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Students and Professionals Learn to Share The Loeb Drama Center

By Philip P. Pan

On the corner of Brattle and Hillard Sts. sits a closely-watched building. Once the home for most undergraduate theater productions, the two-story structure now goes by a new name.

It used be called the Loeb Drama Center, but for the past 10 years, there's been a different name associated with it--the name of a professional theater group.

When you telephone the building, they answer as the "American Repertory Theater [ART]. "Stationery issued by the company--which used to carry the letterhead "The ART at the Loeb"--has dropped its tag. And the banner hanging outside makes no mention of the Loeb Drama Center.

It did not use to be this way--a fact that many current undergraduates, who have limited access to the theater and its facilities, lament. But since the American Theater arrived on the scene, the role of student drama has been greatly affected--in what students say are both good and bad ways.

Now, as undergraduates in various areas of the arts clamor for more attention and performance space, actors, directors and crew members are reassessing the influence of the American Repertory Theater (ART).

Established 10 years ago when President Derek C. Bok lured Professor of English Robert S. Brustein and members of the Yale Repertory Theater to Harvard, the ART is praised as one of the most innovative dramatic companies in the country. But its relationship to the undergraduate community has traditionally been marred by resentment on both sides.

Professionals at the ART are sometimes rumored to be annoyed by the undergraduate presence, calling them "kids." And students have often claimed that the group has taken over their theater.

With the creation of the Institute for Advanced Theater Training--the ART's graduate program--undergraduates say that not only have space problems been exacerbated, but College students are also no longer cast in ART productions.

The University is about to embark on $2 billion fund drive, but administrators say a new arts facility is not a priority. So members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) and the ART say they will have to continue working to improve relations.

"The only real solution would be to build another theater," says HRDC president Mary Elizabeth Rieffel '91. "And that's not going to happen."

But, says Lowell Professor of the Humanities and chair of the Standing Committee on Dramatics William Alfred, there have been plans to add a third floor to the Loeb, which might include another performance space. Such an addition would not take much time to build once the ART has raised the necessary funding, he adds.

In the mean time, officials of HRDC and the ART are doing their best to amicably share resources and expertise.

"We each see other to certain extent as extra baggage," says Jeffrey S. Miller '90. "It's a love-hate relationship. We have to co-exist. We are here to help each other."

Says Sarah L. Stevenson '91, a producer, "They're actually really helpful. You have to ask--but when you do ask they're very helpful."

Under the agreement negotiated between Bok and ART artistic director Brustein, the HRDC gets to use the large Mainstage Theater for two productions each semester and retains control over the smaller Experimental ("Ex") Theater. The ART is also charged with aiding student productions on the Mainstage on a request basis.

The agreement has worked well, according to Donald R. Soule, technical director of the Loeb Drama Center and a lecturer in dramatic arts. Soule, who has worked at the Loeb since it opened in 1960, says that before the ART arrived, undergraduate drama was in a slump.

"I do believe when the professional company arrived, the students were having a difficult time producing shows on the Mainstage," says Soule. He says the ART has contributed to the revival of student drama in recent years.

"I think its been a very happy marriage," Soule adds.

Among the four aims of the ART's role at Harvard, Brustein says, are "to be a living library, to bring life to the plays that sit on the shelves of Widener" and to supervise undergraduates and provide instruction regarding the use of the Loeb. One of the main purposes for the ART troupe, he adds, is for it to be a "laboratory" of experimental theater.

And students agree that they benefit in at least some way from the ART's presence. But they question just how willing the theater group has been to help them--and at what cost.

"The administration seems to have a really romanticized view of how the ART helps the students," says Heather S. Cross '90-91. "It does exist for some but not for others."

In fact, top ART and HRDC members continue to praise their working relationship. "We have tried not to be antagonistic and to work with the ART," says Reiffel. "At the moment, we have a good relationship with ART."

And Brustein says despite a lot of tension a few years ago, "It's generally a pleasant atmosphere now."

However, many students say this apparent goodwill belies dissatisfaction, adding that old tensions persist.

"Most of the time its perfectly possible to exist without having any trouble," says Margaret H. Meserve '92, who is currently co-producing Cyrano de Bergerac at the Loeb Mainstage. "But when both groups are feeling pressure to get shows into production, you really realize it."

As an example, Meserve cites a matinee of As You Like It, during which ART members were working in the nearby shop and using power tools and playing loud music that could be heard on stage. After Meserve asked them to stop, they turned off the music but continued using the tools.

Meserve says she also recalls an ART bridal shower held in the costume shop that ran over, disrupting HRDC time in the shop.

"To them we're just like these annoying students. To us they're like big league jerks who think they have special privileges," says Cross.

Students complain that the ART has overrun the Loeb. Second-floor hallways are lined with one ART office after another, while the HRDC office has been reduced to a relatively small room shared with one of the ART's costume managers, Meserve says.

And the Loeb's previous staff of 10 has been almost completely replaced with a comparatively gigantic ART staff.

"They've really taken over the building. It's so professional it's sterile," says one senior who asked not to be named. "You're always a visitor in the building--I've always felt like a guest."

Most important, students say, is the lack of sufficient performance space.

The Standing Committee on Dramatics is responsible for overseeing the operation of the HRDC, which doles out the Mainstage and Ex spaces to student groups each semester. But with so few Mainstage spaces allotted for undergraduate use, contentions necessarily arise.

"Potentially with the ART here it should be or could be a really great resource," says Beth A. Norman '91, campus liason for HRDC. "In reality, due to space concerns, that doesn't happen. As a result, nobody's happy and everybody blames the other party."

Two years ago, City Step--a dance group involving Cambridge children--sparked a controversy when it applied for a Mainstage space, claiming its production was too elaborate to be staged else-where. CityStep also wanted to negotiate a regular playing space on the Mainstage, and many students involved in drama feared that the group would permanently take some of its cherished slots.

In the end, HRDC gave CityStep a one-time slot. Negotiations between CityStep and the ART for future performances were unsuccessful.

Last summer, CityStep and Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III worked out an agreement under which the group would alternate performance spaces at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and a space "at Harvard," organizers have said.

The organizers interpreted this to mean that they could perform on the Mainstage, but they subsequently discovered that the space at Harvard was not necessarily at the Loeb. University officials rejected a request to host this spring's CityStep's performance on the Mainstage.

"One of the tragedies of the problem is that wonderful groups like CityStep have to go begging at the Loeb for space but we cannot take anymore space at the Loeb from the HRDC," Alfred says.

Fears about space competition have also grown since the ART and the University created the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard--often dubbed the "ART Institute"--three years ago. A two-year graduate program in dramatic arts, the Institute works closely with the professional company.

Director Richard Ridell cites the Institute as yet another opportunity that the ART has drawn to Harvard, praising its freedom to work with professionals and in the classroom over more traditional graduate programs at other universities.

And the Institute runs workshops with undergraduates to foster a sense of community.

"Everybody at the Institute is really excited about getting involved with undergraduates," says Bart DeLorenzo, a first-year director at the Institute. "It would be the perfect bridge between the undergraduates and the professional company."

But undergraduates say that the Institute's coming has been fraught with problems, placing threats on control over the Ex.

"They created the Institute and there's really no place to put it," says Cross.

DeLorenzo says that he understands that the Institute has the least priority because it is the newcomer. And he says the advantages of having undergraduates, Institute students and ART cast members together outweighs the inconveniences of space constraints.

Currently, Institute students use the Ex only when undergraduates are not performing there. Institute members also perform at the Agassiz Theater in the Radcliffe yard and Cabot House.

"Harvard University didn't think it through when they put three different institutions in the same building," says Rieffel.

Tensions over use of the Ex began when HRDC members thought the Institute was trying to circumvent the board in order to get permission from the Standing Committee to use the theater, Meserve says. However, for the past two years, HRDC has allowed the Institute to use the Ex during exams and vacations.

"There are occasional bones of contention over the Ex but they've been settled," says Alfred. "And if they have not we'll settle them."

In fact, Alfred's outlook expresses an optimism shared by many in the theater community using the Loeb that solutions to many problems can be found.

"We tend to focus too much on tension, on feeling compelled to coexist than deepening the relationship," says Miller. "That's true about both groups."

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