The Fight for Space:
The physical location of the Department on campus has changed little (with the exception of one year spent in a former funeral parlor). However, the struggle for ownership and for renovation of its facilities has been a long journey.
The very first location for the department office, which housed Edgar Loessin and John Sneden, was in a vacant room that was up several flights of stairs in the Wright Auditorium. Classes the first several years were taught in any available space on campus, including Ragsdale, McGinnis, and the Messick building. However, finding appropriate spaces to teach classes was sometimes a challenge. When Mavis Ray (a professional dancer-choreographer and protege of Agnes DeMille) was hired to teach dance classes, no classroom with appropriate wooden floors or mirrors existed. Therefore, the stage floor of the McGinnis Auditorium was used for the dance classes. Soon the departmental office was moved to the projection booth in the back of the McGinnis theatre. This tiny space housed Edgar Loessin, John Sneden, and the department secretary, such that the edges of their desks touched and basically filled the entire space. The rest of the faculty offices were scattered around campus.
Space was a challenge at first, not just the lack of it, but the need for sole ownership. Next to the McGinnis Auditorium was the Wahl Coates School (housed in what is currently the Messick building), a training school for elementary teachers. Consequently, Messick’s halls were filled with elementary-age school children. Their cafeteria was housed in the basement of the McGinnis Auditorium (where the department costume shop is currently located), often filling the theatre with interesting aromas. It was not uncommon for children to find their way into the McGinnis Auditorium, itself, and for them to display their art work of turkeys or pumpkins on the theatre scrim.
Since the McGinnis was built primarily with the function of providing an "auditorium" for the college, it provided a challenge for the production team (directors, designers, actors, crew, etc.) to create and perform full-scale theatrical productions. Unlike an "auditorium", most proscenium-arch theatres are constructed with wing space, fly space, and an orchestra pit to meet the varied production demands for innumerable plays and musicals. For instance, having adequate space offstage in what is called the "wings" enables scenery to be close-by until it is immediately needed onstage, facilitating fast scene changes. Additionally, most theatres typically have a "fly space" above the stage where backdrops can be stored and used. Paintings on canvas that can span the entire length of the stage, or "back drops", are hung on iron pipes, and with an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys, can be raised and stored above the stage or lowered onto the stage. For instance, if a scene needed to change from a country location to a city location, a backdrop containing a painting of the country could be lifted above the stage while the backdrop containing the city painting could be lowered onto the stage. This makes for fast scene changes and keeps the momentum of the play or musical moving forward. For musicals, where an orchestra is required, many theatres have an "orchestra pit" that is in front of and beneath the stage. This enables the conductor to see the action on stage and keeps the orchestra, itself, out of the main eye level of the audience, allowing the focus to be on the actors.
The McGinnis Auditorium, however, had none of the above mentioned features: it lacked fly space, storage space in the wings, and an orchestra pit, (instead steps leading from the audience covered the entire length of the stage). In spite of these obstacles, the first East Carolina Summer Theatre opened in 1964 with six full-scale musicals, which were rehearsed and performed in an eight-week period. And since there was also no available space for constructing and storing scenery, the Wahl Coates school cafeteria, just underneath the stage, was made into a temporary scene shop. The lack of space on stage necessitated creativity in the design of the scenery. For instance, the columns required in the first scene of My Fair Lady were built with hinges such that they could be folded up into the small space above the stage.
The McGinnis Auditorium was in need of renovation. The electrical lighting and sound equipment were prone to over heating, sometimes resulting in an electrical shut down or even small fires. During the first major Dance Concert in 1976, the electrical circuits overheated and threw a breaker, cutting out the music in the middle of the last dance piece. The first night resulted in the curtain coming down, but when it happened again the second night (in spite of the fans blowing on the equipment), the dancers refused to stop and finished the dance in silence. The lighting equipment was also prone to start small fires. During one dress rehearsal, a small fire began near the follow-spot operators, an area very difficult to access, preventing immediate help. Fortunately, the spot operators had previously removed some of their outer clothing in order to combat the intense heat, making it possible to use the clothing to beat out and extinguish the fire.
In 1978, money was finally allocated for renovating the McGinnis Auditorium. Renovations included demolishing the entire stage house and rebuilding one with adequate fly and wing space, as well as raking the audience seating and replacing the wooden seats with new cushioned chairs. Renovations were completed in 1982, and the first production in the newly renovated McGinnis Theatre was a dance concert. The East Carolina Summer Theatre season opened in the new theatre with Show Boat. A celebration was held on April 3rd with a special invited audience of alumni, important patrons, and university officials to commemorate the opening of the "New McGinnis."
For eight years the department used any available space around campus for offices and classrooms. But, in 1971, the Wahl Coates School that had been housed in the Messick Building moved, and Messick was given entirely to the Department. Finally, the department offices, classrooms, rehearsal and performance spaces were located in one central area. The gymnasium of the former school was converted into the Studio Theatre, and dance studios were built by installing dance floors in some of the classrooms. However, the Messick Building, itself, was also in badly need of renovation. When the department first moved in, there was no air conditioning, the green painted walls were peeling, and ceiling tiles often fell.
In 1980, the Messick Building was slated to undergo major renovations, meaning that the department would have to completely vacate the building for a year and a half. The only building that was within walking distance and that was big enough to accommodate the expanding department was a vacated funeral home (the current sight of Ham's Restaurant). This one building then housed all classes, offices, rehearsal spaces, theatrical productions, and construction and storage space for costumes and props. Working in a former funeral home required its own set of adjustments. One faculty member had his office in the former embalming room and used one of the stainless steel tables for his desk. The coffin lift was helpful for storing scenery and props. Scenery was built in the four-bay hearse garage. Each day tools, equipment, and supplies were taken into the garage for constructing the scenery and then returned into the building for safe storage at the end of the day. Productions that year took place in the former chapel of the funeral home. A well-lit stainless glass window with a religious motif hovered in plain sight while productions such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago took place below.
A year and a half later, renovations of the Messick were complete. Part of the renovations included demolishing the one story wooden structure that was previously used to store scenery and replacing it with a new, much larger brick building for constructing, storing, and painting scenery. The Department then moved back into the newly renovated Messick Building, where most classes, offices, rehearsals, and workshop productions occur today.