TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For decades, The University of Alabama’s theatre and dance department has produced world-class performances, actors and dancers.
Without a doubt, it’s been a top-notch academic program in the Southeast with award-winning professors sharing a wealth of knowledge and expertise with their students.
But the department’s facilities in Rowand-Johnson Hall have never truly reflected the quality or potential of the theatre and dance programs, even from their beginning, which has hampered the growing department’s potential.
“The Gallaway Theatre in Rowand-Johnson Hall was built in 1956,” said William Teague, the department’s chair. “It has not had any substantial renovation in 60 years. We’re probably one of the longest running public areas on campus that hasn’t had any significant renovation.”
When the theatre and dance facilities were built, they were add-ons to the building, and weren’t properly funded, so the scope of the project was substantially reduced to bring it under budget, Teague said.
“We’ve been hamstrung by an incomplete stage house which really hurts us on the design and production end,” he said.
“Also, there’s been incredible growth in our department. We’ve grown from having 125-150 students 12 years ago to over 350 today. Additionally, we have substantially increased our faculty in both theatre and dance. So we’ve greatly outgrown this facility.”
Needless to say, it’s time for a change.
After several attempts at planning a new performing arts center in the mid-1980s and again in 1999, the green light was finally given to the project in 2014 when the University of Alabama Board of Trustees approved a proposal to construct the Performing Arts Academic Center on the 168-acre former Bryce Hospital property acquired by the University in 2010.
The new $60-million center, which is now in the final stage of planning and will require funding through bonds and charitable contributions, will not only meet the growing needs of the theatre and dance department, but will serve as a new gateway to the University.
“I think that it’s going to be a real jewel in the crown of The University of Alabama,” Teague said.
“This stunning facility – where it’s going to be located coming in on North Campus Way and the new entrance coming off of Jack Warner Parkway – will be everyone’s first impression of The University of Alabama.”
The University is currently working on the restoration of the historic Bryce Main building. This transformation will reenergize and reimagine this historic facility, allowing it to not only be an important part in the story of how campus developed in the past but also how campus will grow in the future.
The main hospital building is being renovated to include faculty offices and rehearsal space for theatre and dance, as well as museums dedicated to both University history and the history of mental health in Alabama.
The center, which will connect to the restored Bryce main, will include three performance theatres – a black box theatre with flexible seating for 175-275, a 350-seat proscenium style theatre and a 450-seat venue specifically designed for dance. These performance venues will replace the outdated Gallaway Theatre and Morgan Auditorium.
Teague said one of the problems with performing in Morgan is that the stage area is inadequate.
“The stage opening in Morgan is about 28 feet, which can only accommodate 20 dancers,” he said. “In the new theatre, the opening of the stage will be 42-45 feet. Now we’ll be able to comfortably accommodate up to 40 dancers on stage.”
Teague said another issue with Morgan Auditorium is the stage is 3 ½ feet high so the audience can’t see the performers feet, an essential element of dance.
The stage in the new center’s dance theatre will be lower and the seats will be elevated, allowing patrons to see the feet of performers on stage.
Teague said off-stage space is just as important as on-stage space. In the current facility, if a dancer is moving off stage at a high velocity, he or she will crash into a wall. The new stage will provide adequate off-stage space.
The floors will be specially engineered to provide significant changes from what dance students currently experience.
“The dance floors will have a spring, or flexibility, in them so that they give, which is safer for our dancers,” Teague said.
Cornelius Carter, director of the department’s dance program, said as the dance world continues to evolve and expand, so must their students and faculty.
“Having a new state-of-the-art Performing Arts Academic Center dedicated to this mission both encourages our current students and provides an attractive and inspiring educational initiative for the University community at large,” Carter said.
“Basically, it allows us to dream more. It will be very transformative.”
The center will play a vital role in community engagement.
Teague said the location alone will be a major boon for the community. Its location on the Bryce campus and having adjacent parking lots provides easy access for the community to attend theatre and dance performances, unlike Rowand-Johnson Hall, which is an uphill walk from parking lots in the area and is landlocked and at the center of campus.
There will also be gardens and a number of public spaces in and around the center, which can be used for community events.
The department already partners with local public schools like the Alberta School of Performing Arts in training, curriculum and help with auditions, but the new center will allow the department to host high school dance and theatre festivals as well as other activities.
“With the center, we’ll be able to incorporate more programs for kids in the community such as after school programs and joint concerts,” Carter said. “I think it’s huge opportunity that we can share this with the community. It really allows us to embrace the community in ways that are limited now.”
Onward and Upward
Teague strongly believes the new center will increase the department’s enrollment numbers by providing a much more attractive learning environment, more space and the technology and equipment necessary for students to thrive in the performing arts.
“This has been a long time coming for The University of Alabama. We’re the capstone of higher education in the state of Alabama, and I think that after 60 years we will finally have a performing arts academic center that is worthy of the name The University of Alabama.
“It is going to be a beautiful facility.”
To learn more information about the new Performing Arts Academic Center and view the proposed floor plans, visit ua.edu/performingarts.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.