Alumnae Bulletin May 2009

A venue for performance

At one point last summer, anyone stepping into the 81-year-old Marjorie Goodhart Hall would have met a strange sight. A giant pile of dusty old props, costumes, and scrap material, nearly 15 feet tall, sat on the middle of the stage, and it was still growing. Goodhart Hall is undergoing a major renovation, its first since the building was built in 1928, and it required a massive spring cleaning effort.

"It was quite incredible," says theater director Mark Lord. "We found more old wooden chairs than you could even imagine. Since we're total scavengers, always reusing old stuff, we were pretty excited."

Now that Goodhart's bones are laid bare, it is amazing to consider what Lord and technical director Hiroshi Iwasaki have created over the years. The theater's main stage is quite small by contemporary standards, and its narrow proscenium arch has created design problems. Lord and Iwasaki's signature style of staging performances in unusual, out-of-the-way spaces in the theater and around campus often started in response to Goodhart's limitations. "It's really marked my development as a director," says Lord.

But with growing student interest in the theater program, Goodhart needed to evolve. In the spring of 2007, a $19 million overhaul was approved under the Challenging Women Campaign, and Goodhart is scheduled to reopen in the fall. A new dance studio and an outdoor theater space were eliminated from preliminary proposals.

"We've been incapable of honoring student demands for theater, and this means we can grow," says Lord. "It's a big, beautiful pamphlet in the middle of campus that says, ‘We care about the arts'."

Revolutionary forms

A look at the history of dance at Bryn Mawr reveals an intriguing interest in new, often revolutionary forms of the art. At the turn of the last century Bryn Mawr taught forms that were out of the mainstream, including the Delsarte Aesthetic Movement, interpretive dancing, and the movement and music improvisation of Dalcroze's Eurhythmics.

In 1928, body mechanics and natural dancing were added to the curriculum, inspired by seminal modern dancer Isadora Duncan. At the time, dance courses were offered by the physical education department. The introduction of modern techniques were strongly encouraged by a series of dedicated instructors in the late 1950s. Through their efforts, Dance Composition was offered as the first academic course in dance at Bryn Mawr.

In the first half of the 20th century, star dancers and choreographers like Ruth St. Denis, Mary Wigman, and Doris Humphrey performed on Goodhart's stage. The Ballet Society, then a neophyte American ballet troupe, chose Goodhart to debut Serenade, a new work by their young resident choreographer and director, George Balanchine.

Several alumnae have gone onto notable careers in dance, including Gertrude Kurath '22, M.A. '28, a pioneer in the field of dance ethnology; Anna Kisselgoff '58, former chief dance critic for the New York Times; and Senta Driver '64, dancer and choreographer. In 1984, dance found its home within the newly formed Arts Program. The department now instructs hundreds of students each year, and offers both a minor and the opportunity to apply for a major in Dance.

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The interior transformation of Marjorie Walter Goodhart Hall, one of the largest capital renovation projects in the College's history, is scheduled to be completed in August. The Alumnae Bulletin took a hardhat tour this spring with College Engineer James McGaffin and Assistant Director for Maintenance and Operations Harold Maryea to "see the bones" of two new stages, better music practice rooms, classrooms, offices, and other much-needed support spaces.

The original plumbing, electrical, and heating and ventilation systems from 1928 have been replaced, and the building will be in compliance with fire, safety and accessibility codes. An elevator will provide wheelchair access to the two lower levels. A movable platform will run from the front of the main auditorium to the righthand side of the stage, where people can step or roll onto a platform that will take them up to stage level.

A portion of the building between the back of the existing stage and the Common Room wing has been removed to make way for a new, smaller teaching theater.

"We have worked closely with the arts faculty to assess their needs," said Director of Facilities Services Glenn Smith. "For the teaching theater, the arts program decided against a traditional black-box. Instead it will reach out to and embrace the interior and exterior spaces that surround it." A Juliet balcony overlooks the lawn stretching toward Pen y Groes, two corner windows at roof level let in natural light, and a glass folding door partition between the theater and glassed in lobby faces Thomas and Rhys Carpenter.

This addition will be faced with limestone that is similar in color but not identical to the Wissahickon schist that cloaks the original building.

"This is in keeping with contemporary principles of historic preservation and renovation. The addition will be harmonious with the existing structure, but it won't be disguised as the product of an earlier era," said Joseph Marra, the College architect and assistant director of facilities for planning and projects. "It makes the history of the building visible and ensures that we do justice to our own time."

The main auditorium stage will extend over what are now the first several rows of seats for a 40-feet-wide and 40-feet-deep performance space, pulling it much closer to the audience. "The balcony seats may be the best ones in the house now," said McGaffin. The cast iron seats are being refurbished, seats will replace the church pews in the balcony, and there will be new curtains and rigging. Both stages will have modern catwalks, lighting and acoustics.

Below the stages will be two full dressing rooms with showers and a flex room for a greenroom or third dressing room, and below those a rehearsal studio. On the two lower levels will be a smart classroom, four music practice rooms, scene and costume workshops, and offices. "The old dressing rooms up the spiral staircase at the top were really nothing more than a couple of closets," McGaffin said. No one's going to be in a closet any more or sharing space with costumes or instruments."

The Music Room will have new electrical and mechanical systems but no changes will be made in its features other than refurbishing the plaster and refinishing the floor. The organ, which works, will be tested again after construction is completed.

McGaffin said that many of the construction workers regard the project as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. "Most come in for only a short duration of time," he said, "but they're very interested in the use of this building, so we have been taking the time to give them a sense of the whole with old photographs and preliminary renderings."