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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Thespians Uncover Unusual Stages

By J. hale Russell, Crimson Staff Writer

Where others see a bell tower, Austin S. Guest '03-'05 sees the perfect site for avant-garde theater.

In early December, audiences will climb the 88 steps of the Lowell House bell tower to a spacious, high-ceilinged white room, where Guest intends to prove that good theater can occur in the strangest of places.

"The set is just this," Guest says, pointing to the piano pushed off to the side and the single support column in the middle of the room. Here, he will work with a cast of nine students to develop an original production inspired by absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett.

"[The space] forces you to ask some really creative questions," he says.

These questions may become increasingly relevant this semester as the theater community faces an impending space crunch, coupled with new artistic leadership and the creation of a student group that focuses on expanding the use of available venues.

In recent years, most Harvard theater has been performed in the Loeb Drama Center, a Harvard-owned space that the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) shares with a professional acting troupe called the American Repertory Theatre (ART).

But many in the theater community say that other spaces in Houses-whether or not they were originally intended for shows-have gone underutilized.

At the same time, a recent review of Harvard's accounting procedures for student shows has unexpectedly resulted in the reemergence of the Harvard Theater Advisory Group (HTAG), a student group that disappeared from the theater scene in recent years.

HTAG now has jurisdiction over the budgets of student theater productions not performed in the Loeb-like Guest's show, for instance. Members of the new group say they hope their existence will make it easier for students to put on shows in such spaces.

These factors-limited space, push from theater leaders for increased creativity and the creation of HTAG-could bring new styles of theater to campus and force students to reconsider the way Harvard theater is structured.

Hierarchy of Spaces

Currently, the Loeb's two stages-the Mainstage and the Experimental Theater -are considered the campus' most desirable spots for their technical capacity, the support HRDC gives producers and the ability to attract large audiences.

But Harvard faces an impending performing arts space crunch with the loss of Radcliffe's Agassiz Theater in 2006 and the uncertain future of the dilapidated Hasty Pudding building, which has been awaiting renovation by the College since it purchased the space in 2000.

While this lack of space has been a long-time problem for Harvard actors, some are now saying it could force them to be more imaginative.

"There isn't really a space crunch," Guest says. "There's a lot of space if you broaden your definition of what you mean by space."

Performing spaces on campus abound, including the Leverett Old Library, the Cabot House Fishbowl, the Adams House Pool and Kronauer Theaters.

Students are also being encouraged toward more creativity by the new Artistic Director of the ART Robert E. Woodruff, whose work is regarded as fresh and controversial.

Last May, when he first met with members of the HRDC, Woodruff encouraged them to push to new levels of creativity.

At a theater summit two weeks ago jointly organized by HTAG and the HRDC, many students suggested that site-specific work would help Woodruff's goal while addressing the increased lack of space available on campus.

"The play should fit the space," Guest says. "If you're using a space, make sure you need that space. The notion of being on your own encourages creative thinking."

HRDC President Daniel A. Cozzens '03 says such spaces may offer audiences better shows because the greater barriers to production, including lower budgets and less publicity, force students to plan and design their shows more carefully.

"If [directors or producers] have the guts and the drive to accomplish those difficult things, that's typically an indication of their drive and their need to do that show." Cozzens says. "That's really a fantastic thing."

HTAG Vice President Katherine F. O'Gara '05 says performances outside the Loeb also give opportunities to less established student directors.

"I would like to see more beginning directors have a chance," she says.

Accounting Problems

And thanks to a tax regulation, O'Gara's HTAG might be able to do just that.

In the past few years, the voice of Harvard theater has largely come from the HRDC, whose eight-member executive board chooses the Loeb's student productions and runs the campus-wide Common Casting procedure through which shows select their actors.

Officially, however, the HRDC only has jurisdiction over shows that occur in the Loeb.

When students perform shows in other Harvard spaces, each show's producers are in charge of handling the budgets and other administrative tasks.

These shows are often funded by grants from the Office for the Arts (OFA) or the Undergraduate Council, and tickets are sold through the Harvard Box Office in Holyoke Center.

Last year, administrators from OFA and College dean's office realized that the current system risked violating the IRS' rules for non-profits by allowing individuals-who were not operating through official student groups-to directly handle a show's expenses and income.

"The College doesn't want to abuse tax restrictions by making payments to individuals," says Alan Symonds, technical director of Harvard theater and faculty advisor of HTAG. "We needed to set up a structure to allow a recognized organization to receive payments and transfer money."

Symonds, who is also the head of College drama-the part of the College that deals directly with financing student performing arts-decided the best way to solve this problem was to reestablish HTAG with new responsibilities.

Now, all checks for student performances that do not occur in the Loeb-where finances are handled through the ART-will be funneled through HTAG.

All ticket proceeds in such spaces, like the Agassiz Theater or the Adams House Pool Theater, will go to HTAG, which will pay the show's bills and deposit profits into its own account.

One advantage of this change for student producers is that if a show loses money, HTAG will use its extra funds to cover the balance.

"Students will never lose money," says HTAG President Kathy M. Bencowitz '03. "We pay all of their bills."

Directors using these spaces also face technical and publicity challenges.

To help alleviate these problems, Bencowitz says the group's funds could also be used in the future as a grant-giving system to supplement money already available from the OFA.

Unlike shows in the Loeb, which always receive a budget from HRDC, there is no automatic grant provided to producers in House spaces.

HTAG might also use some of its funding for more general improvements to these spaces-like purchasing technical equipment for House theaters.

Bencowitz says she thinks that if non-Loeb theaters were better funded-with more lights, for instance-they could be used for spontaneous performances that require little or no lead-time.

Additionally, HTAG offers all non-Loeb shows a liaison from HTAG who will serve as a mentor for the production staff.

"We would like to be a resource for the staff of the shows the way HRDC is," O'Gara says.

Gaining Momentum

Despite HTAG's sudden authority over theater funds, the group might have a harder time gaining respect in the theater community, where HRDC is firmly entrenched.

According to Bencowitz, HTAG now has the considerable task of convincing students who have only been involved in HRDC shows that other spaces and groups are relevant as well.

"A lot will depend on what happens with HTAG this year," she says. "It depends on the cooperation between the two groups."

Currently, she says, the missions of the two groups don't overlap. HRDC controls the shows in the Loeb, while HTAG works in all other spaces.

"There's not overt tension," Bencowitz says of the relationship between HTAG and HRDC. "We have separate spheres in terms of producing."

Bencowitz says HTAG's mission will be determined over the course of the semester."HTAG has been outside of the picture recently. There's tension because a new group has a lot of power all of a sudden. There's been a little 'Oh, where did they come from?'" she says.

HRDC board members are elected by all students involved in Loeb shows and HTAG's bylaws describe a similar election process. This year, however, HTAG's board membership was selected by Symonds and Bencowitz, who is also a member of HRDC's board.

Some say conflict could arise if each group begins to see itself as the one to speak for Harvard theater.

"Politically, if they make too hard of a push for non-Loeb shows they could be seen...against the HRDC, which is not going to work," Guest says.

E. Peyton Sherwood '04, who is involved in technical theater at Harvard, says the re-emergence of HTAG may make students think about how Harvard theater is governed.

The HRDC used to control all Harvard theater, until the ART assumed control over the Loeb and the HRDC's jurisdiction became limited to shows going up in that building.

"Ever since that there's been that question just below the surface of who's running the show here. Where does one group's authority end and where does the other begin?" Sherwood says. "The HRDC calls itself the umbrella group for Harvard theater but nobody knows what that means."

Sherwood says these questions might result in drastic changes in governance of theater College-wide, including who selects shows, who controls the money and who speaks for Harvard theater.

"It might require a major restructuring of authority," he says.

But Cozzens says he is hopeful that HTAG will be a force for revitalizing non-Loeb theater, and that the two groups should find ways to cooperate.

"What we're all trying to do is make theater here better," he says.

-Staff writer J. Hale Russell can be reached at jrussell@fas.harvard.edu.

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