Community reacts to Colonial theater plans

by Laura King / Beacon Staff • October 15, 2015

Community members, both of the college and in the greater Boston area, have expressed outrage at the possibility of Emerson’s Colonial Theatre ceasing to be a historic space for performing arts.

The college announced in September that they would be ending their relationship with the Citi Performing Arts Center, which has operated out of the theater since 2012. At the time, President M. Lee Pelton said the college was going to reevaluate the use of the space, but that no decisions on the future of the theater had been made.

In response to the lack of information available from the college, an alumnus of Emerson’s performing arts department created a petition on Change.org to show the college how many people cared about the preservation of the theater. Marysa Angelli, 22, graduated from Emerson in 2014 and currently works with Broadway in Boston.

Angelli said she created the petition because she was looking to create dialogue between the college and its community. Currently, the petition has just under 5,500 signatures.

“It’s a mistake if they don’t take other people’s opinions into account,” Angelli said. “It seems like this could be a black mark on Emerson’s reputation.”

Angelli said she doesn’t know what she wants for the space, but she wants the college to discuss the theater’s history and its relevance on the campus before doing anything drastic.

Sydney Mullen, a performing arts alumna from the class of 2010, said she signed the petition out of respect for the theater.

“I feel that historic spaces should be preserved,” Mullen said. “It’s a slap in the face to devalue [the theater] by repurposing it.”

Mullen, 27, also said she would like to know more about the college’s planning process, as she said there are too many rumors.

Some confusion surrounding the college’s planning process stems from documents published by The Boston Globe last week. These outlined the college’s potential plans to turn the theater into a multi-purpose student center.

Pelton said that these proposals represent only one of several options that the college is

looking into. He said the administration had been trying to formulate options for the space by speaking with people of influence in the performing arts world, the Emerson community, and cultural organizations before making any plans public.

“What ensued [when the article was published] was a disruption of a very orderly, thoughtful, information-outreach process,” he said.

According to Pelton, the option released in the Globe article is one way to make the space of better use to the college. The stage would be transformed into a black box theater with a separate entrance, twice the size of the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre in the Paramount Center, and be run directly by the college.

The current seating area will be separated from the stage by a soundproof retractable wall, and turned into a dining facility to replace the one in the Little Building during its renovation. The black box theater would be used for smaller performances, but the college would be able to lift the wall for a larger space when the dining facility is not in use.

Pelton said this plan would not change the historic stage, since the only space that would altered is the seating area.

To keep the Colonial operational, Pelton said the theater is in need of renovations and utility upgrades that would cost the college several million dollars. The college received an annual fee from the Citi Performing Arts Center meant to cover maintenance, but Pelton said this doesn’t cover the cost of these upgrades, even if they were to finance it over the next 20 years.

Pelton said even if the theater didn’t need repairs, there haven’t been enough shows brought into the Colonial in recent years to make it economical. In the past two years, the theater has only been open for about 100 days.

“The Colonial was closed almost six days out of seven,” Pelton said. “And that is a business model that is not sustainable.”

Pelton said that whether they were to renovate the Colonial or go with another plan, the cost would be about the same. He said that raising student tuition to cover these costs is unacceptable, so the college would have to fundraise.

Pelton said nothing will be decided until the Board of Trustees meets to discuss options for the space at the end of the month.

Pelton said he understands the concerns surrounding the theater’s future, but that his main prerogative is to do what’s in the best interest of the college.

“I welcome help and counsel of [the Emerson community] to provide the best answers to that question,” Pelton said.