When I attended Augustana College’s second-to-last performance of the musical Sweeney Todd in May, I found the evening a bittersweet affair – and not just because of the meat pies.
Without question, Augie’s rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s demon-barber musical was terrifically performed and produced. Hence, the sweet. But the bitter came in knowing that the show would be the final one staged in the Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts’ Potter Hall – the utterly charming, 144-seat venue that I, as an Augustana theatre major, had so energetically toiled and played in from 1986 to 1990, as had any number of students active there between the building’s 1955 opening and this past spring.
Yet there was a silver lining, and you could find it right across the street at the former Augustana College Center. This was the venue that was to be newly named the Kim & Donna Brunner Theatre Center – a $4.2-million facility that would be the home to Augie’s theatre department, with its approximate 7,500 square feet boasting a 263-seat mainstage area, individual light and sound booths, an 80-seat studio theatre, a scenic-construction shop, a costume shop, a theatre library and conference room, faculty and administrative offices, spacious dressing rooms, and even showers. (Full tours of the center, which officially opened at the end of August, will be available during the theatre’s celebration gala on October 13.)
For those of us who’d heard rumblings about a potential new theatre for Augustana since at least the 1980s, this news was greeted with an elated sense of “Finally!” For this former student who remembers a full four others also graduating with 1990 theatre degrees, the center’s price tag was also greeted with a bit of “Um ... really?”
Despite the school’s long reputation for quality productions, with recent national recognition via the four acting awards earned for A Green River at the 2015 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Augustana hadn’t exactly been considered a go-to destination for those hoping to pursue theatrical careers. And as the department’s professor and Chair of Theatre Arts Jeff Coussens recently told me, the 2015-16 school year ended with roughly 25 students pursuing theatre as either a major or minor – far more than my graduating class’ five, but still a drop in the bucket compared to the numbers at other institutions. So wasn’t $4.2 million somewhat, shall we say, extravagant?
Not, it turns out, if you choose to see the new Brunner Theatre Center as more of an investment than an augmentation.
From Kent Barnds, Augustana’s executive vice president who has been closely involved in construction plans since day one: “I think it’s not only going to be attractive to prospective students who are both majors and non-majors, but to all members of the Quad Cities community.”
From Green River director Philip Wm. McKinley, the 1973 Augustana theatre major who helmed Broadway’s Tony-winning The Boy from Oz and helped shepherd the new facility’s fundraising campaign: “It will involve not only theatre students, but students in all disciplines in the school, as well as professionals in the community who have made their livings here.”
And from Coussens, himself a 1980 Augustana theatre graduate who joined the faculty in the fall of 1987: “We kind of knew this would put us on the map regionally, if not nationally – if we had a showplace theatre. And I think that’s what we now have.”
A Moline native, Coussens says his decision to attend Augustana in 1976 stemmed from it seeming “like a really good college close to home.” As for Potter Hall itself, he says, “I liked the intimacy of it, which I also enjoyed when I was on faculty and directing in the space. It keeps you honest as an actor, and we had faculty who would select the right kinds of productions to mount given the limitations of the space. But as a student, I don’t think you necessarily notice the limitations of the space. The inflexibility.
“Most of the drawbacks have been technical,” Coussens continues. “The architecture of the space does not lend itself well to lighting design or the operation of lighting. But you add the lack of wing space, the lack of backstage space, not enough dressing rooms, the scene shop being part of the same space that you rehearse in and perform in ... . The physical architecture, I think, dictated many of those limitations.”
Yet Coussens was hardly the first person at Augustana to recognize the need for new facilities. “When I came on as faculty,” he says, “I inherited files that pre-dated my time as a student. There were consultants’ reports on a new theatre space that dated all the way back to the 1960s. I think almost as soon as Bergendoff Hall was built in the 1950s, they realized that it wasn’t going to be a great space for theatre. But it was all we had.”
Coussens says that in making the best of less-than-ideal circumstances, “there have been many facelifts and changes over the years to make it seem more like a theatre space,” including the addition of a lower-level studio-theatre facility and the permanent covering of Potter Hall’s windows – which had made full blackouts during matinées impossible. “But even though we’ve gone through several campaigns for a new space, and theatre has always seemed to be on the list of priorities, it seemed that we just weren’t high enough on that list.”
In recent years, however, several factors aligned to finally make plans for a new theatre facility a reality.
“The roots of it, I think, have been in the current administration of the college,” says Coussens. “President [Steven] Bahls has always been very supportive, and has always attended all of our productions, and is also a very active audience member in community theatre. He’s very supportive of the arts in general, and from the first time we met, he’s talked to me about the need for a new theatre space. But the impetus really came when the college looked at Bergendoff and realized that we were overcrowded.
“It wasn’t long ago that Bergendoff not only housed the art-history, theatre, and music departments,” which it did until the end of last spring’s trimester, “but also had studio art, speech communications, and communication sciences and disorders all packed in the same space. We’d gotten some relief from that with various building projects and movement of faculty and departments into different spaces, but it was still very crowded.”
Meanwhile, with Bergendoff all but bursting at the proverbial seams, other facilities on campus were standing empty after the 2013 completion of the centralized, 700-seat Gerber Center Dining Room.
“Now, all of a sudden, we had a couple locations that weren’t being used for anything else,” says Coussens. “And that’s when Kent Barnds brought up the idea of the College Center.”
Says Barnds, “When we opened the Gerber Center, we left two visible places on campus vacant – the Westerlin Dining Hall and the College Center Dining Hall. As you can imagine, on a college campus, there were lots of people who coveted that space. But we wanted to be focused on ensuring that we had the highest and best use for this sort of premium space, and Steve Bahls suggested to me, ‘Why don’t you go down and look at the College Center, and see what you think about having theatre there?’
“Over the past few years,” continues Barnds, “one of the things I’ve been most proud about is that we haven’t just renovated buildings; we’re transformed the use of buildings. If you think of Carlsson Evald Hall, which was a dormitory that was converted into one of our primary academic buildings, or what we did with the library that became the Gerber Center, co-locating essential things a residential college needs for students with places to study, play, and eat ... .
“To completely re-imagine what was a late-1970s refectory cafeteria into a fantastic facility for theatre represents some imagination that I think is not always present on college campuses.”
When Barnds first raised the College Center idea with Coussens, the theatre chair says there was some miscommunication about whether his department would take over the vacated, second-floor cafeteria area as a whole or merely the loft space and meeting rooms in the floor above. (Initially presuming the latter, Coussens says with a laugh, “I was like, ‘Great. They want to put me in a space that’s even smaller than the one I have now.’”)
But once it was clear that Barnds meant the entirety of the College Center’s top two floors – with the ground floor still housing destinations such as Augustana’s bookstore – Coussens says his response was “Now you’re talkin’,” and plans were made to discuss exactly what this new theatrical configuration might look like.
In addition to professionals from Decatur, Illinois’ BLDD Architects and theatre-construction consultants from Oak Park, Illinois’ Bill Conner Associates, Augustana sought the input of McKinley, a noted alumnus who received an honorary doctorate in 2012, served as the college’s commencement speaker in 2012 and 2016, and directed the theatre department’s PTSD drama A Green River in 2013 and again for its entry in the 2015 Kennedy Center Festival.
“I didn’t see the benefit of having a big proscenium stage,” says McKinley. “It’s different if you’re going to Northwestern or Harvard or Yale, where they have these huge design departments and that kind of thing. But the focus here should really be on getting the basics. That’s what happened with me at Augustana; I came in and I learned a little bit about everything. And so many regional theatres now are smaller spaces with more intimate, thrust-stage theatres, and it seemed like that kind of facility would suit the size of the college.”
Consequently, the idea was adopted to model Augustana’s new facility after relatively intimate venues such as Broadway’s Circle in the Square and, in particular, Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, complete with a fixed-thrust, mainstage theatre that, says Coussens, “we wanted to have rather than a proscenium space that would seem a little less warm and fuzzy to our audiences who are used to Potter.” Plus, he continues, the new site also boasts “entire floors with support facilities and dressing rooms and office space, and a studio-theatre on the third floor, and an outdoor stage on the south side of the building,” the initial construction for which is planned for later this fall.
All involved parties agreed that such a facility would be a great benefit to students already enrolled. But what was even more promising was the new theatre’s allure to prospective students.
“We knew right away that this would help us with recruitment,” says Coussens. “So many students – especially students in the design and technology areas – would visit campus and we’d show them Potter and they’d say, ‘So where’s your mainstage?’ And we’d say, ‘Well ... this is it.’ And they were accustomed to better, more heavily equipped facilities – and maybe even more ambitious seasons than we were able to produce in terms of size of production and size of cast.
“So even though the department is small,” he continues, “there wasn’t a lot of resistance to the plans for the new theatre, because people understood that this could be a good recruitment tool for the college. I think they also understood that theatre had so long been on ‘the list’ as a department needing better facilities that this time they were ready to make that commitment.
“And once the college made the commitment, then the donors started to appear. I think there were a lot of people kind of waiting in the wings to give to the cause if they knew that it was really going to happen.”
Chief among those donors are Kim and Donna Brunner – classes of 1971 and 1975, respectively – who contributed a naming gift of $1.5 million. Kim served as executive vice president and chief legal officer for State Farm Insurance until his retirement in 2010, and from 2009 to 2013 was chair of Augustana’s Board of Trustees. As Barnds says, “He and Donna are very loyal and supportive of the college and saw this as an opportunity to give back.”
Barnds adds that “Kim and Donna both see the value of the arts in educating students broadly,” and, according to McKinley, this concept was instrumental in securing not only the Brunners’ donation but the gifts of numerous others.
“We kept talking about a theatre department that would be developed for all the disciplines in the school,” says McKinley. “For instance, taking athletes and doing programs for them where they’d learn to talk on camera when being interviewed. Taking med students and having actors role-play their patients so they could learn about bedside manner. Giving pre-law students a chance to role-play.
“In this era where so much communication is done with the thumbs,” continues McKinley, “and so many more college grads being hired than in previous years, many corporate officers have been saying that they can’t find qualified candidates because they don’t have ‘soft skills.’ They don’t know how to interview. They don’t know how to speak in front of a board. They don’t know how to present a project. So showing that theatre is something that can be used for all disciplines was something that really started to spur on the fundraising.”
Another example of what Coussens calls the department’s plan “to do more interdisciplinary work” will be launched this fall with the Penguin Project, a collaboration between Augustana and Rock Island’s student-focused Center for Living Arts.
“It’s a project that was started in Peoria by Dr. Andy Morgan,” says Coussens, “who is a retired pediatrician who specialized in working with students with developmental and learning disabilities. What he does is he works with young artists with disabilities, puts them in junior-level Broadway musicals, and puts peer mentors on-stage to work with them through the rehearsal process.” Augustana and the Center for Living Arts’ Dino and Tina Hayz will consequently put Morgan’s project into practice beginning this autumn, with a production of Annie Jr. scheduled for March performances in the Brunner Theatre Center.
“Our students in communication science and disorders, who’ve had clinical work, will be acting as super-mentors to the peer mentors,” Coussens says, “helping them understand how to communicate with the young artists with disabilities. We’re excited to get more and more into applied theatre in this way, and the department is launching other initiatives to help strengthen our appeal to a broader number of students, and our links to the Quad Cities community.”
One of those links will be in place next summer as Augustana presents its first summertime productions since the 1970s heyday of Augie’s Pitchfork Players – a summer-stock season with participation open to both students and area residents.
“Phil McKinley was involved with Pitchfork Players when he was a student at Augustana,” says Coussens, “and I was, as well, and we both agree on the value of that kind of experience. So Phil is going to be the artistic director for the summer to help us launch the program – probably three main productions that will allow students and the community the chance to work together.”
At least one of those productions is also scheduled to be a musical, and Coussens says, “We’re developing a concentration in musical theatre within the theatre-arts major. We’ve got a couple classes on the books for this year, and we’ll be hiring a tenure-track position who’ll be a musical-theatre specialist to help us further develop that curriculum.”
In the meantime, Augustana’s current season has already opened with the (really excellent, I must say) studio-theatre production of Rabbit Hole that ran September 1 through 4. And with the indoor facility’s total construction, which began in the fall of 2015, finally completed this month, the Brunner Theatre itself will be showcased in a trio of events scheduled over the next four weeks: the environmentally themed family presentation Just a Dream: The Green Play (October 1 and 2); Coussens’ modernized take on Shakespeare’s Othello set in Iraq’s Green Zone (October 14 through 23); and October 13’s gala celebration for the Brunner Theatre Center’s opening, complete with live performances, refreshments, and tours of the entire facility. (When you take one, be sure to marvel at what has to be the sturdiest, least terrifying above-stage catwalk ever constructed.)
“The thing I love about the space,” says McKinley, “is you walk in now, and you think, ‘Well, obviously this was developed as a theatre. It was never a cafeteria.’” With a laugh, he adds, “And you’re not walking into a theatre that’s really part of another building – a room that’s kind of set off from everything around it. Potter Hall was great when I was there, but it was time – we needed to have a real facility for the program.”
“Potter did have this nice, cozy feeling that I know alums are going to miss,” says Coussens. “And you know, ever since I was a student here, I have the same kind of nostalgia – that warm nostalgia that all alums who worked in Potter backstage and on-stage seem to have. But the benefit of having this new space as a teaching tool and as a community showplace so far outweighs that nostalgia that it’s easy to bring closure to that part of Augustana history.”
The opening celebration for Augustana College’s Kim & Donna Theatre Center (3520 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island) will be on Thursday, October 13, at 7 p.m., and tickets for the event and all of Augustana’s forthcoming theatrical productions are available by calling (309)794-7306 or visiting Augustana.edu/theatre.