Alan P. Symonds '69 may be more important to theater fans on this campus than Shakespeare, Chekhov or Stephen Sondheim. Certainly his name appears on more programs year round than do all of these luminaries combined. Symonds isn't a playwright, a director or even a wealthy patron of the arts. But without him, few of the fifty-odd plays and musicals that are performed here each year would ever see an opening night.
Check the program of almost any show--a musical at the Loeb Mainstage, a house production, CityStep, a comedy at the Agassiz--and you will find his name, usually with a preface along the lines of: "and our eternal special thanks to technical wizard Alan Symonds." As the interim undergraduate technical director of the Loeb Theatre, Symonds far surpasses his official duties in his support of student theater. He attends preliminary planning meetings for productions and points out which plans are technically feasible and which would literally go crashing through the ceiling. He patiently shows inexperienced techies how to build sets that won't collapse mid-performance and how to hang lights that won't fall on the actors.
Symonds, who has been working with student theater groups at Harvard for more than a decade, spends evenings going from the Agassiz to the Loeb to house performance spaces, helping techies "put-in" upwards of four shows a night. With a student theater community of more than 500, Symonds is almost the only professional resource available--particularly to the bulk of the shows that are performed outside the Loeb.
Yet despite his manifest commitment to student theater (or perhaps because of it), Symonds was denied the permanent job of undergraduate technical director last week in favor of an outside candidate. A petition to University administrators didn't help, the HRDC board's self-imposed silence to the campus media did nothing to persuade American Repertory Theatre (ART) officials of their willingness to compromise, pleas to Standing Committee on Dramatic Arts Chair Michael P. Shinagel fell on deaf ears. Symonds was gone, another casualty to the indifference to student theater shown by Harvard officials charged with promoting it.
The outside candidate was supposedly hired because of his greater ability to teach classes. And Shinagel did tell The Crimson last week that the new director would be asked to be involved in student productions. But we doubt that a complete outsider will have either the interest or the dedication of Symonds and we're suspicious that the new director may very well find himself too busy with ART-imposed work to have time for student theater. After all, the recommendation of a grateful student director carries nowhere near the clout of a recommendation from Robert Brustein, director of the ART.
Until Harvard reconsiders its ties to the ART and renegotiates the latter's parasitic hold on the Loeb Drama Center, and until the standing committee ceases to be a rubber stamp for Brustein's wishes, undergraduates and their supporters will have little recourse to prevent Symonds from leaving his current post. And although his successor may well prove a champion of student theater, a more permanent solution is necessary. The survival of undergraduate theater should not rest upon the whims of a professional theater company.
The University needs to wake up to its obligations to student theater and offer Symonds a permanent job as undergraduate theater advisor under a different aegis than that of the ART. More students are involved in theater on this campus than participate in the football, basketball and baseball programs combined. Hundreds more students attend the twenty to thirty shows put on each semester. Yet aside from limited financial support, the University offers no support personnel similar to the paid coaching staffs that athletes receive automatically.
It doesn't seem a lot to ask, one paid employee to help out 500 students and 50 productions a year. Last weekend was the "ARTSFirst" festival a time to celebrate the University's commitment to the arts community. Now let's celebrate it by offering student theater, a sizable portion of that community, some much-needed support. Keeping Alan Symonds should be the first step.