Presentation Theater’s Current Status and Uncertain Future

Three years since its temporary closure, the theater’s renovation is stalled by city approvals for construction and lack of University funding. SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF USF STAGES

First established in the 1930s, USF’s Presentation Theater has held great significance to the Performing Arts and Social Justice (PASJ) department and student groups alike. Being one of just two spaces on campus that can host concerts and student performances, the theater has been an integral part of performing arts at USF.

However, the Presentation Theater currently resides in a state of constructional limbo, and is now encroaching on its third year of a theatrical dry spell.

As first reported in 2019 by the Foghorn, a health inspection revealed that the Presentation Theater needed updates to ensure safe working conditions. USF Stages Manager Joshua McDermott further explained the building wasn’t necessarily built to serve all equitably. For instance, the theater’s emergency exit, which is only accessible down a short flight of stairs, is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Additionally, some of the light fixtures are only accessible through the ceiling, posing various hazards to those on the theater’s tech team. 

These issues led the theater to shut down temporarily in Aug. 2019 so that they could be addressed in order to create a more inclusive, safe space for performers.

“We are in the process of completing the design of the remedial work, which will then be submitted to the city for review and approval,” said Director of Project Management JJ Thorpe. There are still a number of factors that must come into play to be able to open the theater’s doors once again, and until then, it lies dormant.

McDermott says there are currently two main obstacles that must be addressed before renovations can even begin; namely, the approval of the Project Management’s plans, and “receiving enough funding from the University for the construction process,” he said. Bringing the theater up to code will be no small nor inexpensive feat. Many of the theater’s safety issues lie within its foundational structure. 

Additionally, there have been unprecedented delays for the Project Management Team, “The project has been complicated by COVID delays and precise scope determination,” said Thorpe. “We cannot predict the city of San Francisco’s timeline to review the changes we design.”

While, as of right now, there are no plans for aesthetic changes within the historical theater, the Presentation Theater will have to be almost completely remodeled. “These seats are too small and unsupportive, so they will have to be replaced and the balcony will have to be lowered because it’s very inaccessible,” Dermott explained as he gestured to the endless sea of tightly packed, metal chairs in the theater. Larger-bodied individuals or those in wheelchairs would be unable to comfortably enjoy a performance in the existing seats. 

There are also plans to unclog the entrance and create a vestibule-lobby type of space, as well as replace the flight of stairs that lead to the emergency exit with a ramp so that it is more wheelchair accessible. “It’s a great space, but it’s unfortunately really outdated,” McDermott said. “There are a lot of necessary, structural changes that have to be made before it can be safely used.”  

A current look inside USF’s Presentation Theater, which remains closed. PHOTO BY JORDAN DELFIUGO/SAN FRANCISCO FOGHORN

Nearly three years after the the temporary shutdown began, the loss of the theater is becoming fully realized for groups on campus. Students and faculty have eased back into in-person instruction, forcing many groups on campus to adapt as they await the theater’s reopening with pressing anticipation. 

“The Presentation Theater houses many concerts by student clubs focused on performance that engage many of our majors and minors, such as College Players, Kasamahan, VarCity, and Vitality,” explained PASJ Department Chair Megan Nicely. “We are challenged to accommodate our presenting curriculum.” 

While the Project Management Team awaits approval from the city, Nicely says the PASJ department is actively seeking creative alternatives to host performances. “This fall we rented a stage, obtained sound permits, and produced outdoor concerts by combing three disciplines into one show,” said Nicely, “This spring, dance and theater will present a site-specific concert in Kalmanovitz Hall.”

Moving forward, Nicely hopes that the Presentation Theater will continue to be a home for PASJ and facilitate the intersection of on and off-campus artists. “We envision the Presentation Theater as a community space that highlights live performing arts as a significant campus resource that draws audiences across the city,” she said.

Addressing the issues found in the 2019 health inspection is a small but important step in strengthening accommodations and accessibility for disabled students on campus. Once the Project Management team is able to move past the obstacles they currently face, the theater can begin its transformation into a more inclusive space that can serve the entire community in a way it previously was unable to.

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