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  • Writer's pictureSylvie Epstein

Barred From Access

On Miller Theatre’s mysterious dearth of student performances.

By Sylvie Epstein

Every year, during Columbia’s New Student Orientation Program, all 1500 or so undergraduates file into Roone Arledge Auditorium in Lerner Hall for a preview of the famous Varsity Show. The skits, written by, for, and about undergraduate students, introduce us to the community’s inside jokes, to the performing arts scene on campus, and, perhaps most importantly, to the strange and gargantuan multipurpose space that is Roone. Chances are, NSOP isn’t the last time most Columbia students with any connection to the arts see a performance in that room. Student groups eager for an audience are relegated to the auditorium despite its countless architectural foibles.

In February 2020, I attended “Bhangra in the Heights XIII,” a showcase for tri-state area dance troupes who perform Bhangra, the popular Indian folk style of movement. The event was organized and hosted by Columbia University Bhangra and a friend of mine, an active member of the group, had invited me. I showed up late to Roone the evening of the performance and was consigned to seats in the very back of the auditorium. The dancing was spectacular, and because of the performers’ colorful ensembles and enthusiasm for their craft, jubilant energy filled the room. I had only one qualm that evening: From the very back of Roone, I could barely see the stage.

Roone was not built for the arts. I had trouble seeing the stage that night because the house lacks the incremental slant of most theaters. Neither is there a balcony. Aesthetically, too, Roone does not quite fit the bill: The plastic, impermanent chairs, and the floor that looks a bit like that of a middle school gym, pale in comparison to the velvet-lined seats and intricate moldings of a traditional performance hall. Aside from the Varsity Show and Bhangra, other events I’ve attended in Roone include an awfully awkward social mixer during Days on Campus, a “Mega Shabbat,” the Flu Shot drive, and countless Covid tests. Roone Arledge Auditorium is a multipurpose space, through and through.

It’s not that Columbia lacks a tastefully designed, functionally adequate campus establishment dedicated to the arts. The Kathryn Bache Miller Theatre, located next to the main gates, has the elegant atmosphere and cutting-edge equipment of a traditional performing arts space. But if you are a student artist at Columbia, chances are you may never set foot on its stage.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Miller (then named McMillin Theatre), was available for use by Columbia student groups. Thumbing through Spectator archives from the 50s, I found many a listing: “COMMUNICATIONS MATERIALS CENTER will present a film at 9:30 P.M. in McMillin Theatre” and “COLUMBIA PLAYERS rehearsal at 6:30 p.m. in McMillin Theatre.” Students used the space regularly for both performances and rehearsals. Undergraduate theater at McMillin was even advertised in the New York Times, now and then. “‘The Contrast,’ said to be the first comedy by an American author to be produced in the United States, was revived last night at the McMillin Theatre of Columbia University by the Columbia Laboratory Players,” an article from the summer of 1929 noted.

Even when McMillin was available to student performing artists for use, there were accessibility issues related to demand. In 1955, the Spectator noted, “There is one large theatre on the Columbia University campus—McMillin, with a seating capacity of 1400. The other campus theatres are accessible to the entire University —Brander Matthews and Harkness Academic—each seat less than 500. It is for this reason that McMillin is in demand by several University schools and organizations, e.g., the Institute of Arts and Sciences, the Columbia Players, the University orchestra, the Glee Club.” A Spec piece from February of ’58 notes that none of the campus theaters were available to the Players for their winter performance of Each in His Own Way.

Illustration by Madi Hermann

Since that time, the theater on 116th Street has only become increasingly inaccessible to Columbia undergraduates. The space was renovated in 1988 and, shortly thereafter renamed the Kathryn Bache Miller Theatre, as it remains today. In the decades since the rebranding, students have performed on Miller’s stage in staggeringly low numbers. The Barnard Dance Department puts on a single show per semester in the space. At the time of this article’s writing, their fall show, “Barnard/Columbia Dances,” was the sole upcoming performance listed as a “Campus Event,” or one that features student performers. As of now, there are none.

This shift towards negligible amounts of student art hosted at Miller can be entirely credited to finances. Miller Theatre, in the last half-century or so, has become a money-making operation for the University. In the place of plays put on by CU Players or chamber music concerts hosted by the Columbia Classical Performers, Miller hosts Composer Portraits with contemporary artists such as Pulitzer Prize–winner Du Yun and evening performances with pianists such as Simone Dinnerstein. Tickets to the professional musical events at Miller Theatre cost as much as $84 a head.

In this way, the University has prioritized the revenue brought in by those productions over encouraging student engagement in the arts. Once upon a time, the Players charged between $1 and $1.50 per ticket for their McMillin Theatre performances, allowing them to break even on their production costs. Now, to make up for the lower revenues yielded by campus events, Columbia has opted to charge all campus groups who wish to perform at Miller a tremendous fee. Only one group, The Columbia Ballet Collaborative (CBC), can afford to rent the stage these days.

“The contract with Miller is upwards of $10,000,” Nick Rio, CC ’19, and executive director of CBC during the 2018–2019 academic year, said. “With [CBC’s] budget, we could only afford to perform on-campus at Miller once a year.” This presents a problem for the campus ballerinas, as “CBC pieces are often in pointe shoes and … the demands of ballet choreography require a certain kind of stage, which basically means having a sprung floor.” Indeed, for these dancers, having a proper performance space is about more than the atmosphere—it’s about safety. “If you’re on a stage like Roone Auditorium or on a general stage that’s not dance specific, there are certain risks to the dancers,” he said. These requirements, Rio explained, limit where the collaborative can perform on campus. Miller is the only stage on campus safe for CBC’s dancers, so, barred by cost, the group must hold their fall performances off-campus, often at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center or Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theatre.

Though Rio made it seem as though dancing on sprung floors is an essential safety measure for all dancers—not just for ballerinas—the members of Orchesis, the biggest dance group on campus, almost always perform at Roone. Not only is Orchesis Columbia’s largest organization, it is also growing. More and more people audition each year and, as producer and chair of the group, Xixi Wang BC’23 and Elin Hu CC’23, made sure to emphasize to me when I spoke to them a few weeks ago, Orchesis “take[s] all of them.” It is the group’s policy to accept every student who applies. This year, that meant 250 dancers. Orchesis then assigns dancers to small cohorts grouped by ability and scheduling overlaps. Those groups of 15 to 20 students meet throughout the semester to prepare pieces for the final performance. While the vast majority of dances in the final show are this size, Wang and Hu said that Orchesis normally “has open pieces that anyone can join, and those have been up to 80 or 90 people in one piece.”

“That’s why we normally perform in Roone,” they explained, “because it’s the biggest space that allows us to actually perform.” Other campus theaters available to students, like the Austin E. Quigley Black Box Theater in Lerner Hall, or the Glicker-Milstein Theatre (known as the GMT) at Barnard, could accommodate neither the number of performers in these open dances nor the number of audience members the group would ideally want to host. Miller Theatre might be the only performance space on campus that has both the capacity and the equipment that Orchesis needs. But, it has shut its backstage doors to Wang, Hu, and the 248 other members of Orchesis, who lack the funds to pay.

Even with Roone’s imperfections and safety flaws, having a stage to perform on at all is preferable to the situation Orchesis has found itself in this year. Wang and Hu told me that due to Covid restrictions, the University added Roone to the list of spaces off-limits to student artists. “This semester we’re performing in the GMT,” they said. The group has had to cut the open pieces from their fall programming and work strategically to choreograph with a far smaller stage in mind. To add to the series of complications, Columbia had not yet given Wang, Hu, and Orchesis’ other choreographers access to the GMT this semester as of our conversation in early November. They all were planning dance sequences and positioning and lighting and cues without ever having stepped foot on the stage where they would perform in less than a month.

Another subset of our campus that would love access to Miller Theatre is our acting community. I spoke to Sarah Nagin, BC’23, member of NOMADs, a theater group on campus “dedicated to presenting new work.” Nagin recently produced “Scars of Metamorphosis” which ran on Nov. 12 and 13 in the GMT. As with Orchesis, for the “Scars of Metamorphosis” cast and crew, “the week of our performance was the first time in that space.” When that week did roll around, they had to quickly adapt from the classrooms they had been rehearsing in to the blackbox setup of the GMT. I asked Nagin what the experience of performing in the space was like, and she said that while “Scars” had been able to make use of the blackbox smoothly due to its small cast and simple set design, she feels like a more extravagant “production would have been really difficult” in the GMT. Nonetheless, the Glicker-Milstein Theatre is where most theater groups perform. “The stipend [Scars] received, I believe, was 2,000 dollars or 1,500 dollars,” she said. Other plays, she assumes, receive around the same. Those numbers come nowhere near the $10,000 Miller Theatre rental rate—and besides, booking the GMT is free.

Though Columbia NOMADs, Orchesis, and most other performing arts groups on campus simply cannot afford to rent Miller, and though CBC can only scrounge up the dollars for a performance once a year, Miller Theatre has plenty of patrons. Columbia has been successful in manufacturing and marketing a renowned establishment for New York City classical and jazz musicians. Its prominence is acknowledged widely; it’s even been covered by Alex Ross for The New Yorker. In the piece, a review of a performance by the experimental composer Tyshawn Sorey, GSAS ’17, the University and the theater feature as hubs of New York’s contemporary music scene Sorey’s 2019 series at Miller made use of the stage as a platform to present a new rendition of his large ensemble piece “Autoschediasms.” Artists who regularly play in Miller, such as Simone Dinnerstein and the International Contemporary Ensemble, also perform in spaces like Carnegie Hall, the Berlin Philharmonie, and the Sydney Opera House. Miller Director Melissa Smey declined to speak with me about the theater’s programming and history for this piece.

Miller Theatre’s acclaim is not just recognized by the professional music community. According to Rio, choreographers hired by the Ballet Collaborative often find the opportunity to present their work in Miller an enticing lure. CBC consistently books more celebrated and notable choreographers in the spring than they can muster in the fall. While these professionals are excited about performing in the space, so, too, are all the undergraduate ballerinas. “Miller was such an investment,” Rio said, “it was a draw not only for us but for choreographers.” “It is just different when you have a curtain, when you have a theater with a balcony, a venue that can seat almost a thousand people,” he mused. “It just sort of elevates the performance.” Why Columbia deprives the majority of its students of this sensation is a mystery. Though globally recognized musicians occupy its stage many nights a semester, its halls are entirely empty for many more each season. Why not open the backstage doors to us?


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