Two colleges enter new stages Northeast State, Milligan open facilities for theater, humanities
By JIM McGUINNESS
Two different institutions of higher learning have taken steps to improve the ways they educate their students in the arts and humanities, and provide new cultural opportunities for the communities they serve.
However, both Northeast State Technical Community College and Milligan College have taken those steps in the same direction: Building new facilities that will house theatrical productions, lectures and other special presentations.
The difficulties associated with staging a play are part of any director’s artistic challenge.
For eight years, Michael Aulick has met the challenge head-on.
As theater director at Northeast State Technical Community College, Aulick has staged numerous successful productions within the tiny confines of the school’s auditorium. Those productions have boasted a big-time feel that belie the size of the facility.
“People would come to see a play at the auditorium,” Aulick said. “Then they’d stop by after the set came down and be absolutely shocked. They’re amazed that there’s so little space to work with.”
Aulick’s workspace will increase this spring when the school unveils its Regional Performing Arts Center. The 36,000-square-foot facility holds a 500-seat theater, backstage dressing rooms, a costuming area and additional classroom space.
The theater portion features a modern sound and lighting system with significantly larger capacity for entertainment productions. It also has a separate area for designing sets.
In comparison, the 223-seat auditorium was a converted lecture hall with a no backstage or wing space.
“It’s like going from a tricycle to a Ferrari,” Aulick said. “We’re going to be able to make decisions based on what is artistically the best choice. In the past, they were based on what we had to do because of our limitations.”
The new facility is part of a $15 million project that also includes a humanities academic building and a maintenance building. The humanities building opened last fall and the maintenance building last summer.
Contractors are currently putting the finishing touches on the performing arts center, which is scheduled to open in time for a March 29 appearance by Grant Imahara from Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters.” Aulick hopes to stage “Romeo and Juliet” there on April 17-20. Auditions will take place at the auditorium on Feb. 11-12.
In terms of staging a play, the new facility will give Aulick and his staff more room to maneuver. The auditorium space is 18 feet deep and 51 feet wide. The new facility is 50 feet deep.
“It’s going to be a huge difference in what we can do scenically,” Aulick said. “We had a terribly flat, wide space. It’s hard to do stage directions on such a flat, wide space.”
The proportions of the theater also make it spectator-friendly, providing enough space between rows so people can get to and from their seats without already-seated patrons having to stand. The theater’s wide design also means fewer rows of seats, thus creating a more intimate setting for the audience.
“The back row of the theater is only 40 feet from the stage,” Aulick said. “To get that many people in a narrower house, you’d have people sitting a fair ways away.”
In addition to improved production and seating capabilities, the new facility will expand on the type of events Northeast State can bring to its campus.
“It completely changes the scope of what we can do,” said Jim Kelly, chairman of the school’s cultural activities committee. “In the past, we wouldn’t have been able to bring something like ‘Mythbusters’ here. We were severely limited in what we could do.”
In booking events, Kelly plans to proceed slowly as the building’s staff becomes acclimated with the how the lighting and sound systems work.
“Our thinking is that we’re going to do some experimentation,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to have a major event here the second week after it opens. We’d like to give it a semester and maybe over the summer to see what we have.”
More than 6,000 people attended campus events at Northeast State during the 2006-2007 academic year. December’s production of “A Christmas Carol” attracted 1,600 people to the auditorium.
With the new facility offering more than double the seating capacity, Aulick is concerned about filling those seats. He’s otherwise focused on what the performing arts center provides in terms of education.
“We don’t only think in terms of tickets sales,” Aulick said. “We think of providing our theater students with good opportunities to learn and the students who come to the shows with the opportunity to think about other things. We’re here for the community, but we’re also here for our students.”
In January 1968, Milligan College committed itself to a liberal arts-based education.
Forty years later, the school has reaffirmed that commitment with the opening of a new multi-purpose facility.
Called the Elizabeth Leitner Gregory Center for the Liberal Arts, the facility will primarily be home to the school’s humanities, theater and photography programs.
Located in the center of campus between McMahan Student Center and Hardin Hall, the 30,410 square-foot facility includes a 290-seat theater auditorium with complete backstage and staging areas. There is also workshop space for theater classes and darkrooms for photography students.
As a convocation center, it will used for the college’s humanities program, academic lecture series and various campus-community events.
“This new facility is going to serve the college in so many ways,” said Richard Major, head of the school’s theater program. “In the planning process, we’ve been able to anticipate some of those ways. I also think it will be able to serve us in many ways we’ve yet to imagine.”
The center has been in use since the start of classes on Jan. 16.
Dr. Craig Farmer views the building as a shot in the arm for the humanities program that he chairs.
“It’s a nice place to teach,” Farmer said. “The place where we were is just an aging facility. The technology wasn’t working very well.”
In addition to providing classroom space, the center will also be home to the humanities lecture series.
“Those lectures are an important part of the program,” Farmer said. “The fact that Milligan’s powers-that-be have decided to house them in the most beautiful building on campus is very gratifying and encouraging. It signifies a continuing commitment to the humanities.”
Farmer also sees the facility as an emblem of Milligan’s continuing pledge to its liberal arts curriculum.
“I think it’s a great symbol of the college’s commitment to a broad, liberal arts education,” Farmer, said. “Even in the very name of the facility, it’s the Gregory Center for the Liberal Arts. It’s significant that liberal arts is in its name.”
Photography professors also sees the Gregory Center as furthering Milligan’s liberal arts program.
“I’m teaching basic photography this semester. I’m bringing into play how important what’s going on around you affects your photography and your art. Everything works together. That’s what the liberal arts is all about,” said Alice Anthony, associate professor of art.
In an era where billions of pictures are taken with digital and phone cameras, Anthony looks forward to introducing her students to the Gregory Center’s new darkroom.
“We’re slowing it down so our students can learn about traditional photography,” Anthony said. “This will give more students a chance to appreciate the art of photography and the beauty of the darkroom.
The theater program will undergo a similar transition, giving students the opportunity to see the practical application of adequate lighting, a place for staging, and scene and costume shops that serve a production’s needs.
“We no longer have to make do and talk to our students about how things might work,” Major said. “Now we can actually show them. It makes us a huge difference.”
The Gregory Center will officially be dedicated next weekend, Friday through Sunday Feb. 3 with a special presentation of “The Witnesses,” a professional musical written by Milligan alumnus Gary Richardson. The production is the sequel to Richardson’s “The Rock and The Rabbi” and features musicians and singers from New York City, Nashville, Orlando and Tampa Bay.
The dedication service will be held at 2 p.m., Friday. Performances of “The Witness” will be held at 7 p.m., Saturday, and 2 p.m., Sunday, 3. Tickets are $10 per person and are available at the Milligan College Bookstore.
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MILLIGAN COLLEGE is a Christian liberal arts college in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The college offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs. To learn more about Milligan College, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.