Dear Emerson College: Please Think Twice

Dear Emerson College,

I find it hard to believe I am composing an article to express to you my ultimate dismay and disappointment in your potential decision to destroy The Colonial Theatre from its intended purpose in Boston. Sure, I understand the news about your interest in changing this historic theater’s purpose broke before you’ve made your final decision, but your idea to even consider one of the nation’s (And your cities) most historic playhouses strikes fear deep within my heart. We do so much work to protect theaters from the outside world. Why are we now protecting theaters from education and arts institutions like yourself?

I understand Emerson College is not solely a performing arts college or conservatory. But your School of Arts is huge I mean, let us solely take a look at your Performing Arts majors. You offer undergraduate degrees in Theatre, Theatre & Performance, Theatre & Education, Acting, Comedic Arts, Musical Theatre, Stage & Production Management, Theatre Design/Technology and Stage & Screen Design/Technology.

Colonial_Theater_View_from_Stage_Boston_MAWith Emerson’s track record for these majors, you would think protecting a theater with a history such as the Colonial’s is common sense. Let me give you a brief breakdown. The Colonial Theatre, built-in 1900, is the oldest continually operating theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. The theater is a home for touring Broadway productions and also a tryout space for pre-Broadway productions. Some truly legendary shows have emerged from this theater. Productions that originated at the Colonial before heading to Broadway include Anything Goes, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma! (Then titled Away We Go!), Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, La Cage Aux Folles, Follies and A Little Night Music. It is often the home of many large Broadway national tours that launch today.

19788-1It was announced earlier this Fall that the Colonial Theatre would close following performances of The Book Of Mormon, currently playing the venue through October 11th, 2015. It has been noted across the board that the theater is in need of a renovation. However, it’s future has remained largely uncertain until this week when the Boston Globe announced it had acquired ground plans that detail Emerson College’s plan to turn the historic theater into a dining hall. According to the Globe, the plans note that orchestra seats would be removed and replaced with round tables, chairs and counters for eating. The lobby, modeled after the Hall of Versailles, would also be converted with booth seating. Portions of walls would be demolished to complete the cafeteria style plan. The plans note an acoustic wall would be installed along the proscenium to create a black box performance space on the current stage but also allowing for the wall to lower turning the entire cafeteria into a performance space.

m-lee-pelton-president-of-willamette-university-9e67b6a7d0b84cbb_largeHow does a college, with a nationally recognized performing arts program, find this acceptable? In a letter to Emerson students and faculty, President Lee Pelton (Pictured Right) writes “It represents only one of several options that the College is considering for the future use of the Colonial”. That is where the problem begins. A college, on a scale such as Emerson’s, should realize the value and education it exemplifies when renovating, restoring and returning the Colonial Theatre to its original purpose. He goes on to note several objectives that have guided the planning of the Colonial’s future two of which Emerson would work entirely against with his current plan. Those two specific points are 1) “Preserve the remarkable history of the Colonial” followed by 2) “Educate and train the next generation of leaders in the performing arts”. As noted above, the renovation would destroy the history of the theatre by making way for the dining hall. Is Emerson suggesting it will train and educate the next generation of leaders in the performing arts by setting an example of destroying a home for the performing arts?

cutlerThis not only concerns me but confuses me given Emerson’s track record with theaters in Boston. Emerson not only owns the Colonial but the Cutler Majestic Theatre and the Paramount Center. The Majestic Theatre (Pictured Left), built-in 1903, was originally intended for theatre but soon become a house for vaudeville and movies. Emerson purchased the building after it was in much need of a renovation in the 1980’s and restored to the theatre to its iconic Beaux-Arts appearance making it a performance space for the Emerson and Boston theatre community. The Paramount Center, built-in 1932, was originally intended for movies and served it’s purpose until closing in 1976. While much of the theatre’s art deco interior was destroyed during the 1980’s, in 2005 Emerson purchased the building and while added many features to the performance space such as offices, classrooms, a residence hall, rehearsal rooms and more; the college stilled restored the main performance space of the theatre for performance use completing the project in 2008. Emerson has always been a champion and leader for the theatre in Boston. Why destroy everything you have worked so hard for now?

I should note that much of this drama could be avoided if a petition that has sat pending with the city of Boston for decades to register the interior of the Colonial Theatre on the National Register of Historic Places would have passed by now. The exterior of the building is already registered. Click here if you’d like to sign the current petition to ask Emerson to consider saving the Colonial.

I am worried. Not only for Emerson performing arts students but also the city of Boston. What type of example do we set we when we decide the value of a theater’s history is not worth more than a college dining hall? Will this set a precedent that if we decide we no longer need a theatre or want to restore it to what it once was or can be, we should simply tear it down? New York saw much of this throughout the 1970’s when parking lots were considered more valuable than the Broadway theaters that now no longer exist. Are we eerily looking at a return to that time?

Boston has produced some of the biggest Broadway hits in recent years. Tearing down one of the cities most iconic and historic theaters doesn’t only not make sense. It’s a step backwards. It’s not only a step backwards for the city. It’s a step backwards for an education institution with a thriving arts program to act like these historic theaters as disposable. It’s also downright irresponsible. Emerson, I ask that you reconsider your plans to convert the Colonial Theatre to anything other than the theatre it currently is. I understand your college is growing. I understand you need space to accommodate everything you’re interested in providing for your students and faculty. However, I understand history and know we cannot allow this theatre to be used for anything else but a performance space.

As a theatre lover, I ask you to not remove the Colonial Theatre from use in Boston. As a theatre professional, I ask you to please set an example you will follow and lead by. As a theatre educator, I ask you to please think twice.

Chris Luner

Theatre Artist / Professional / Educator


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