In 2004, when the idea of the Walgreen Drama Center was in its nascence, Arthur Miller, just two years before his death, reviewed the designs for the project. The theater within the center was to be built as a tribute to Miller, the iconic playwright, award-winning writer and perhaps the most-celebrated University alum.
This plan will be realized tonight as the Arthur Miller Theater has its grand opening with “Playing for Time,” Miller’s dramatic adaptation of a biographical account of the Holocaust. Although the play’s subject is somber, the theater’s opening will be an indelible celebration of theater, community and of Miller himself.
Former School of Music Dean Karen Wolff, who accompanied Miller as he reviewed the design, said Miller was pleased with the prospects.
“(In dealing with the School of Music, Theater, & Dance) it was always the students he had in mind,” Wolff said. “(The theater) will continue to inspire countless students as they learn and practice their skills, similar to Miller’s experiences at the University as he honed his ability as a young playwright. ”
Central to Miller’s insistence on inspiring and aiding students was his request for flexibility of space. He envisioned the creation of a space that was not only ideal for presenting a play but for transforming the actors’ scope within that space, Wolff said.
With a staggering donation from pharmacy tycoon and alum Charles Walgreen, Jr. and the vision of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, Miller’s ideas for the theater became reality. The theater displays certain aspects of modern construction: sharp architectural detail, advanced lighting fixtures and – in adherence with Miller’s desire for flexibility – reconfigurable performance area. The space can be configured to present either a thrust or end-stage design.
The theater will serve as a replacement for the Trueblood Theater, which was once located in the now-demolished Frieze building. By comparison, the Miller Theater offers more physical space than Trueblood; it holds 240 seats whereas the Trueblood seated just 150.
However, the subtle intimacy that is a necessary component in the design of a theater – that which evokes the crucial connection of audience and actor – is not forgone with the upgrade from Trueblood to Miller. The theater’s main floor and splendid balcony design were modeled after the Elizabethan courtyard theater, a structure that emphasizes closeness between performer and spectator.
“(The Theater) is a wonderful space,” said John Neville-Andrews, professor of theatre and acting, “We’re now able to broaden our range of play.”
Not surprisingly, there are various grievances on the heels of the theater’s opening, the biggest possibly being the change of location – from the generally accessible Frieze building to the seemingly remote North Campus.
“We were nervous about the movement to North Campus when we first came,” Neville-Andrews said, “but we overcame those fears; we realized we could be a benchmark, a way to attract people to North Campus and to the (Walgreen) Center.”
The parking spaces in University-delineated “Blue Lot” are another issue that could spark controversy. Not only are the allotted spaces limited, but the required payment for parking could prove to be less than convenient for theater students and faculty – students and faculty who might be less than pleased to be making the trek in the first place.
Still, amid the gripes that may arise, the opening of the Miller Theater marks a significant point in the progression of theater and the arts in general at the University. At the essence of Miller’s legacy was his attention to student involvement, his devotion to the innovation of craft and his idea of transforming words into the passionate action that is performance – the making of art for the masses.