Raising the Roof

By Rachel L. Stinson ’08


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Cookie Ewing directs Alicia Queen ’10 and Zac Hill ’08 in the new studio

“Theater Is Life,” declares a display in the lobby of McCoy Theatre. Below the title, rather than actors’ headshots or programs from previous shows, students’ words take center stage. For Jonathan Wigand ’08, “Theater is the only one of the arts that communicates to all the senses. Theater looks and sounds and smells and touches and feels, but most important of all, theater speaks.” Now, with recent additions to McCoy that have doubled its size, theater at Rhodes speaks more loudly than ever.

“A student last year said that in a way it was like living in a divorced family because we were split up—we had faculty here, there and everywhere,” says Julia “Cookie” Ewing, chair of the Theatre Department. During the last week of classes in late April 2006, the costume shop moved from the basement of Kennedy to McCoy, and the theater professors moved into their offices, all under one roof. “Now we’re a divorced family that has remarried,” she explains. “We have come together again, and the energy has been very exciting.”

Among the grandest additions are a classroom and a second auditorium that is used as the rehearsal classroom. The new auditorium’s floor is more conducive to the movement required in acting; rather than being made of cement, the spring floor includes foam under the surface. McCoy also has a new costume shop (the old one was in the basement of Kennedy), five faculty offices, two bathrooms, an outdoor stage for alternative performance space and a loading dock with a nearby storage area for set materials. A new laundry/dye room means that the bathroom sinks will never be rainbow-colored again. The greenroom, which used to double as a classroom, has been restored to its original purpose.

In the past, the Theatre Department rehearsed in any available space, including Clough’s Orgill Room and the basement of Kennedy. “If you were a tall person and reached up, you were going to put your hand through the acoustical tile; it was very claustrophobic,” Ewing says of Kennedy. Now, she has tall ceilings.

The recent construction isn’t the only time the building has benefited from a facelift. Before McCoy was McCoy, it was the 3,600-square-foot Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house built in 1950. A 5,000-squarefoot addition was required to convert the building to McCoy Theatre, named for the founder of the McCoy Foundation, Memphis real estate developer Harry B. McCoy. Dedicated in January 1982, it was the college’s first fully-equipped drama facility. But five years later, the department had already outgrown the theater. McCoy’s second round of intense construction—which started in July 2005 and ended in April 2006—was also made possible through the McCoy Foundation.

During McCoy’s most recent construction, “We kept looking at our watches, looking at our calendars, just itching to get in there,” recalls Kevin Collier, managing director. “The second it was open, the students acclimated immediately. Hearing them call it ‘our space’ was rewarding.”

He continues, “There are so many exciting things, but I think the greatest is having everyone together. Because our facilities were scattered around campus, the creative energy also dissipated. And now everyone is in one place. Communication is better and the students can find us. Before, students who didn’t really know the department would come to McCoy looking for all the theater professors, and we had to say, ‘Oh, they’re in the chemistry building.’ Now they’re just down the hall.”

Ewing is equally excited.

“Students can hang out here, and they can see us if they need to,” she says. “It used to be a problem because, for me, they would have to meet with me and walk with me as I would go from class to class; my office hours would be spent traveling.”

Sara Rutherford ’07, a theater/English double major, can attest to the students’ positive feelings toward the improved theater. Rutherford, who is involved behind the scenes with designing and writing, decided to pursue theater after taking a class her sophomore year. “Then, I got hooked,” she explains.

Today, she enjoys being a part of what she describes as a “tight-knit” group—a group that no longer has to be in a tight area.

“I’m a senior now, and granted I won’t be able to use the space as much as incoming students, but it unifies the theater community more,” she says.

Rutherford is most excited about designing for the studio area.

“The new space has already offered a lot of opportunities for theater students,” she says. “We don’t have a very large group, but we do have one large enough that we need a big theater. We never would have had the opportunity in the old space for a play reading, like the ‘Playwrights Series,’ to be going on at the same time as rehearsals for an upcoming show because we simply didn’t have the room for it; we had to go somewhere else. Now, we can commune in the same building and explore different avenues in theater.”

The “Playwrights Series,” which began last year, brings together the Theatre and English departments; students, faculty and alumni congregate to read—and sometimes perform—works written by students in English professor Stephen Schottenfeld’s play-writing class.

Another theater major, Jason Hansen ’08, can appreciate the addition from an actor’s point of view.

“We can now rehearse, perform, store, work, design, construct, sew and learn under the same roof,” he says. “I feel incredibly fortunate to be here at this time, experiencing the first year in this brand-new space and discovering possibilities that were not available in the past.”

Hansen says that his involvement in the Theatre Department has become much more comprehensive because “Now, everything is at the fingertips of the students. It is better than we could have hoped and gives us space to realize new dreams within it. With this production hall, we now have the potential to become a powerful theatrical center in the Memphis community and the Mid-South.”

For Hansen, the most exciting aspect of the new space “comes from its ability to realize artistic endeavors more completely than previously possible at Rhodes.” He adds, “We are the place where ideas move out of books and into the world, realized by students for the benefit of other students. We now have room to grow. Hopefully, this expansion will allow the campus community to come and be involved. We are all part of this theater.”

Collier, a 1991 Rhodes theater graduate, credits the department for kindling his passion.

“I came in as a political science major, and then I changed to English probably in the middle of my freshman year. I turned that into a bridge major with theater and fiction writing, and I didn’t really get involved in theater until my junior year,” he recalls. “But when I did get involved, it quickly changed my life. People sometimes treat each department as having its own clique, but the theater crowd—then and now—has always been very welcoming. Once you’re in, it becomes a part of your life.”

When Collier took up theater, he was halfway through college. Still, everyone treated him as if he’d always been there, especially the late Tony Garner, Rhodes’ artistic director of theater and chairman of the former Theatre and Media Arts Department.

“In my junior year, I had mono and a car wreck, and I missed a lot of classes,” Collier explains. “And this professor who did not know me could have pegged me as a problem child, but he made sure I was OK. He made sure I kept up with my classes and that I knew what was going on because he cared about the students.”

Now Collier works in the same building in which he was a student. “It’s a lot of fun because I see students going through the same things that I went through,” he says.

McCoy’s new spaces are essential to the production of the three annual performances in the subscription series. This year, Waiting for Godot and Dancing at Lughnasa took place in the fall, while Agnes of God will be a spring 2007 production.

“There is something going on almost every weekend,” Ewing says, so the extra room certainly makes the department’s hectic schedule more bearable. She adds, “We’re very excited about this season. It feels like Christmas morning every day. I’m just having a good time; I think the students are having a good time.”

The improved McCoy will undoubtedly help attract visiting artists, as well. Prior to the construction, there was limited room for artists to conduct workshops. “Now we have some place to attract them,” Ewing says.

Even non-Rhodes students can appreciate the theater. According to Collier, “A lot of high-school students have come through, particularly last summer on college tours, and when they see the front part of the theater, they say, ‘OK.’ Then they keep walking, and they’re saying, ‘Oh, look at that! And look at that!’ It opens up the possibilities of what could happen, and it’s obviously reflected in the students’ faces when they see it.”

Ewing adds, “The level of the bar has been raised here, and I think we’ve reached a point now where we can go, ‘Wow! We can go up again and move forward!’”

For Collier, “Once you raise the roof, it makes everything more possible.”

Ewing smiles. “So we’re raising the roof.”

According to Ewing, people come to the theater to be entertained, “But they leave with something deeper.” She continues, “I heard a man say a couple of years ago that in any intelligent community you must have scientists and artists. We have to have the scientists to ask questions and say what ‘is,’ and you have to have the artists to challenge that.”