Theater department faces budget drama

By Gwenn Barney

When the curtain falls, the drama really begins in Pitt’s Department of Theatre… When the curtain falls, the drama really begins in Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts.

Students are riled up over the department’s decision to rent out its play space for 11 of the 16 weeks for the fall 2011 semester. Many feel that the University is more concerned with making a profit than with educating theater students, but administrators say the rental deal is necessary to secure funding for the elaborate plays the department puts on.

The issue of space is an issue rooted in dollars and cents. In 2003, the Department of Theatre Arts was looking for a partner to supplement its budget, a theater company that would pay a fair fee and offer students educational benefits in return for use of the department’s theater space located in the Stephen Foster Memorial.

At the time, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre was looking for a place to put on its performances and a marriage of convenience was born.

Theatre Arts chair Bruce McConachie said the department’s annual budget will be about $150,000. He said $40,000 of that budget comes directly from the Irish Theatre’s rental payments.

“We can’t do the seasons we do without that kind of income.” McConachie said.

In the fall, the department plans to perform Sweeney Todd, a typically costly musical that McConachie said could not be done successfully without the Irish Theatre’s contributions. Students, however, argue that without sufficient access to practice spaces, the show might struggle to find its footing.

“Theater is all about practice,” junior Ben Coppola said. “The more you do it, the better you get at it. If we can’t practice because PICT’s in that space, we can’t get better.”

Junior Casey Lazor has similar frustrations. “Overall, it seems like this financial, lucrative deal is more important than students,” she said.

In total, the University owns three theaters. The Steven Foster Memorial is home to two stages, the Charity Randall and Henry Heymann theaters. There is a third stage, the Studio Theater, in the Cathedral of Learning’s basement.

When the Irish Theatre uses the space in the Steven Foster Memorial, it occupies one stage, leaving just two other stages for the student theater groups, including Pittsburgh Repertory Theater, Red-eye Theater and the Department of Theatre Arts itself. The result is often tight practice schedules and frustrated students.

At a department meeting on Monday, students gathered to express their concerns to Pitt administrators. McConachie recognized at the meeting that the shortage of space is an issue.

“I have complete sympathy for the problems we’re having with lack of space,” McConachie said to the nearly 60 students present, the largest turnout in recent memory for a Chat with the Chair event.

The lack of stage space affects more than only those majoring in theater arts. All students who take classes within the department or participate in theater-related clubs suffer from the shortage.

But McConachie also said at the meeting that no renter besides the Irish Theatre is willing to take the space during the summer. He said summer renting is a prerequisite for any potential partner.

Though the contract that would tie up the Charity Randall Theatre for most of the fall has not yet been signed, McConachie said the partnership with the Irish Theatre will continue.

Students contend that with no end to the Irish Theatre contract in sight, more practice space should be added to the department.

Until the issue of space shortage is remedied, frustrations among the student theater population continue to grow. At least a portion of the students involved feel their complaints have fallen on deaf ears and that poor communication within the department is to blame for the current situation.

Coppola, who is heavily involved with stage logistics, said the department is eyeing the seventh floor auditorium in Alumni Hall vacated recently by Kuntu Repertory Theatre as a possible addition to its arsenal of stages. With money tight, it is unlikely the department will be able to rent a stage from any other organization.