Anyone who’s ever been involved in performing arts at UTD loves to complain about the University Theatre. From poor acoustics, to lack of backstage space, to dirty old carpets, there’s a lot of material to work with. As someone whose job for two years was to vacuum those carpets, I can safely say that they have every right to complain. The theatre is in desperate need of an overhaul, and not just because dressing rooms have terrible lighting.
Behind the peeling stage paint of the University Theater, a crew of around ten student workers and two technical directors constructs the set of every play and musical the school puts on. They also run the technical aspects (lights, sound, curtains, etc.) for most School of Arts and Humanities affiliated performances on campus, even those located in the Jonsson Performance Hall and ATEC auditorium (Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Lecture Hall). Despite being an ECS student, while working as a technical theater assistant, I’ve had to become well acquainted with the mechanisms of just about every A&H performance group.
During the last four years, programs like the String Orchestra and University Choir, which aren’t confined solely to A&H students, have seen significant growth. Many of them have had to move their end-of-semester concerts from the ATEC auditorium or Performance Hall to the University Theatre simply because they can’t fit all the students and instruments on a lecture hall sized stage anymore. These instrumental programs themselves have also been stuck practicing in cramped “temporary” classroom buildings for years, because although the University’s Master Plan (last revised in 2018) does allocate space for new arts buildings, no concrete timelines on these potential buildings have been released.
The School of Arts and Humanities enrollment has largely been the same since ATEC splintered off into its own school in 2015, but the performance programs are still somehow growing and improving. Last fall in 2019, the school attempted its first fall musical theater production, The Rocky Horror Show. UTD’s Department of Theatre had put on summer musicals in partnership with local theatre companies before, but never independently. This was an especially ambitious pick for a first musical, because as fans of the show know, it’s packed full of large dance numbers, elaborate costumes, and audience participation that requires its large cast to be unafraid of dancing in nothing but a corset and heels (or even less). There are a lot of little things that can go wrong.
And yet, through the blood, sweat, and tears of dozens of cast and crew members, Rocky Horror managed to sell out the 275-seat theatre every night they performed. And every night, there was a line of students waiting outside, hoping to snag the seat of someone who hadn’t shown up on time for free. This was an extremely uncommon occurrence for UTD. Students can generally show up on time for any play, dance show, or music concert here and get in for free as long as they have their Comet Card. Shows occasionally sell out the night of, but almost never ahead of time. It was so out of left field that some of my coworkers, who had spent weeks working on the set, didn’t even manage to see the show because they hadn’t been expecting to need to get their tickets online.
UTD’s production of The Rocky Horror Show proved that its theatre program had the ability to produce a hit. Through a mix of strong marketing, a big name musical, and many word-of-mouth recommendations, the show was wildly popular among both students and the local community. But the show only ran seven times, from opening night on Halloween to November 9th, and during that time less than two thousand people got the chance to see it. For reference, UTD’s enrollment last year was nearly thirty thousand. Seating capacity alone has placed a massive cap on how much the theatre program is allowed to succeed.
There is literally no space left for our performing arts programs to grow. The University Orchestra, which is a combination of select members of the Wind Ensemble and String Orchestra, barely fits onstage with all of their instruments. Not even including the portable acoustic shells we have to use, since the building was not designed with music in mind. The Backstage is a constant battle to try and find more storage space for the various props, materials, tools, and costumes that we don’t have the budget to frequently replace. If you walk down the stairs on the north or south sides of the theatre, you might notice many of our builds have overflowed outside. Almost all of the lumber is kept outdoors, where the staff just hopes that between a few feet of roof jutting out and a well-placed drain pipe, all of it won’t be lost to water damage.
The theatre itself, however, is in a basement, and has actually undergone significant water damage. Various leaks and floods over the years have led to a lot of the stage floor being warped, which can be hazardous when constructing a two-story set on top of it. Usually this means tall ladders are a little more wobbly than is comfortable when twelve feet in the air, but sometimes it’s even worse than that. The crew often has to use a vertical mast lift, which is essentially a metal crate on wheels that can be climbed into to push a button to go up a couple dozen feet. This is absolutely essential for both constructing larger sets and hanging lights, and it only functions if the sensors find that it’s resting on a completely flat surface, a challenging task when the stage you’re working on is not a flat surface. The lift’s sensors have been jury rigged with a set of bungee cords and hooks to bypass the safety protocol and convince the machine that it’s resting on a flat surface. It’s a less than ideal situation exacerbated by the age of a lot of the equipment in use.
UTD has already proven that it’s not possible to create a school that does nothing but STEM, business, and economics. Even though freshman enrollment in A&H only ranged from 24 to 39 students during the last four years, senior enrollment is consistently five times that number, implying that most A&H students were originally enrolled in a different school at UTD and either changed majors or picked up a second major. It should be noted that due to the way the university classifies seniors, students are often “seniors” for one or two semesters longer than they’re actually fourth-year students, but for reference the proportions of freshmen to seniors in ECS during the last four years has been around 1:2, which is wildly different from 1:5.
Some portion of students will always gravitate towards the arts, even if their university lacks any adequate performance spaces. If the school won’t build a new performance space and give these programs more space to grow, the rest of the student body is going to continue to miss out on everything they have to offer.