SHOWSTOPPER: Presentation Theater’s continued closure

Hayley Burcher, Katherine Na

Staff Writers

Several Foghorn staff members belong to groups that have been affected by Presentation Theater’s closure. They were not involved in the reporting or writing of this story. 

Presentation Theater has been closed all year. And, all year, academic departments and student organizations have been left scrambling for space and money.

Since a failed safety inspection shut its doors in July, the fate of Presentation Theater has remained nebulous. Several student organizations that utilize the space for events and performances initially believed that the theater would reopen by the spring semester. When asked about the timeline for reopening, Joshua McDermott, director of performance spaces for the College of Arts and Sciences, said in an email to the Foghorn, “I usually tell people three years.”

The construction in Presentation Theater is meant to resolve worker safety violations and fire safety concerns that were identified in its 2019 inspection. McDermott said, “This is not a full renovation. It is just fixing and updating older and unsafe systems and creating a space that is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant and welcoming to everyone in the space.” 

McDermott added, “We will also take that opportunity to update how the space can be used, making it more accessible, and frankly more suitable to the needs of the USF community.” 

Most student organizations that the Foghorn spoke to for this story expressed frustration about the perceived lack of communication surrounding the closure. Alexa David, cultural director for Kasamahan, USF’s Filipino American cultural organization, said she learned about the theater’s closure from other students weeks before she received official word from the University. 

David said, “Where’s the transparency? You want the people on campus to participate in your other cultural organizations, yet you’re not going to tell the people… what’s going on.” 

Student organizations also were unsure of the timeline for reopening, but believed it would be less than three years. McDermott said in response, “I am not sure where they got this impression from, but since I have been going to the ASUSF meetings on this subject, I have always been clear that it is a multi-year project.”

McDermott is also the head of USF STAGES, a recently-established body that oversees and operates performance spaces at the University. The Performing Arts and Social Justice (PASJ) department has donated funds to USF STAGES in order to assist with the cost of construction, according to Program Manager Whyler Neubauer.

In an email, Neubauer expressed PASJ’s overall support in updating the space, but noted that closure of Presentation Theater has taken a toll on the department. “We made a lot of compromises for our productions: lengthening or shortening the run of a production, changing rehearsal start dates, and allowing for enough time to give our technicians a break from taking down one show and then immediately putting up another.”

The College Players have been significantly impacted by the closure of Presentation Theater. The organization has having had to move their annual production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to Swig Gym and, most recently, postpone their spring musical. The rental fee for Swig Gym was particularly shocking. “Oh my god, it was almost $11,000,” said Tiana Valerio, ASUSF Vice President of Finance. “And that’s like a fee we didn’t know about.”

According to Lillian Froio, executive producer for The College Players, the original plan was to perform the musical offsite. “We could not request rights to the musical we wanted to do until we had a space to perform it,” Froio said, further explaining that they were unable to confirm a space until mid-January. “By the time we applied for rights, we did not hear back from the production company soon enough to perform the musical in the space we wanted to.” 

The College Players board faces the difficult choice of whether to cancel the musical altogether, or cancel their spring play to make room for the musical in Studio Theater.

Because of Presentation Theater’s closure, Kasamahan has had to relocate its annual Barrio Fiesta event to San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) McKenna Theatre. David told the Foghorn that she and her cultural committee experienced difficulty in identifying a new venue for the show. 

She explained that Kasamahan was unable to hold Barrio anywhere else on campus because other on-campus venues were unable to accommodate Barrio’s size and technical needs — the show has 190 performers, as well as live musicians. 

“I looked everywhere in San Francisco, from middle schools, high schools, colleges, different theaters nearby,” she explained. “I was pushing like to the outskirts of San Francisco, and I could not find a location.”

ASUSF Voices has also struggled as a result of the closure, particularly because participation in Voices also counts for course credit, and thus requires a reliable space for regular meetings. According to the organization’s business manager, Giovanna Echivarre-Morelli, Voices has also been unable to find a venue for their spring concert, which is slated for May. In an email, she said, “Last fall we were able to reserve Xavier Hall, however we had to move money around in our budget to compensate for sound, lighting, and movement of equipment.”

The issue of funding has come up for multiple groups on campus in the wake of the theater’s closure. 

Student organizations in particular have been leaning on Student Leadership and Engagement (SLE), its staff, and ASUSF Senate’s finance committee in order to work through the issues that Presentation Theater’s closure has presented. 

According to Valerio, SLE has had to subsidize tens of thousands of dollars as a direct result of the closure, since the closure was not anticipated when student organizations presented their annual budgets to the finance committee last spring. This money has largely come from ASUSF reserves, which are left over from the student activity fee. “I want to just acknowledge that the student activity fee is not typically used to pay for events that happen outside of the USF [campus],” Valerio said in an interview. 

Valerio, who is a member of Kasamahan, used the Barrio Fiesta relocation as an example of why, despite its concerns about using funds from the ASUSF reserves, the finance committee has subsidized events for student organizations. Kasamahan was allocated approximately $5,300 for Uber codes in order to facilitate members’ travel back and forth between USF and SFSU during the week of the event. 

Valerio explained, “It just felt right and made sense to fund that type of thing out of the student activity fee, because we want that type of event to keep going.”

McDermott expressed that he is receptive to hearing student voices, saying, “I have asked the ASUSF/Student Life representatives to work on and prepare a vision for what they would like to see.” 

ASUSF Senate has organized an informal committee tasked to work on issues regarding the work inside of the theater. In describing the committee, Valerio said, “This is just like a group of individuals who came together after I voiced out a need, and I reached out and it’s like, of all of these people that I’m emailing, who is willing to work? And we kind of just got together.” 

The committee has been collaborating with student organizations affected by the theater’s closure, such as the College Players, Kasamahan, and the International Student Association (ISA), to identify student needs, create potential improvement ideas, and present formal statements to the University. In December 2019, the committee presented a formal statement containing its suggestions, as well as concerns about the closure, to then-Provost Donald Heller, whom Valerio pointed to as the group’s administrative point person. 

However, the committee’s progress with University administration has stalled since the beginning of the spring semester. Valerio explained, “We wanted to do a follow-up this semester. And it was just kind of like, the vote of no confidence came out, and it was like, ‘okay, is it productive to be working with someone who might not be working here much longer?’ Like is that where our efforts should go?” 

Instead, the committee has turned its focus toward more immediate actions it can take to support student organizations, such as through ASUSF Senate’s subsidization of events. Valerio said that the committee is also advocating for the University to grant donors the ability to directly donate to support student activities on Day of the Dons, the University’s annual 24-hour fundraising campaign.

“But it’s still not ideal to have students pay for a mistake that students didn’t make,” Valerio said.

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