The Curtain Rises on the Vukovich Center for Communication Arts

“OK, who has the memorized?” Professor Dan Crozier asks the dozen students in his advanced acting class–all of them clutching copies of Romeo and Juliet as they shiver in the cool air of early spring outside the new Vukovich Center for Communication Arts.

Crozier moved his class from the relative privacy of the center’s rehearsal room to its courtyard, a public stage where students can practice their craft. It’s the perfect venue for students to act out the play’s famous balcony scene–the aspiring Juliets climb the courtyard’s steps and fan out along the railing above, while the Romeos remain at ground level to declare their love.

Up until now, the students have been reading–almost but not quite in unison–lines from their books. “It’s not the same experience, the same rhythm, when you’re constantly looking down to read,” Crozier tells his students.

Two volunteers step forward to recite the lines from memory, with Crozier offering the occasional suggestion on how they can be more expressive. Romeo takes Crozier’s advice to heart, scaling the outside of the courtyard’s stairway to get that much closer to Juliet. Passers-by heading to the Campus Center become an impromptu audience, with most at least turning their heads to soak in a snippet of Shakespeare.

Vukovich Center courtyard
Students in Professor Dan Crozier’s advanced acting class practice in the Vukovich Center’s courtyard

Activity both inside and outside the Vukovich Center is, quite intentionally, always on display. The facility, which opened for classes this spring semester, has expansive windows and a central location in the College’s evolving “Gator Quad”–a well-traveled corridor bordered by creative spaces in Arnold Hall of Music, Doane Hall of Art, and the College’s art galleries.

Home to the popular and innovative communication arts and theatre department, the Vukovich Center is foremost a teaching and learning facility, rather than simply a performance venue. It’s a place where technology and an aesthetically direct approach to architecture combine to complement the close interaction of faculty and students that is a hall-mark of the liberal arts experience at Allegheny.

Most important, the Vukovich Center provides a state-of-the-art canvas on which students from across the disciplines can learn to express their ideas in innovative and meaningful ways.

“Over the years we’ve had so many students who have worked in the Playshop Theatre or the scene shop or in TV production but have never taken a class in the department, or have only taken one or two classes,” says Crozier, who also chairs the communication arts and theatre department. “What’s great about Allegheny is that any student can walk in and get involved with these programs. In a lot of other places, you would have to be a major or minor.”

That cross-departmental ethos is especially fitting since the Vukovich Center is named in honor of Robert Vukovich ’65–a biology major at Allegheny–and his wife, Laura. The couple provided the lead gift to construct the center, which also received support from many other generous donors.

Immense Yet Intimate

Generosity Transforms Vision Into Reality

Without the support of generous donors, the Vukovich Center for Communication Arts would not exist to provide meaningful opportunities for Allegheny students today and for generations to come.

“I’m overwhelmed by the generosity of Allegheny’s loyal alumni and friends whose support has made this project possible,” says Marjorie Klein, Allegheny vice president for development and alumni affairs. “But, beyond that, it’s been a delightful experience for me, personally, to have witnessed and participated in the incredible collaboration that transformed their visions for a world-class center into reality.”

Donors and guests gathered on campus on April 17-18 to celebrate the dedication and grand opening of the Vukovich Center. The festivities included an encore performance of the Playshop Theatre’s production of You Can’t Take It With You–complete with cameo appearances by Gladys Mullenix Black ’54, in whose honor the new theatre is named, and Allegheny president emeritus Richard Cook. The weekend also featured the second annual ACTV Film Festival and a community open house with tours of the facility.

Robert ’65 and Laura Vukovich
Vukovich Center for Communication Arts
Laura’s Garden Terrace

Gladys Mullenix Black ’54
Gladys Mullenix Black Theatre

Dorothy Brennen Miller ’39
Dorothy Brennen Miller Lobby

Lee* & Sue ’55 O’Connor Idleman
Lee & Sue O’Connor Idleman Production Wing

Barbara Webb Robinson ’48
Barbara Robinson Green Room

Eden Hall Foundation

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program

In addition, former Allegheny trustee Marvin Suomi and his wife, Mariclare, have made a significant pledge to the Vukovich Center.

And many alumni and friends of Allegheny helped to support the project with their financial contributions.

*deceased

The $23 million Vukovich Center spans 40,000 square feet near the campus’s northeastern edge, just south of the North Village residential complex and east of Caflisch Hall. Even with that impressive footprint, the building doesn’t overwhelm or seem out of place on Allegheny’s historic campus.

The center was built into a hillside to increase its energy efficiency and minimize the perceived height of its fly tower–which houses the system of ropes, counterweights, and pulleys that allows the technical crew to quickly move lights, microphones, and scenery in the Gladys Mullenix Black Theatre.

“We wanted to make sure that, in burying parts of the building, these spaces didn’t become too dark, because dark internal spaces don’t promote people lingering and interacting,” says Todd Schliemann, a partner with Polshek Partnership Architects, the firm that designed the Vukovich Center. “We wanted to ventilate the building with sunlight so that people outside could see inside, and so people inside could see outside.”

Thanks to those abundant windows as well as skylights, sunlight does penetrate far into the building. It’s especially evident in the first floor’s central spine, known as “The Street,” through which one must travel to reach many of the center’s rehearsal, instructional, and production spaces.

All of that foot traffic creates a sense of vibrancy and community in the Vukovich Center, what Schliemann calls “productive collisions” among the building’s occupants and visitors. It’s not unusual to see students linger–talking, studying, working on their laptops–at the tables and chairs that dot open spaces and hallways on all three of the building’s floors, even at times when they don’t need to be there for class.

But those common areas aren’t just for hanging out. Ishita Sinha Roy, an associate professor of communication arts who specializes in media, rhetorical, and cultural studies, has held several class discussions in the center’s lobby. She also has assigned students in her Media Criticism course to work as teams to build sculptures–”related to the class, believe it or not,” says Sinha Roy–from snow packed in front of the building.

Crozier likewise sees exciting performance pos-sibilities for the facility’s rooftop garden, named “Laura’s Garden Terrace” in honor of Laura Vukovich. The garden–which includes perennial grasses, bulbs, shrubs, trees, and lawn space–has environmental benefits, insulating the building and absorbing rainwater that would run off a traditional roof.

It’s also a space that welcomes visitors, with cedar-plank pathways and benches throughout. Crozier says the garden, along with the courtyard, is reminiscent of the outdoor settings in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed. “I don’t think students realize yet how exhilarating it’s going to be to perform in these spaces,” he adds.

Using the Vukovich Center’s nontraditional learning spaces stimulates discussion in multiple ways, explains Sinha Roy. And it encourages students to see themselves as creative and their environment and culture not as preformed but as something they can shape.
“We’re re-inventing what teaching spaces mean and what teaching itself therefore means,” she notes. “It’s a much more collaborative, interactive kind of exercise.”

Amy Vietmeier ’09, a communication arts major and psychology minor, sees the Vukovich Center as an ideal learning environment, thanks to its advanced presentation equipment and spaces that transcend the conventional classroom. “The facility will definitely help prepare me for my career,” says Vietmeier, who took five classes in the center this spring.

Realizing Their Imagination

The Vukovich Center’s second floor features technology-enhanced classrooms used for a variety of communication arts courses, while the third floor houses offices for communication arts and theatre department faculty.
But it’s the facility’s first floor that has generated the most enthusiasm.

Grid Above Black Theatre Stage
Technical director Scott Choffel ’72 (second from right) works with students on the grid above the Black Theatre’s stage.

“Students now have the tools to realize their imagination,” says River Branch, an assistant professor of communication arts with expertise in media production. “The way the building is set up helps them to imagine their work moving beyond Allegheny. They’ve reframed their own expectations of their work.”

Branch points specifically to the first floor’s media screening room, which allows students to experience their work on a movie-theater-style screen and in surround sound. That means students can now conceive of sound and motion–versus sound as static and coming from one source–as part of the creative process.

The department’s visual production courses have found a new home in the Lee & Sue O’Connor Idleman Production Wing. The wing features a large television studio with three high-definition cameras, professional lighting, and an adjoining control room. In addition, there’s an editing lab with ten Mac Pro computers, a smaller post-production room for introductory courses, space for community-based media projects, and offices for ACTV, the student-run television station.

“Everything that was crammed into two small rooms in Arter Hall is now spread out,” says communication arts professor Mike Keeley. The additional space gives students and faculty the opportunity to try things they couldn’t before, such as having multiple sets in the television studio. That was impossible in Arter because large items couldn’t be moved through the studio door.

Communication arts major Pat Wysor ’09, who experienced the Vukovich Center for one semester before graduating in May, says he appreciated the opportunity to work in a professional-level studio. “There are so many ways to utilize the spaces there,” says Wysor, who served as president of ACTV and minored in German studies. “The equipment allowed us to produce much higher quality programming in the studio.”

At Allegheny, even a highly technical field like visual production is taught in the context of the liberal arts, Keeley says. “It’s not just learning to push the buttons or run the equipment,” he adds. “It’s having something to say, being exposed to the history of the art form, thinking about it in cultural and political terms. For anyone who’s going to be a filmmaker or a television producer, it’s important to have that background.”
There’s particular excitement surrounding the rehearsal room in the Idleman Production Wing. It has the same flooring material as the theatre’s stage, providing students with an authentic rehearsal experience when the large space is unavailable.

Its location in the production wing encourages stu-dents and faculty from different fields in the department to interact and collaborate in distinctive ways. Next year, Crozier and Keeley will teach an Acting for the Camera course that brings together elements of visual production and the theatre. It’s something they had long planned to do–and now can thanks to the flexibility offered by the Vukovich Center.

A Teaching Theatre

The center’s rehearsal and instructional spaces play key supporting roles to the building’s star, the 250-seat Gladys Mullenix Black Theatre. Stunning yet unpretentious, it’s a place where instruction and performance meld in exciting ways.

“Because it’s a teaching theatre, it’s very different from a regular performance space,” says Schliemann, whose firm oversaw the construction of the New York City Planetarium as well as the restorations of Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. “Our feeling was that we should try to com-bine the audience and stage so that it was all one teaching environment, so that if students were out in the audience chamber, they could feel as though they were part of the production, which we thought would give them a better feeling for how these performances actually happen.”

Studio

The horseshoe shape of the theatre’s seating creates a closeness and synergy between audience and actor. The theatre also includes a balcony–which Schliemann notes is relatively uncommon in smaller venues–to bring spectators that much closer to the stage.
And the technical aspects of the theatre–including the catwalk, lighting grids, and pipe grids–are exposed, providing a unique behind-the-scenes perspective to teachers, learners, and theatergoers alike.

“Even though the Playshop Theatre [in Arter Hall] was really fabulous, it posed a lot of limitations in what we were able to do in the theatre itself and in the support facilities and classrooms,” says Michael Mehler, an assistant professor of theatre who specializes in scenery and lighting design. “The people here have always had the capacity to work in a much greater realization of production and the new theatre allows us to do that.”

For example, a trap room sits below the new theatre’s stage, with a scaffolding system that allows sections to be lowered or removed completely to accommodate the needs of different productions. (Dropping the eight-foot-deep front of the stage takes a crew of four people nearly eight hours–so it’s a process that is entered into with considerable forethought.)

In addition, the theatre has easy access to the Vukovich Center’s spacious scene and costume shops, allowing sets and props to be designed and moved efficiently. That’s a striking transformation from the old scene shop. Detached from Arter Hall, it required sets to be constructed in pieces, transported through the often uncooperative elements of late fall and early winter, and then assembled in the Playshop Theatre.
The Vukovich Center also features a green room that can be used by performers and speakers before shows and other times they’re not on stage.
Named in honor of Barbara Webb Robinson ’54, the green room even includes showers–a requirement should a unionized professional actor perform at the facility.

The theatre officially opened with a production of the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman comedy You Can’t Take It With You, directed by Crozier. After four performances in early April, the cast presented the play again in the middle of that month for the dedication and grand opening of the Vukovich Center.

That weekend, the theatre also showcased both student and alumni works at the second annual ACTV Film Festival–testifying to the versatility of the Vukovich Center in accommodating a wide variety of public events.

A Center of Collaboration

Just as the Vukovich Center has deepened collaboration within the communication arts and theatre department, faculty there are hopeful that the facility will foster partnerships across campus and the community. Natural connections exist at Allegheny among students and faculty in art, music, theatre, and film, says Keeley. And he sees those ties becoming even stronger now that those departments are in close physical proximity.

Adds Sinha Roy: “This has the potential to become an interdisciplinary center. I can imagine faculty from English literature, psychology, even the sciences, working with us on projects, if not classes.”

Black Theatre Audience

She offers the hypothetical example of teaching a course on advertising, working with the department of environmental science to promote and market green programs on campus. “Suddenly, there’s a magic there with students seeing how these things come together–and how they’re not discipline-bound,” Sinha Roy explains.

There’s also tremendous interest in using the Vukovich Center to reach out into the local community, the region, and beyond.
Crozier sees possibilities for workshops and festivals for high school students and teachers that draw from the expertise of communication arts and theatre faculty as well as those from the music and art departments; Sinha Roy hopes to invite community partners to lead and attend special events as part of next year’s “Year of Social Change” programming; and Keeley anticipates increased opportunities–like the ACTV film festival–for students to share their works with a wider audience.

Even as those channels for collaboration and outreach expand and evolve, the core mission of activity in the Vukovich Center will remain the same–to prepare students to formulate ideas and communicate them in persuasive and engaging ways.

“The technology has changed a lot, and it’s going to continue to change,” says Keeley, “so I think we have to remember that, under the technology, there’s a liberal arts foundation of being able to express yourself and having something compelling to say.”

This article appeared in the Winter/Spring 2009 issue of Allegheny Magazine.