Campus News

Dedication of the Wish Theater and Re-dedication of the Pickard Theater, Robert H. Edwards, President
May 12, 2000

Story posted May 12, 2000

Welcome to our many guests, and especially to Barry and Oblio Wish, Mrs. Wish and the Wish family.

This is the third dedication to take place at this site. Memorial Hall was first dedicated in 1882, 17 years after the Civil War and after the idea for a Civil War Memorial at Bowdoin was first conceived. The building was not originally a theater. Theater was apparently banned as an inappropriate activity for young men during the College's early years-and so it contained classroom and lecture spaces. The bronze plaques honoring Bowdoin students who served in the Civil War were added seven years later in 1889.

By 1934, the ban on theater had been lifted, however, and the student dramatic organization, Masque and Gown, was founded. George "Pat" Quinby, Class of 1923, returned to his college to lead the first era of Bowdoin theater, which he did for thirty-two years, until 1966. By the 1950s, the success of the students' dramatic productions, performed in various locations about the campus, had made it clear that a theater was urgently needed. The generous bequest of Frederick W. Pickard, Class of 1894, made possible the first major remodeling of Memorial Hall, and in 1955, Pickard Theater was dedicated.

In 1970, A. Raymond "Ray" Rutan, Class of 1951, returned to Bowdoin to lead a new era of Bowdoin theater. After earning an MFA at the Yale School of Drama, Ray had occasionally filled in for Pat Quinby, and he had worked professionally in theater and film. Ray arrived just in time for the arrival of women at the college, which enabled him to instill in them, as well as in Bowdoin men, a love of theater.

In 1971, a year later, June Vail arrived and created dance at Bowdoin. Since then, dance and theater have had their own dance, sometimes operating separately, sometimes as a single department, as today. But today dance flourishes. Students who dance have tripled in the past decade. Over a hundred students were in the Spring Dance Gala a few weeks ago. There have been ten performances in the past six weeks. Like theater, the dance program teaches a mix of performance and history, theory, criticism and choreography - as theater teaches directing.

It is clear that Davis Robinson, the new Director of the Theater Program is bringing us exceptional vitality as well.

But by the 1990s it was all too much for poor old Memorial Hall. Theater was billowing out of it. In my time here there have been performances in Jack McGee's Pub, in the Chapel, in the Druckenmiller atrium, in Kresge and in the Chase Barn.

Which brings us to the present, and to our dedication and rededication of two remarkable structures.

To say that this has been a wonderful and, in every sense of the word, a dramatically, extravagantly difficult project, is understatement. First, we backed into it, ignobly and narrowly, initially as mostly a health and safety problem. But as we looked at solutions to fundamental paint-shop, scenery and handicapped-access problems, we increasingly engaged the theater and dance program. We swiftly discovered a threshold fact: no single solution can serve all the arts. Music, on the one hand, and theater and dance on the other, need fundamentally different space. So the project swiftly defined itself as being expressly for theater and dance.

We then discovered another fundamental fact: that the needs of academic, experimental, educational theater are very different from the needs of traditional theater. The first needs simple, elemental, very flexible, relatively small space with very high tech lighting and sound, to permit maximum inventiveness and swift improvisation. Traditional theater, in addition to audience comfort and accessibility - air conditioning, seating, restrooms, and so on - has tremendous back-stage needs: scenery construction and handling, rehearsal space, dressing rooms and showers, green rooms, and so forth.

Finally, we were reminded that we frequently want to use both sorts of space at the same time. We could not in Pickard: our experimental theater was directly under the main stage. We also have a valued and important summer tenant: the Maine State Music Theater, with its high professional standards. But could we cede our theater program to the Maine State for an entire summer?

The problem was that every time our planners tried to satisfy all our program needs within the existing Memorial Hall, a major piece of program popped out the side, with nowhere to go. So, another threshold: we had to expand beyond the footprint. We had to create new space: first, a renovated proscenium arch theater, in a large, dominant, historic, granite,

Civil War Memorial that was both old and inaccessible; and "something else." We knew only that in addition to its professional and technical needs, the "something else" would appear on an architecturally resonant, historic campus, with cherished green space between existing buildings.

That "something else" is where we now are: the high-tech experimental theater.

None of this was fore-ordained.

What this complicated problem implied, five years ago, was that we needed an absolutely first-class architectural firm: one that was expert in theater construction, historic renovation, design, and the ways of working with aggressively interested campus building committees.

And it also meant that we were going to need three times the quantity of money that we'd planned for in Bowdoin's capital campaign.

What then ensued was to become almost a case study of a successful, complex project. For we found as architects Grieves, Worrall, Wright and O'Hatnick, who had done much work in theater, in Baltimore and around the country, and had renovated and re-created very successful music and theater space at Princeton University. And we were blessed to have as a graduate, a Board member, and a good friend an amazingly successful financial entrepreneur, Barry Wish, of the Class of 1963.

The results, we think, are exceptional. And I thought to say a word about the building, for it responds brilliantly to a very demanding program brief.

1. Note that the design of the Wish Theater is a diamond, set at 45 degrees from Memorial Hall. This creates the space for an natural atrium and point of entry to the building. (Initially, I note, the atrium was going to be an open plaza. But, we said to Jim Grieves, snow: what about snow collecting, leaves accumulating, and ice cascading from the roof of Memorial Hall? Jim said he'd heard of snow - read about it. But one day he was up here and Maine provided a real howler of a snow storm. Well, the result is what you entered: a fine, covered atrium. But Jim got the last word: a package arrived for Blythe one day; in it was one of those glass balls. In the glass ball was a replica of the theater project, and when you shook it, it snowed.)

2. This diamond-like siting of the building, in addition to complementing the granite monolith, preserved a wonderful green space between the Wish Theater and Searles Hall.

3. The low elevation of the building putting the Wish Theater's performance space below grade, gives a pleasing asymmetry to-prevents competition between-the Wish Theater and Memorial Hall.

4. The idiom of the Wish Theater, which resonates with the great, clear span, steel and glass spaces that were being built as national exhibition halls in the 19th century-just when the Memorial Hall was being built-is both respectful and a statement of its own singularity. Blythe and Jim Grieves argued long and vociferously about the materials whether the cladding of the building should be masonry, stucco, metal, or some other substance. The eventual choice of spandrel glass, creating a reflecting, negative space, antiphonal to the four-square granite Memorial Hall was, we think, brilliant.

5. Finally, the design creates a fine, formal, welcoming avenue into the campus from the town, along the southwest edge of the Wish Theater.

Inside, the modernity and completeness of facilities have been proven wonderfully in the last weeks. I am told that the two theaters have had performances on 28 of the 32 days since the project was open for business! Directing classes, honors projects, and student productions Evita, the Spring Dance Performance, Midsummer Nights Dream. Last week from New York, we had the Mark Morris Dancers and tonight it is Lily Tomlin.

The invention, energy, and work of many people went into the construction of the Wish Theater and the renovation of Memorial Hall.

I've mentioned our architectural firm, Grieves, Worrall, Wright and O'Hatnick. I'm delighted that Jim Grieves, David Wright, Mark LaPointe, and Chris Elcott have returned for our opening.

But this was also a very complicated project. Joining the 19th century, a well-rooted, granite structure, to a new glass and steel building with different expansion and contraction coefficients was no easy task. Our contractor, H.P. Cummings, did its usual amazing work, careful and thorough. There were many, many clarifications and remediations that they handled expertly during the construction. I welcome Dallas Folk, Peter Warren and Mike Hrico, with our warmest gratitude.

Please note in the program the names of the Building Committee, representing expert program competences. It never allowed its attention to waver.

As ever, it was Bowdoin's remarkable Facilities Staff that oversaw the project: Bill Gardiner, Dave D'Angelo and, especially, Greg Hogan, the construction manager of the project.

Finally, and utterly indispensable, the generosity of many donors is responsible for what we see today. The Davis Family Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Libra Foundation of Maine, many Trustees, Alumni/ae and Friends of the College, members of the MSMT Board and its staff, and those who have made gifts in memory of Michael Roderick - all have all been indispensable and are deeply appreciated.

Finally, Barry Wish's founding gift of more than $5 million really made it possible for us to dream. We had put the Theater in the capital campaign plan at $3.5 million. This was not because we thought we could do it for that sum, but because we had no prospect of funds beyond it. Barry and Oblio rescued and brought into the present what would have been, but for them, postponed many years into the future.

Barry graduated from Bowdoin in 1963. No one, since then, has devoted more time and energy to the College. He was a member of the Board of Overseers, now serves on Bowdoin's Board of Trustees; chaired Bowdoin's Investment Committee for five years, and is currently chair of the Development and College Relations Committee. It is wonderful that Barry and Oblio and their five children are here, with their spouses and with Barry's mother. Barry's children, in fact, are honoring the project and Barry and Oblio by providing a teak bench to be placed outside the Theater.

There is much more to say, but I must not say it. I'd only mention one additional feature of the project. I confess that Blythe and I cooked up the idea of a weathervane for the Wish Theater. We thought that it should be a polar bear. What should it look like? It took Mark Wethli, Professor of Art, and Susan Kaplan, Director of the Arctic Museum, to come up with the right design. Now, apparently, polar bears only travel north; this one of course, will go where the wind blows. But we hope that this prototype of the weathervane will always go wherever Barry and Oblio go. For it symbolizes the Wish Theater - or more specifically the $5 million that Barry no longer has, and the wonderful project that we have. We hope that our very generous donors, Barry and Oblio, will think of Bowdoin's gratitude to them every time they look at their polar bear.

Now, it's a pleasure to introduce June Vail, chair of the Department of Theater and Dance, who joined the Bowdoin faculty in 1971 as Director of the Dance Program.

« Back | Campus News | Academic Spotlight | | Subscribe to Bowdoin News by Email