By Melanie Weir, Opinion Writer
The Seton Hall University Theatre in the Round is falling apart.
Let’s start at the entrance and work our way in. The theatre, built in the 1960s, has not been up to code for years. The railings, on the sides of two of the six aisles, were put in as “temporary” fixes, are now warped and unstable, and have still not been replaced with whatever permanent solution the school had planned. The other four aisles do not even have railings, which, aside from being illegal (according to section 1025.13 of New Jersey Building Code), makes it very difficult for older or disabled theatregoers to get to the seats.
Working our way into the performance space itself, the stage has been covered in so many layers of paint that the first step up is about an inch and a half shorter than the second. Underneath all of those layers of paint, there is a base of only concrete. Most theatres have some kind of sprung floor, so that the actors who must move around onstage—often dancing—do not hurt themselves or do damage to their joints. The Theatre students and performers at this school are forced to rehearse and have class on a stage that is no doubt doing long-term damage to their bodies, and there are apparently no viable alternative classrooms that the Theatre program can use for more physically active classes; last semester, a movement class took place in one of the music practice rooms in Corrigan. There was very little space to begin with, and the room was lined with instruments and music equipment that had to be pushed aside at the start of every class. This semester, Vocal Techniques, a class that requires yoga and other physical exercises, is simply being held in the theater, despite the dangers it poses.
The hard floor is only one of many problems once you go backstage. The men’s dressing room has a hole in the cinderblock wall behind it. The women’s dressing room has a bathroom with no lock on the door. There are exposed pipes and air ducts everywhere. (The one advantage of this, admittedly, is that it makes for an excellent haunted house experience come Halloween every year.) Worst of all, however, is the health-hazard backstage. Much like the basement of Mooney Hall, there is still asbestos in the walls of some of the rooms backstage. Asbestos has been recognized as a health-risk since the early part of the 19th century, and has been a known human carcinogen since 1950. Though the rooms are usually kept locked, having students regularly work in close proximity to this kind of risk is unacceptable.
There were rumors in 2016, around the start of the renovation project, that the theatre in the round would be demolished and the space used for gourmet dining services, and that a new black box theatre would be built somewhere else on campus. This would be ideal, not only because students would then no longer have to deal with the trials and health risks that are currently unavoidable, but also because the students would have practice working in a more mainstream, commonly used theatrical space. Theatre performed in the round—meaning you have an audience on all sides of you—is an interesting experience, yes, but it should not be any theatre student’s largest area of experience. It is a very different kind of acting and staging than is used for most modern theatrical productions; these are most commonly in either a proscenium or black box setting, with the audience on three sides, creating a clear upstage, downstage, stage right and stage left. As an institution that is supposed to be preparing its students for the professional world after college, Seton Hall would do well to give its theatre students an on-campus performance space that allows them to practice the type of performing they will most likely be doing upon graduation.
Seton Hall would, of course, be doing better already if it were to give its theatre students a space that was not actively doing damage to their bodies every time they used it. It may be part of their eventual plan, which is good, of course, but given the fact that students are being harmed—and that the theatre department is underfunded as it is—the school might consider making these renovations a priority.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 27th print edition.
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