Dialogue Fall 2017: A Tale of Two Deans

A Tale of Two Deans

Meeting the Needs of the Performing Arts at Northwestern
by Dean Barbara O’Keefe

From its founding in 1878 to the unequaled reputation and global presence it enjoys today, the School of Communication has responded to new opportunities with innovation, adaptation, and growth. With this great expansion—notably in the dramatic arts—came unique leadership challenges. Overcoming them successfully has established the school’s preeminent position in the communication arts and sciences.

It was 1972, and School of Speech Dean Roy Wood had a problem. Northwestern’s theatre program had grown in size and prominence to the point where it strained the school’s available facilities, and by the early 1970s one important campus theatre space, the auditorium in Annie May Swift Hall, clearly needed to be abandoned until substantial renovations could be made.

In the face of this challenge, Wood decided to raise the necessary funds to build a real performing arts center, and he was able to convince then president Robert Strotz to approve his plan. In 1974 ground was broken for the new Theatre and Interpretation Center (now the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts). By October 1980 the building was complete, finally giving Northwestern’s theatre and performance studies students safe and well-equipped spaces in which to do their work.

The fundraising campaign culminated that month in “The Way They Were,” a gala performance celebrating the opening of the new center. Wood asked faculty member Bob Banner, active as a producer of television variety shows, to help organize the gala. Wood and Banner prevailed on many successful alumni performers then working in Hollywood and on Broadway to return to Evanston and appear onstage with students. A glittering cast was assembled, with Charlton Heston and Ann-Margret serving as cohosts. Candice Bergen made a special appearance in tribute to her father, Edgar Bergen. The cast—a who’s who in entertainment—also included Claude Akins, Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Robert Conrad, Cloris Leachman, Garry Marshall, Sherrill Milnes, Patricia Neal, Charlotte Rae, Robert Reed, McLean Stevenson, and Peter Strauss. One notable number featured six Northwestern alumni then prominent on Broadway: Jerry Orbach, Tony Roberts, Penny Fuller, Carol Lawrence, Nancy Dussault, and Ron Husmann. Each had been the first person to perform a particular key role—and its signature song—in an award-winning musical. The medley included songs from such musicals as West Side Story and Cabaret.

“The Way They Were,” above: student dancers; center, from left: Jerry Orbach, Tony Roberts, Ron Husmann, and Nancy Dussault; Ann-Margret; television cue card expert Carl Marlow; bottom: Cloris Leachman and Charlton Heston

This dazzling event was recorded and edited as a television special for broadcast; syndicated to a national network, it aired three times in prime time to a national audience. More information about the show is available at IMDb and the School of Communication’s CommFest 2018 website.

The gala not only helped raise funds for the new building, it also raised Northwestern’s profile as an important center for theatre studies. But in some ways the evening’s most important result was its impact on our School of Communication community. Producing this event required complex collaborations among faculty, students, and alumni who worked together to organize, design, perform, film, and produce the show. I regularly encounter such alumni as David Lefkowitz, chair of the school’s National Advisory Council, who served as a student member of the organizing committee; Steve Stark, president of television production at MGM, who appeared as a featured performer in the gala’s opening number; and Don Weiner, a successful Hollywood producer who got his start in the business as Banner’s production assistant for the gala. Rocky Wirtz, who later made the naming gift for the Theatre and Interpretation Center, escorted his grandmother, Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz, to the show.

In short, “The Way They Were” was a landmark event in the history of our school. As I have learned more about how it helped support not only our facilities but also our community, I have become increasingly grateful to Dean Wood, Bob Banner, the illustrious alumni who performed that night, and all the students and faculty who helped make the event a success.

When I was being recruited by Northwestern to serve as the sixth dean of its School of Speech, I had many inspiring conversations with the search committee, but one difficult subject its members raised was the school’s poor facilities. And my tours of the facilities were indeed dispiriting: the faculty and programs were shoehorned into far too little space, and the buildings were in various states of disrepair. But I was already an experienced renovator (and, predictably, a fan of HGTV), so with the assurance of then provost Larry Dumas that he would be a good partner in developing better facilities for the school, I agreed to take the job.

Since my arrival at Northwestern in July 2000, we have had no respite from construction. Just about every square inch of our dilapidated spaces has been renovated. A story later in this issue provides details on the many projects we have completed and photos of the results. Recently we were also given significant new space on Northwestern’s Chicago campus in Abbott Hall and on the Evanston campus in a new building adjacent to the Frances Searle Building and on the fifth floor of the beautiful new Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts.

And this past summer we finished a significant set of renovations to the house that Dean Wood built, the Wirtz Center. We rebuilt the interior of the Josephine Louis Theater, with a new circulation plan and seating, and have just completed remodeling its lobby. The Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center has been updated with new carpet, paint, and furniture. We added a stack of two beautiful new black box theaters to the complex’s northwest corner. A gut renovation of the second floor on the north side allowed us to create two new seminar rooms, vocal coaching rooms, rehearsal spaces, new design studios, lockers for students, and three additional black box studios. One of the new studio spaces is equipped for teaching screen acting. On the second floor, wide hallways with comfortable benches and walls with whiteboards provide spaces for students to meet informally and work on their projects.

The Wirtz Center now has the right amount and type of space to serve our undergraduates well. In the past five years, however, it has become clear that our graduate arts programs need more space than we can provide in Evanston—and, in fact, different kinds of spaces.

One of the biggest changes in our school over the past 15 years has been the growth of graduate programs. More and more, a school’s potential impact in academia and the creative economy is dependent on the size and quality of its graduate programs. In fact, in fields where our programs are ranked against those of competing institutions, such rankings are heavily dependent on the quality and reputation of doctoral and professional degree programs. In communication sciences and disorders, program rankings are based on the quality of professional programs in speech-language pathology and audiology. In radio/television/film, rankings are very dependent on the quality of MFA programs in film, producing, and screenwriting. In theatre, perceptions of program quality are heavily influenced by the success of MFA programs in playwriting, theatre design, and especially acting.

Accordingly, our departments have been strengthening and expanding—and in some cases adding—professional and graduate programs. We added faculty in theatre design and directing and expanded the number of students admitted to those MFA programs. We also created two new radio/television/ film MFA programs: writing for the screen and stage and documentary media. A new MA program in sound arts and industries helps complete the department’s portfolio. And we expanded graduate student support across the school.

But we are still missing a key piece: an MFA program in acting. Graduate programs in the arts form an ecology where artists of different types collaborate in their education. Lacking graduate actors to work with, our writers, designers, directors, sound artists, and other specialists cannot learn from peers or do their best work. Without graduate actors working in its community, Northwestern offers an incomplete experience for its students and suffers in rankings of theatre programs.

After due consideration of the challenges this will represent, we are now resolved to develop a graduate program in acting. However, we need to find space for this ongoing expansion of graduate education so that it will not take opportunities away from our undergraduate students.

Fortunately, the University has offered us additional space on the Chicago campus—on the second floor of Abbott Hall, just across from Navy Pier and a few blocks south of Water Tower Place. The second floor (a former cafeteria space) has high ceilings and enough room to create two black boxes and several teaching and work spaces. Located in the middle of Chicago’s vibrant cultural community, it is the ideal location for a center that will foster collaboration among our graduate programs and between those programs and the great arts institutions of Chicago.

Like Dean Wood, I will need to spearhead significant fundraising to cover the costs of renovating this space and meeting the needs of our programs and students. And inspired by Dean Wood, I am inviting our entire community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni to work together to mount an event that can energize us and help us find the resources we need to move the school forward.

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, another gala performance featuring School of Communication alumni will draw our community together in celebration of what we have already achieved and of our new plans to advance the school. The 1980 gala drew its audience primarily from the Chicago area, but we are hoping that alumni from across the country will return for an exciting reunion weekend, CommFest 2018, that will begin on Friday, April 20, and lead up to the gala. The festival will provide attendees with a chance to rediscover the school, which has changed considerably in the past 20 years. It will also feature minireunion events for all our subcommunities, including Waa-Mu, WNUR, Studio 22, STUCO, and debate. Preceding the festival, a conference on new developments in communication sciences and disorders will be held on Thursday, April 19.

The gala on Saturday evening will feature some of the stars of the 1980 gala along with many of the successful Northwestern alumni we see in films and on television every day.

Like the 1980 gala, CommFest 2018 has the potential to gather all our alumni to reconnect; to help them explore how they might work toward common aims, with each other and with our programs in Evanston, Chicago, and Doha; and to create new spirit and unity within the School of Communication community. I hope you will save April 20–21 on your calendar and begin planning your participation in CommFest 2018. We believe it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Someone once said, “Our future must be the fulfilled promise of our past.”

Those words were our vision when we dreamed of a new theater back in the 1970s. In 1972 Annie May Swift Hall’s theater had been condemned, and we had raised only $30,000 since fundraising began in 1913. But we had deep traditions traceable to incredible faculty, brilliant alumni, and great goodwill from the University. And so began a campaign to not only bring a theatre and performance center to the Evanston campus but also to gather students, faculty, and alumni in ways that went far beyond fundraising. In the end we all felt the need to celebrate ourselves and our University.

On October 11, 1980, former and current faculty, committed alumni, and willing trustees and senior administrators came together for a televised gala performance to celebrate not just a state-of-the-art theatre and performance center but also our past that had made it possible to realize the dream.

Yes, our dream did come true, but its future demanded much more. Reaching new levels of excellence requires new kinds of support, and “state of the art” has a very short half-life.

I am thrilled to know that what was to us the future will now be celebrated in April 2018. Under the strong leadership of Dean Barbara O’Keefe, students, faculty, members of the administration, and alumni will gather to celebrate the fulfilled promise of 140 years of excellence.

As before, the 2018 gala will be a celebration of how our past gives birth to a future. But the joyful secret will be that the gala will carry the seeds that demand celebrations for years to come.

—Roy Wood, Dean, School of Communication
(School of Speech), 1972–88