University allocates half of necessary budget for major theater renovations


PHOTO BY 2020 SF FOGHORN STAFF

The doors of Presentation Theater, USF’s main performance space, closed four years ago and have remained shuttered since. After the theater failed a health and safety inspection in 2019, USF’s performing arts presentations moved to the Studio Theater in Lone Mountain. Most of the safety concerns had to do with outdated equipment — the theater is technically a hardhat only area. These concerns include the rigging for the fly system over the stage, which is only held up with hemp rope and two-by-fours.

Now, the University is hoping to repair and open the theater as early as fall 2023. The only problem is, of the $10 million needed for repairs, as estimated by a University document shared with the Foghorn, only $5 million has been allocated by the University. The $5 million comes from a 2022 donation of around $15 million from Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation for the Arts — the remaining $10 million will be funneled into other programs. “That will make it a safe space to be in, but that will not make it a theater space,” said Megan Nicely, the chair of the performing arts department. The other half of the budget has not been allocated yet.

USF said they will focus first and foremost on making the space compliant with the American Disabilities Act (ADA), as neither the stage nor the emergency exits are wheelchair accessible. Beyond that, much of the space’s interior is original to the building, constructed in 1930. Both the seats and the stage lighting system must be replaced. 

Sutter Mckenna, a fourth-year performing arts and social justice major (PASJ), has gone his entire USF career without access to the Presentation Theater. “The ironic thing is that Presentation Theater is still on the front page of [PASJ’s] brochure,” said Mckenna. He also expressed frustration on behalf of the current cohort of fourth-year PASJ majors, who were told they’d be able to perform their senior projects in Presentation Theater. 

The performing arts department is currently using the Studio Theater, housed in Lone Mountain, as its main performance space. Studio Theater is a black box theater, small and designed for flexibility in the location and configuration of the audience. It is only capable of seating a maximum of 120 audience members, according to Josh McDermott, the director of performance spaces at USF. Presentation Theater is a proscenium theater, a much more traditional design, and currently can seat 470 audience members. 

“The Studio Theater on Lone Mountain was never intended to be a primary performance venue,” said Nicely. “It is a black box space used as a classroom and small-scale presenting space seating 100. It lacks dressing rooms, a bathroom, and complete technical equipment for training and performance.”

Last weekend, College Players performed “Heathers: The Musical” over three nights to accomodate for the smaller space. “[Studio Theater] really limits the scale of our productions, which we’ve worked around extremely well,” said Fen Wright, a third-year psychology major and a member of the College Players executive board. 

According to Nicely, most students pursuing a career in the performing arts will find themselves in a proscenium-style space. Current USF students will graduate without experience in such a theater. 

Mckenna expressed concern that the lack of a proscenium theater is keeping theater professionals away from USF. “[Having a proscenium theater] would attract playwrights and professional theater people to come work with us,” said Mckenna. “It’s not just a space that we want to be open, it’s a space that we deserve to have open,” said Bria Cooper, a second-year performing arts and social justice major.

“It sounds simple to say an artist needs a stage, but it really is true,” Cooper continued. In her time at USF, the theater has become an increasingly important issue to her. “We’re literally performing and rehearsing in classrooms and fighting over the theater space that we do have,” said Cooper. “That’s across theater, dance, and music, and other clubs that do performances that we are essentially all in competition with for space.”

Cooper said the performing arts and social justice department has seen an exodus of students from the major, possibly due to the lack of performance space. “There are different arts programs even within the Bay Area that have more space than we do and more opportunities to perform than we do because of the limited space.” Nicely said “Most of these students have also left the university, but some have either switched majors or again more commonly dropped down to a minor and pursued a different major.” Nicely also noted that the incoming class this year was the largest in program history.

Kasamahan, the Filipino culture and performance club, has struggled to adapt their performances to the Studio Theater or the McLaren Conference Center, another campus space that students have used in absence of the Presentation Theater. Instead, they have rented out the McKenna Theater at San Francisco State University, costing the club a hefty $14,000. James Paolo Hermogeno, a fourth-year psychology major and Kasamahan’s cultural director, expressed his concern both for budgeting and transportation with this arrangement. “It’s really hard to figure out a way to transport 155 cast members from USF all the way down to San Francisco State,” said Hermogeno. “We’ve been finding it really hard just to find a space for our cast to do full-out practices,” said Kahmala Gonzales, a fourth-year psychology major and member of Kasamahan.

Currently, there is no proposed plan to make up the extra $5 million to restore the theater to a performance level space. Students who are passionate about making up the difference are encouraged to write letters to Father Fitzgerald, or email the Performing Arts Student Council to sign their letter to the administration, advocating for the theater to reopen.

Performing Arts Student Council can be reached at pascusfca@gmail.com.

The University did not respond in time to comment on this story.

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