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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

“Because I Want Us to Survive”

When you go to a play in the McCormack Theatre this year you probably wouldn’t guess how close the theatre came to being shut down. But thanks to the efforts of Professor Ron Nash, director of the Division of Communication and Theatre Arts, the theatre is open, both for classes and shows.

On May 30, 2001, Nash received a memo from Bill Cantwell, UMB’s Fire Safety Specialist regarding an inspection by Eugene Novak, a Massachusetts state building inspector. The memo noted that the inspector had “expressed concern about a number of conditions” in the McCormack Auditorium. The memo listed nine building violations, but stated that the “inspector will not forbid the use of the auditorium at this time, but the use of the workshop area is not allowed until all of the violations have been corrected.”

Nash points out that the normal inspector was ill, and Novak was new. “I’ve had three or four inspections in the last six years … Eugene Novak wanted to see the questionable areas.” Nash has worked at UMB for 13 years and points out that normally the inspector overlooks minor infractions, taking into account that it is a theatre and most items are being stored temporarily.

The violations mainly focused on the “corrider space between the workroom and the stage on both sides.” These are the areas in the wings of the theatre, out of sight of the audience, where”use of combustible construction, obstruction of sprinkler heads, lack of lighting and obstruction of the emergency exits from the workroom” were cited as building code violations.

“Our budgets keep getting cut, and I was storing those things to save money, so that when we build our next show I would have building materials on hand,” Nash explains. “So, in the future, I won’t be able to keep those things on hand, and our costs will go up.” Nash adds, “Two and half years ago I was paying $10.50 for a sheet of three-quarter inch plywood, now I’m paying $22.”

The workshop space itself was specifically noted, with further obstructions and general clutter being pointed out. The inspector was quoted in the memo as citing, “this room is one extremely dangerous hazard.” Various other minor violations were noted, including: condition of fire hose cabinet; various electrical junction boxes without covers, and the stability of proscenium arch.

Discussing that the proscenium arch’s stability was questioned, (the proscenium arch is the arch at the front of the stage), Nash reports that he just straightened the masks hung at the center of the arch. “I knew what it was as soon as he said it. It was an optical illusion. He’s not a theatre person, he’s a fire inspector.

“So they waited until school was out, I had no help,” Nash later explained as he relived the cleanup effort. “They said basically, ‘You have to get all this done by September 1, or we’re going to lock you down. You won’t be allowed to have any classes in that space.'”

Nash had numerous other obligations to attend to over the summer, including teaching at the UMB Playwriting Workshop on Nantucket, from June 17 until July 9, and participating as a chief facilitator in a playwriting conference in New York. “I had to be there, this was a big deal. But I had to put them off for a week. Thank God they were able to change my time slot. I was supposed to go for three weeks and I was only able to go for two. Which was a nice thing for the school, because I’m a representative of the University to run this workshop in playwriting.”

Nash recounts that he spent 60 hours the first week clearing objects from the cited areas, and filled an entire dumpster. Then he went to Nantucket for three weeks, and when he returned he spent three more weeks working to meet the inspector’s criterea, filling the dumpster another two times. “Since it was a fixing operation, they didn’t charge Theatre Arts. Thank God facilities paid for it.” Nash mentions that there used to be a dumpster on site at all times, but since budgets have become tight there are only dumpsters available for specifically requested purposes.

“I had to throw out approximately $50,000 worth of furniture, property, props…” Nash explains they were saving the building materials and property in an effort to save money. By saving the props and building materials the Theatre Department was able to reuse the materials for various pruductions and reduce overall costs. “If you can’t save things, you can’t. I decided to make it a positive thing, because I want to survive, and I want us to survive. So, the shop is empty. It’s got tools, it’s got paint, and it’s got lighting instruments, and nothing else is in there. So we’re starting all over.”

Nash exclaimed, “He didn’t even think we had safety goggles, we have 10 of them.” Nash also details that they normally mix a fire-retardant with the paint that they apply, or spray the fire-retardant on separately.

The Theatre Department still has limited storage space, including space in the Upper Level garage. “We have one storage space … it was given to us by the wonderful, and I really mean this, the wonderful graces of Auxiliary Services, and they gave us half a room, which, we keep edging more into their part…”

Nash says he will survive with their limited budget and what little space they have, and that he will build shelving in the left wing and try to use that space, but that he can’t keep anything valuable there because it is exposed.

The workshop, though, is clear and there are unobstructed passages to the fire exits.