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A (Performance) Space Of One’s Own

Miller Theater: supposedly open to undergrads, but ... is it, really?

Miller Theater: supposedly open to undergrads, but…is it, really?

Columbia’s got a decent-sized campus, so one would think that finding rehearsal and performance space would be a fairly easy task for our many performing arts groups. Unfortunately, with a constantly-increasing number of groups vying for space, and the Columbia bureaucracy doing what the Columbia bureaucracy does best (i.e. creating complications), the task is far from easy. Senior staffer Betsy Ladyzhets explains how this  issue extends beyond the theater community, and what it has to do with Miller Theater.

Saying there are a lot of performance groups at Columbia is like saying there are a lot of flyers on Lerner first-floor pillars: It’s just a gross understatement. There are tons of performance groups at Columbia. There are loads of performance groups. Armadas of performance groups. There are theater groups, music groups, dance groups, cultural-specific groups, and a cappella groups both famous and infamous . There are Shakespeare groups, martial arts groups, and I think there’s even a swing dance group. And all of those groups, diverse as they are, have one thing in common: they need space.

Yesterday, I spoke to Christina Kyrillos, BC ’16, the head of the Columbia University Performing Arts League (CUPAL) about the issue of space at Columbia. CUPAL only oversees nineteen out of the vast array of performance groups, but many of those nineteen are theater groups – or, the groups with the most demanding space needs. The council’s role is primarily to facilitate communication between those groups. For example, during a pre-pre-calendering meeting before each semester, all of the groups overseen by CUPAL negotiate over which groups can use which spaces for rehearsals and performances.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have as much space as we’d love to have here at Columbia,” she said–another gross understatement. Not only are performance groups trying to expand their repertoire more and more every year, new groups are constantly forming; while great for the students involved, this can cause trouble when it comes to finding places for those groups to use. And the most carefully laid plans at pre-pre-calendering can quickly go awry when space requests go into UEM and hundreds of other, non-CUPAL Columbia groups try to book spaces of their own.

At this year’s CUPAL showcase, the MCs joked that fighting for rehearsal and performance space at CUPAL meetings is analogous to the secret deals discussed in the Hamilton song “The Room Where it Happens,” only with nineteen opposing parties instead of two. I asked Christina how accurate that portrayal was.

“It’s unfortunately not an exaggeration at all,” she said. CUPAL is definitely more organized than early American politics, but when most theater groups have two major shows a year that rehearse almost every weekday night for several weeks, getting rehearsal space can be a major battle. Non-musical groups will look for empty rooms in Hamilton, while groups that need a piano fight for space in Lerner and dance groups negotiate with the Barnard dance department. There are even challenges for larger ensembles with less demanding rehearsal schedules: the CU Wind Ensemble, for example, has consistently had to find new places to hold its Monday evening rehearsals, despite the very limited number of rooms that have the space and acoustics that the group needs in order to effectively rehearse. And, of course, all of these groups need to use theaters or other large spaces for their performances.

You’re probably familiar with most of those performance spaces: Roone, Lerner Black Box, Glicker-Milstein, Minor Latham Playhouse. But, for students like Christina, there’s a gaping hole in that list: Miller Theater, the theater of Columbia’s graduate performing arts school. “The issue with the Miller theater is basically that it’s an on-campus venue that undergraduate students have pretty much no access to,” Christina said. Theoretically, the theater is open to undergrad groups for one day a semester, but one day of a performance with tech in Miller costs about $2,500. Some groups do pretty well in ticket sales, but none of them do well enough to spend that much for just one performance.

“Even if a group had the money that could pay for it, and could fully utilize that date, it’s really limited in terms of what groups can use the date,” Christina explained. Most theater groups need a full week of tech rehearsals in a space before they can perform, and even music and dance groups need at least a day for dress rehearsal. This makes performing in Miller almost impossible; Christina could count on one hand the number of undergrad groups that have used that space in the past ten years.

Groups are eager to perform in Miller because, Christina said, it’s a theater unlike any other on campus: “It really is the only theater on campus that’s an appropriate construction and size for a lot of types of shows that we have here.” The black box theaters are very small, quickly sell out, and don’t have the technical capacity that many groups want for their shows, while Roone presents its own set of challenges with its large size and fixed seating. If groups such as KCST and the CU Players were able to use Miller, shows like “Tweflth Night” and “Rapture, Blister, Burn” wouldn’t sell out so quickly, making it possible for more students to see the amazing performances of their peers.

“I know so many groups who could do really incredible things in that space, but they just … can’t,” Christina lamented.

That’s not all: outside of Columbia, donors to Miller Theater and prospective students alike are given the impression that the theater is used by undergrad groups. Christina admitted that not every tour guide or Columbia administrator claims that fact, but enough people say it that the true lack of undergrad use of Miller becomes almost embarrassing. We all know Columbia tours can be misleading, but if alumni are going to donate to the theater, they have the right to know the truth about how–and how much–it’s used.

So, is there any way to fix this problem? Christina talked about campaigning the administration for more undergrad time in Miller, as well as performance space in the Manhattanville campus and rehearsal space in the graduate theater school rooms (which aren’t in use during the times undergrad groups usually rehearse.) And CUPAL’s advisor is working on securing performance spaces in the buildings that will be vacated by the business school when it moves to Manhattanville. Those efforts have been largely unsuccessful so far, but if more groups get involved and became vocal about this issue, deans and other administrators may be persuaded to make more space available to undergrads, or at least give undergrad groups a reduced rate for using Miller.

Christina specifically mentioned CCSC and the other undergrad student councils as organizations that can help advocate with CUPAL. A few years ago, those councils paid into a Miller Theater Fund, intended to help undergrad groups afford Miller’s high costs; more recently, the fund has died out due to the fact that almost no groups applied for it. Christina is hoping to “reignite the Miller Theater Fund,” so that performance groups can use the money to either use Miller, or use an off-campus space nearby, like Riverside Church. She also stressed the potential of those councils as advocacy resources who could show the administration that not only are theater groups “up in arms”–they have wider support from outside students.

“It’s so sad, sitting in Lerner here–Miller’s right next door, but we can’t use it,” Christina said, close to the end of our interview. But she’s optimistic about the future of performance spaces at Columbia, especially if groups continue to work together, rather than fighting in what Christina called the “Hunger Games” of space. She said that it would be productive for “any group that supports programming similar to [CUPAL’s] current groups” to join the organization, and suggested that other types of groups (such as a cappella) would benefit from forming official, ABC-recognized councils similar to CUPAL.

Of course, Columbia’s campus exists within limited boundaries–we don’t have the space to just build a new theater. But within the next few years, construction at Barnard and areas freed by the Manhattanville move might bring new opportunities for space, and increased collaboration might make getting all groups the space they need easier. And, with luck, cooperation, and perseverance, we may be seeing undergraduate performances at Miller sometime soon.

The next venue of CUPAL’s hopes and dreams via Miller’s official website

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5 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Lenfest Center for the Arts in Manhattanville with multiple theater venues will be opening this fall. Also Prentis Hall right across the street from Lenfest is to be renovated. Also the University Forum at 125th street is under construction which will have a large and several smaller venues.

    1. h says:

      @h From what I have heard none of these spaces will be open to undergraduates.

      1. Alum says:

        @Alum That is not true, although it will obviously be focused for the graduate school of the arts. But with the new theaters, Miller and Dodge will be more available for undergrads. A large part of Manhattanville is to move a considerable portion of graduate programs and research off Morningside to eventually free the entire campus for Columbia undergrads. Business School and engineering buildings are next after the first three buildings open this fall.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Columbia also needs to curtail non university groups from using their spaces. Many groups from NYU, Manhattan School of Music, churches, etc request Columbia space to rehearse.

  • Alum says:

    @Alum Columbia should buy Manhattan School of Music and turn it into a music and arts center.

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