says Attitude’s co-director, Eve Lukens-Day ’21. Moreover, some groups require certain safety features  for practice spaces, such as Brown Aerial and Acrobatics and the Poler Bears. Divya Maniar ’21, artistic director of the Poler Bears, explains that their group has had to move almost all rehearsals and performances to a private studio in Pawtucket because “there aren’t enough spaces on campus that can accommodate us.” This makes it difficult to host public events like workshops, and means that performances are mostly attended by close friends and followers of the performers.   

Meanwhile, the TAPS department offers five performance spaces, but according to TAPS lecturer and Production Director Barbara Reo, the department struggles to grant student groups greater access to these spaces in part because of limited adequate space and understaffing. As a result, student groups are consistently granted the lowest priority for access to the limited number of spaces.

Of all these spaces, student groups have limited access only to Ashamu Dance Studio, which the department struggles to accommodate on top of all the dance classes, performances and research that can only be done in their one studio. Student groups are given the lowest priority in terms of space access, which has resulted in those like Edgerton feeling a “lack of cohesive communication between student groups and the TAPS department” that is compounded by the lack of available staff. In the view of some student artistic leaders on campus, these problems are perpetuated by a lack of sufficient funding for the department. 

And while the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts boasts three flexible production spaces as well as a 200 seat auditorium, none of them are regularly accessible to student performance groups, like Shakespeare on the Green. As former board member Caroline Sprague ’20.5 explains, they would “always get the requests denied even when it showed on the calendar that there was availability.” Reo believes that this may be due to a shortage in staff who would be able to supervise students’ use of the space. In fact, Reo underscores that for TAPS as well as the Granoff Center, “it’s not that the buildings aren’t available, it’s that there aren’t enough staff to manage them.” 

As such, student groups must compete for time in Alumnae Hall, or hold performances in the MacMillan lecture hall or Salomon DECI Auditorium, whose stages are not designed for performance and are too small to accommodate large group performances. This is particularly frustrating for student groups, as Edgerton ’21 explains. “These (student) groups are giving people opportunities that departments do not provide and yet they’re being shoved in the smaller places … that don’t have the same resources.”

These frustrations have existed for years, and many students have reached a point where it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the effort to try to access TAPS or Granoff spaces. Reo echoed most of the same frustrations in being unable to accommodate students and fearing that the PAC will, like the Granoff, “become another space that is siloed.” 

The absence of a mutually supportive relationship between student performers and the University is detrimental to both, but Edgerton says that “it doesn’t have to be so polarized.” The new PAC will host more spaces specifically designed for performance, which could allow both student groups and arts departments to work together. In fact, the PAC website mentions it will “offer spaces for student groups and other collaborative endeavors,” though no further specifics on the distribution of these facilities have been shared.  

However, as Sprague reflected, there does not seem to be substantial trust amongst the student artistic community that the PAC will be accessible to student performance groups. It is gratifying to know that arts concentrators and student groups were invited to participate in stakeholder engagement for the PAC, conducted in 2017 and 2018, according to University Spokesperson Brian Clark. But current student leaders have not been offered an avenue to voice their concerns about the planned facilitation of the building and its spaces once it opens. Maniar explains that her group never saw the PAC’s “construction as a means by which we would get more campus spaces to perform,” but the University may be able to change this popular sentiment by properly incorporating student group concerns into not only the design, but also the administration of the PAC once it opens. 

While not all student groups on campus have had the same level of difficulty gaining access to rehearsal space, student leaders within the dance and theatre communities continue to voice many of the same frustrations, which certainly suggests that Brown could be doing much better to build trust with students interested in performing. No simple solution exists, but Reo says that now, as the PAC nears completion, “this is an opportunity to change. … In particular, the staffing structure needs to be looked at in the arts.” Sprague echoed the sentiment that developing a better staffing model for these spaces would create “the institutional memory to pass on resources and information about accessing space.” It would require significant communication between people with different needs and missions, but if the PAC can fulfill its mission to serve as a hub for not just arts creation, but arts coordination, we may have a fighting chance at making Brown an accessible home for the arts.  

If Brown wants to be seen as a center for artistic collaboration, it needs to start treating its student groups with the respect that they deserve by more actively including their voices in decision making and supporting their needs to access spaces on campus.  

Beth Pollard ’21 can be reached at beth_pollard@brown.edu. She is co-president of Brown Aerial and Acrobatics and is the recipient of a Brown Arts Initiative student grant/fellowship. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*