Colonial’s closure an unavoidable growing pain

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • October 15, 2015

At issue: College's vague plan for Colonial Theatre draws criticism. 

Our Take: Leave the drama on the stage and see a bigger picture.

Over 100 years ago the Colonial Theatre was created to provide a needed space for performance and community cohesion. It was built to fill a need in Downtown Boston and it fulfilled that obligation and then some. Since its inception, it has provided professionals with a space for artistic risk and given the neighborhood access to new performances. Today, ten decades later, Emerson College alone has five theaters, not including the Colonial. The needs of students have, inevitably, changed in that time. 

While it might never seem like enough to some, it is reasonable to say that the campus has built or renovated a decent amount of performance spaces that serve the Boston community and Emerson’s academic needs. Still, with leaked plans published by The Boston Globe outlining a potential repurposing of the historic theater, many have decried the proposed plans.

Just like many other schools in Boston, Emerson has a space issue: students and faculty chafe under the college’s lack of space. Students of all majors often call for rooms for social purposes—a recreational lounge, a larger study hall, an expanded dining option—and more meeting rooms. Several performing arts organizations compete for limited (and expensive) performance space, often resorting to putting on full productions in the Cabaret. Students matriculate at Emerson to learn from and engage with industry leaders, and this goal has a practical need: more space.

According to President M. Lee Pelton, the Colonial Theatre is only operational 100 out of 365 days in a year. From a financial standpoint, these statistics are grim, and were the history of the theater not so incredible, any business would be obliged to reevaluate its use. But, Emerson is an educational institution, and a theatre school based in Boston’s Theater District. The artistic onus is outweighed by a bleak reality. Despite the theater’s storied past, at present it’s a money pit, one that we’re all footing the bill for while reaping few of the rewards.

Keeping the Colonial open comes with an—er—crowd of costs. Were the school to continue using the theater, it ought to be actually used for shows. Instead, according to Pelton, it remains dark for the majority of any given year and instead requires millions of dollars to remain even basically functional. In an ideal world, artistic integrity wouldn’t have to reckon with such a stark financial reality, but Emerson is an institution of higher education. Our school is bursting at the seams, and, with construction of the new residence hall and renovation of the Little Building, will soon lack critical space to educate the students that aspire to create much of the same work that made the Colonial Theatre so famous.

It is encouraging and impressive that 5,500 people were willing to sign a petition to save the theater. Pelton has shown a willingness to listen to the community’s ideas on this issue, so rather than insisting that the theater be left alone, critics should engage in a dialogue that takes into account the present and future needs of the college. Emerson’s dedication to Boston’s Theater District and performing arts community has been proved ten fold— through ArtsEmerson, through Emerson Stage, through the school’s innovative theatre education program, and more. It’s incumbent upon us all to think of the theater’s stake in Emerson’s future, not in history books.

The Colonial Theatre is beautiful and its historical significance cannot be forgotten, but neither can the requirements of the education institution that funds it. The theater need not stand as it is today for its history to be preserved, and it deserves a second life that serves students who can benefit from its remodeling many more months out of the year. 

Change is the only constant. At a school that otherwise values progressive actions and moves ahead of the curve, this change remains a point of conflict, which is not a bad thing. We all ought to be passionate and vocal about changes facing our school and our community. But we can only preserve small pieces of the past to ensure a realistic and steadfast route to the future. The Colonial deserves better and so do we.