River Campus has filled gap in cultural life, staff and students say

Wednesday, August 20, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com The River Campus of Southeast Missouri State University is marking its one-year anniversary.
FRED LYNCH ~ flynch@semissourian.com The River Campus of Southeast Missouri State University is marking its one-year anniversary.

Southeast Missouri State University students and faculty begin their second year at the River Campus enthused about the opportunities the school and its performance venues have offered them so far, and they say attendance at River Campus events during the past year suggests the Bedell Performance Hall, the Rust Flexible Theatre and the Shuck Recital Hall filled a gap in the community's cultural life.

The 940-seat Bedell presented nine shows during the 2007-2008 school year, the Rust Theatre had 10 and Shuck Recital Hall hosted 23 musical performances. Tickets for nearly 24,000 seats were issued during the season.

For the first time at Southeast, theater and dance students shared the same facilities. "We never can quite tell which one is a theater student and which one is a dance student because there's so much interaction between the two," said Dr. Rhonda Weller-Stilson, chairwoman of the Department of Theatre and Dance.

Nurturing that symbiotic relationship is one purpose of creating the River Campus. "It's like one big family," said senior Kristen Diering, a dance major from Florissant, Mo. "We all get along so well."

Many theater students become involved in dance performances, she said. "They're willing to work together and come up with amazing pieces. They're all so willing to work with us."

It works the other way in the department as well. Diering had a significant role in the final production at the Rose Theatre, the musical "42nd Street."

A workshop at the River Campus last semester especially affected Diering. Two members of Chicago's Jump Rhythm Dance Project helped choreograph a tap number the students performed in the annual Dance-Apalooza show. Diering had an opportunity to work with the company for a week this past summer and plans to move to Chicago and audition for the group after graduation.

The new facility has supercharged recruitment. Last year 100 students pursued majors in the Department of Theater and Dance. This semester the number is 142. Weller-Stilson said the department has always drawn students from a wide geographical area but that it seems to be widening. "When we bring in incoming students they are amazed," she said.

The opportunity to learn musical theater from artist-in-residence Judith Farris, a Cape Girardeau native who has taught voice to Broadway performers and others in New York City during much of her career, also has drawn students, Weller-Stilson said.

The opening of the River Campus last fall saw the addition of a costume shop supervisor and scene shop supervisor. The shops in the Bedell are considerably larger than those at the old Rose Theatre, making shows much easier to mount, Weller-Stilson said.

Both students and faculty members are proud to be associated with the River Campus, she said. "It's a psychological thing. Everybody is so happy to see the wonderful facility."

Art classes also are taught at the River Campus, and the Crisp Southeast Missouri Regional Museum mounted five shows during the last school year. The move from cramped Memorial Hall quarters into a much bigger space at the River Campus also allowed the university to display much of the Beckwith Collection of Mississippian pottery for the first time.

Moving the collection's 900 ceramics and other items without a single breakage was a triumph, said director Dr. Stanley Grand.

The museum's system of movable walls allowed the first show, the Hainsworth Collection of mostly easel paintings, to be shown in four rooms. For the show of large-scale paintings by St. Louis artist Cindy Tower the walls were removed.

The current exhibit by California artist Gary Lang includes a 13-minute video piece shown on a plasma screen. The first show of the new season will be "Migrations," consisting of new American Indian art.

The new space also has allowed the museum to expand its educational programs, which hardly existed at Memorial Hall.

Grand will leave his position at the end of this month to become the executive director of the Lancaster Museum of Art in Pennsylvania. A search has begun for an interim director, but Grand already has programmed the shows at the museum into 2011.

He lauded university president Dr. Ken Dobbins for standing by the River Campus project when funding problems and a lawsuit caused multiple delays and cost increases. "He really prevailed with this vision," Grand said.

A few glitches

As with any new facility, not everything at the River Campus turned out perfect the first season. The sound system designed for the Bedell did not function correctly until well into the school year, said Bob Cerchio, assistant director of the School of Visual and Performing Arts.

The Bedell had to open with a temporary sound system in place. "It's better to fall behind in the sound system than in the plumbing," Cerchio said.

A lack of parking also produced some grumbling. A 940-seat theater requires 475 parking spaces. The River Campus has 284. Buses shuttle patrons from the parking lot across from Hutson's Fine Furniture. The university also has torn down two buildings across from the River Campus and plans to use the land for additional parking. Cerchio did not know when that parking would become available.

When an ice storm paralyzed the region just before a Feb. 13 performance of "Ring of Fire," the musical tribute to singer Johnny Cash, half the River Campus grounds crew couldn't come to work. But those who did spent two days clearing the parking lot and sidewalks.

Less than half the expected patrons showed up on a chilly March night for a sold-out performance of "Carnival of the Animals" by the Southeast Missouri Symphony Orchestra.

But by any measure the first season was a big success. "It really did go off better than we ever imagined," Cerchio said. "The amazing thing to me was that this facility was something people in the community really wanted."

When a chance to collar a touring company of "The Producers" came along, the show sold out in five weeks. People no longer have to drive to Carbondale, Ill., Paducah, Ky., or St. Louis to see high-quality shows, Cerchio said. "We are filling what was a void in the community."

A performance of "STOMP" has been added to a 2008-2009 schedule that includes three Broadway shows by touring companies — "Sweeney Todd," "Hairspray" and "Footloose," along with performances by the Battleworks Dance Company, dancer Savion Glover, the Russian National Ballet and Cirque Eloize, a circus performance for children.

The symphony season will begin Oct. 14 with the Southeast Missouri Symphony Orchestra performing music by Mozart and Beethoven. The St. Louis Symphony will perform here Feb. 3.

The Southeast Symphony will present "Peter and the Wolf" Dec. 9 along with "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast" in conjunction with the Southeast University Choir and Choral Union. The symphony also will perform Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" March 3 and Haydn's "Nelson" Mass with the Southeast University Choir and Choral Union April 7. The symphony's final concert of the next season will be May 5, when it will preview its concerts in Shanghai and Beijing later that month, the symphony's first-ever international tour.

New York City director/choreographer Dennis Courtney will direct the Department of Theatre and Dance's first production of the new season, "The 1940s Radio Hour." The Oct. 1 to 5 show will recreate a live radio broadcast from 1942.

Other department productions will be "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You" and "The Actor's Nightmare" Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, "Twelfth Night" Dec. 3 to 6, the Fall Dance Concert Dec. 10 to 14, the Neil Simon musical "Sweet Charity" Feb. 25 to March 1, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Angels in America" March 26 to 29 and April 1 to 4, and Dance-Apalooza April 16 to 19.

New ticket policy

Last season at the Bedell, patrons saw empty seats at sold-out performances when people who bought season tickets decided not to attend. The touring shows had 7.4 percent no-shows. The percentage increased to 30 percent for symphony performances and 19 percent for theater and dance events.

Late last season, the university changed a policy that allowed season ticketholders to return tickets for a foundation credit two weeks before any performance. Now tickets can be returned anytime before the curtain and will be resold. A foundation credit is a tax-deductible contribution to the university.

Season ticket sales are down so far this year. Cerchio attributes that in part to a price increase necessary because the number of touring and theater and dance events increased this year.

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