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Space-crunched stars

Roberta Uno

PUBLIC HOUSING: New WORLD Theater director Roberta Uno in her office in Southwest. (Ben Barnhart photo)

“Oh, you’re in the ivory tower,” a colleague at a theater conference once remarked to Roberta Uno ’94G.

     The founder-director of UMass’s New WORLD Theater still laughs when she thinks of the encounter.

     “‘You should see my ivory tower,’ I told him,” says Uno. “‘I work in public housing!’”

     New WORLD Theater was recently tapped for this year’s Dawson Award from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The high-profile award is only the most recent evidence of the international stature the program has achieved. Yet for years it operated out of cramped and scattered spaces in Hampden and Hasbrouck halls, and when the Hampden Theater was closed for code violations two years ago, it lost its performing space.

     Today the New WORLD staff occupies a much more adequate suite of rooms on the fifth floor of John Quincy Adams tower in the Southwest Residential Area. It has the prospect of becoming the resident theater company of a future, refurbished Amherst Cinema building uptown. (See related story.) But for the foreseeable future, one of the campus’s most widely recognized arts programs remains a theater without a stage – a paradigm for the paradox that is space for the arts at UMass.

     “Here we have nationally renowned artists, in theater, music, painting, sculpture, dance, and other fields,” said Provost Cora Marrett this winter, remarking on the dispersion of arts programs across campus, many in antiquated, inadequate, or inappropriate quarters. “We have programs widely recognized for contributing not only to the education of our students, but to the economy of the entire region. Yet we do not have the kinds of studios, classrooms, buildings one would expect for programs of the caliber we offer.”

     Maren Brown ’85 is director of the UMass Arts Council, which funds arts projects that involve or benefit students. She recalls watching the closing of Hampden Theater produce a space-crunch domino-effect, intensifying existing shortages across campus. The Curtain and Rand theaters, for example, are venues of the theater department, while Bezanson auditorium is under the aegis of the music department.

     “These spaces just aren’t available to non-majors who want to perform,” says Brown – especially since the departments themselves are “pressed to the limit.”

     In spite of all that, Brown marvels, as do others, at “how much artistic energy and activity” exists on campus. More than 20 performing arts organizations, five stages, six galleries, seven alternative spaces for exhibits – these elements of a compact artistic universe are humming, but unnaturally constrained, says Cora Marrett.

     “This is why we are so anxious to generate funding for a new Visual Arts Center and improvements in the Fine Arts Center, along with a location for New WORLD,” Marrett says. “We are proud of its accomplishments – but embarrassed that a program of such national distinction has had no facility.”

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