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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Last Act for UMB Theater Department?

Backstage at the McCormack Theatre.
Backstage at the McCormack Theatre.

Will the theater department program at UMass Boston survive into next year? As of now, there are three full-time faculty members in the department. Two of these, Chairperson and Professor Ron Nash and Dr. Diane Almeida, are retiring at the end of this year, leaving Professor John Conlon as the only full-time theatre professor. Nash has written a critical needs vacancy letter to the new the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Louise Smith and expects a response soon. However, given the cutbacks statewide and the recent hiring freeze announced at UMass Boston, the theater department is not assured of anything.

Even if the administration agrees to hire part-time faculty, Nash said, “In theater we cannot work [solely] with part-timers because students need mentors. We [Nash, Almeida and Conlon] work closely with a lot of students. Three part-timers would come in, because they’re professional people in the theater and they would teach their classes well and then they would leave. They’re not going to be here ten hours. They’re not going to do rehearsals. They’re not going to sit down with a student and talk about that student’s personal problems.”

As it stands, the theater department is understaffed and underfunded. They can’t offer required courses every semester because the teachers can only handle a limited course-load. The budget allocated for the Drama Workshop, a course in which students learn all facets of putting on a production, from making the stage, lighting, public relations and acting – is roughly the same as it was thirteen years ago, according to Nash. He explained that the money the administration allocates to workshop production is roughly $6,000 a year while it now costs approximately $20,000 dollars a year for their two annual productions. By soliciting advertisements and donations and carry-over money from past productions, students and faculty raise the difference.

“Workshops don’t always make money either,” said Nash. While last year’s production of MacBeth made money, the most recent workshop Three Plays of Prejudic, a somber but potent production, did not. The production, directed by Nash, consisted of three one-act plays that dealt with prejudice. Even though the show did not make money, Nash says, “I’m as proud of that show as any I’ve ever done”, citing the solid teamwork of students he worked with as the main reason.

When Nash arrived at UMB thirteen years ago, the McCormack theater, which was originally a science auditorium classroom, had been converted to a theater. It has “dead-hung grid” bars which crisscross the ceiling for hanging lights onto and a booth at the top for running lights and sound equipment. One of the first improvements Nash made was to raise the stage two feet so audience members could see performances better. Nash, along with his stagecraft class, also added a false proscenium arch. Because of the lack of wing space and moveable ceiling bars to hold extra set pieces, Nash also built a “revolve” – a circular area of the stage that can be pivoted to change scenery quickly. Nash says of the McCormack, “We made it a theater by hook or by crook.”

The McCormack is far from the ideal theater however. It lacks running water, storage space and has an antiquated lighting board. When the new campus center (being built now) was being planned five years ago, Nash was asked to draw up a blueprint for a new theater. Although he had only two weeks to do this, he called his friends in the theater to give input as consultants (the school would not hire them) and came up with a plan.

The theater he designed would have been a “black box theater with a 14 foot ceiling”, 50 by 60 feet square. It would seat 150 people with the seats designed so that the theater would easily be converted from a conventional black box stage into theater-in-the-round, (audience surrounding the stage area), or a thrust stage, (audience on three sides).

Nash said the theater he designed had “a real greenroom [where actors congregate waiting for cues to come onstage], a real dressing room with water,” a place for paint storage, “a rack for hanging scenery so you could paint. Plus, water in the shop.” There was storage space for costumes and lighting as well. He even designed spaces on the theater floor where light crew would plug in light boards to test lights before hanging them. Nash designed the theater with “short money”, the university’s stated budget, in mind.

Nash said he literally “ran into the meeting” of the committee set up to approve of his plan – the Campus Center Advisory Board – and that “they were very impressed”. About a year and a half later, however, Nash heard “through the grapevine” that the theater had been nixed in favor of a “ballroom” by the powers-that-be, namely then-Chancellor Penney and the Board of Trustees.

When asked if he complained about the abandonment of the theater plans, Nash said, “With politics here? What good would it do? I’m not tenured faculty here. We’re all [Nash, Almeida and Conlon] unprotected. If I say the wrong thing at the wrong time, it’s off with his head”.

Asked why anyone should care whether or not theater survives at UMass Boston, Nash has several things to say. “The University has a cultural mission which it must fulfill and theater is part of that.” He said that UMass Boston is the only public university in Boston that offers a theater major. “Where else can working class people get access like that,” he asked.

Nash likes to cite the success stories of former students. While we spoke, a theater graduate of 2001, Ritta Bellardi, phoned him with news that she was now a paid scene painter with the nationally known Coconut Grove Theater Company in Florida. Another former student, John Picardi, has a play going up Off-Broadway. Said Nash, “Off-Broadway is like ‘hello!’ – that’s the full deal. [It’s considered] a full-blown play in New York”.

He also mentions Eileen Lanci, a former UMB theater student, who went on to the Actor’s Studio in New York City and is now a producer of the nationally known cable show Inside the Actor’s Studio. Lanci was nominated for an Emmy award twice although she has yet to win.

Then there are the three UMB theater alumni who are currently in the graduate theater program at Yale – Jaime O’Brien in Playwrighting, Brendan Hughes in Directing and another student in Stage Management. Nash said former UMB theater students are working around the country and in the state, several teaching in urban public schools. Nash said in a field where 90 per cent unemployment is common, “we have about a forty per cent unemployment rate”. Which is not to say that these forty per cent don’t find jobs but that sixty per cent of UMB theater students find jobs in the theater or communications field.

Why should anyone care about the survival of theater? Ideologically, Nash says, “We are the last bastion of truth. How many movies tell the real story? So many compromises they [the movie industry] have to make because of money, the stakes are so high.” Theater is telling stories “live before an audience. Where else can you get that?”

He also quotes Mayor Menino who in an address at a UMass Boston graduation ceremony told the audience that the biggest industry in Boston is not sports, not Gillette, not Polaroid, but the entertainment industry. According to Nash “the notion that theater is just a little side pocket, not important, is a lot of…hooey…I could use other words.”