Theater & art

Emerson plan for Colonial Theatre panned by faculty

A proposal by Emerson College to transform the historic Colonial Theatre into a dining hall and performance space has sparked fierce opposition.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File
A proposal by Emerson College to transform the historic Colonial Theatre into a dining hall and performance space has sparked fierce opposition.

Plans under consideration by Emerson College to transform the historic Colonial Theatre into a dining hall and performance space drew fierce opposition from Emerson faculty, alumni, and the city’s theater community this week.

Faculty and staff members of Emerson’s Department of Performing Arts sent a statement to Emerson president Lee Pelton on Friday registering their opposition to the proposal, which Pelton insists is not final and only one of several options under consideration.

The plans, according to the statement, “are contradictory to the College’s essential and historical mission, the Performing Arts community’s sensibilities and our current and anticipated curricular and enrollment needs. . . . The potential dissolution of the Colonial Theatre is a betrayal of our values as artists, our mission to be leaders in Performing Arts education and our collective responsibility as stewards of theatrical history.”

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The statement, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe, called for “the immediate cessation’’ of planning for the project until it can be further reviewed.

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The Emerson plan is one of a number of changes underway in Boston’s performing arts community. On Friday, Boston Lyric Opera announced that it would not renew its lease for the Citi Shubert Theatre. Earlier, Boston University announced it plans to sell the BU Theatre used by the Huntington Theatre Company. Separately, Citigroup Inc. announced it would end its sponsorship of the Citi Performing Arts Center.

Emerson performing arts professor Robert Colby said the faculty learned of the school’s deliberations only after the Globe published an article on Thursday documenting the plans.

“Our department is concerned that we weren’t consulted sooner,” Colby said. Faculty, he said, want “an opportunity to provide input in the plans.”

Reached Friday, Pelton said he’d yet to receive the final version of the statement.

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“I look forward to a robust conversation,” said Pelton, who plans to meet with faculty next week. “Any idea I have ever had on my own becomes better when it has been vetted and discussed with the faculty.”

The plans, which appear to be at an advanced stage of development, call for the Colonial’s theater-style seating at the orchestra level to be removed and replaced with dining tables and counter seating. Portions of walls would be removed, creating a new food service area next to the dining hall. The Colonial’s main stage would be sealed off by a movable wall, setting off space for a black box theater with its own entrance. The wall could be raised for larger productions.

In an interview earlier this week, Pelton said the plan would transform the Colonial and adjacent Walker Building into Emerson’s “front door,” replete with a visitors center and cafe, while also providing students with performance and rehearsal space.

“We have a wonderful performing arts program, but our students and faculty that produce Emerson Stage are in need of additional rehearsal and performance space,” said Pelton, who added that any plan would have to be approved by the board of trustees. “This black box would go a long way toward meeting that need.”

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File
The Colonial Theatre.

But in its statement, Emerson’s department of performing arts declared, “Any alteration to the Colonial Theatre or deviation from its intended use would destroy its status as a significant cultural landmark of Boston and its recognized national legacy.”

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Colby acknowledged a need for more student rehearsal and performance space, but said he still had “some concerns about whether that’s the best plan for the space.’’

Marlena Yannetti, who is head of dance at Emerson, said, “It breaks my heart to think that a school I’ve worked at for 42 years would want to ‘reconfigure’ this beautiful matron of a theater.”

Magda Romanska, an associate professor of performing arts, was similarly dismayed.

“Considering the level of outrage that this decision has generated among our alumni, students, parents, donors, general public, and national and international theater community, one has to wonder whether the person who made it has a sensibility suitable for a leadership position of what is, in essence, a leading global art school,” she said in an e-mail.

Pelton said the 1,700-seat Colonial, which for much of the 20th century hosted premieres and pre-Broadway tryouts, has been dark more often than not in recent years.

“The net result [of the plan] is to bring the theater to life and accessible with or without theater tickets,” he said, adding that the school’s broader goal is to create a more conspicuous physical center for the college.

Documents recently obtained by the Globe indicate the school filed a permit application in August with the city seeking to create an Emerson College welcome center in the Colonial Building, next door to the theater’s entrance. The application, which is still pending, does not include any plans for the theater.

“That plan has been discussed for several years,” Pelton said. “It’s not related to the Colonial. It’s related to the common-sensical notion that it would be best to have the center on Boylston Street where it’s open and accessible.”

News of the theater plans elicited strong reactions among many in the theater community and beyond. As of Friday, more than 2,700 people had signed a petition on change.org expressing concern about the theater.

“Pelton should be beyond ashamed: They are deliberately destroying a landmark,” said Jon Platt, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer who ran the Colonial for years.

Platt, who oversaw extensive renovations to the Colonial, added: “This is a black eye for the city of Boston. Do they want to make a cafeteria out of the Sistine Chapel because there are fewer Catholics?”

Chris Welling, president of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 11, expressed similar outrage: “It is a shame that Emerson College feels no sense of civic responsibility or stewardship that should come with ownership of this historic theater.”

Scott Sinclair, an Emerson graduate who works for the lead producer on the Broadway show “Kinky Boots,” worried such plans could damage Emerson’s reputation.

“The message they’re sending to the greater community is that they’re not valuing the arts as much as they claim,” said Sinclair. “Boston has always been one of the major markets for Broadway tours, and to take away such a incredible venue takes away an opportunity from students like myself.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.