The wall of windows gets your attention first, especially because you're standing in what's supposed to be a state-of-the-art black box theater—traditionally, a room with four dark walls, easily adaptable for different kinds of performances. Closer examination reveals retractable blinds, which can create a blackout on demand, and retractable seating. When extended, the rows of chairs reinforce the intimacy of a room designed to place no more than three hundred people near artists. With the seats pulled back, the room has options: it can be a ballroom, a cabaret, or a gallery.
Two new university performing arts venues open this week, UNC's Current ArtSpace & Studio at 123 West Franklin Street and Duke's von der Heyden Studio Theater at the Rubenstein Arts Center at 2020 Campus Drive. In case you're wondering which one we've been describing, the answer is both. These new venues are particularly welcome in a region that has grown accustomed to the loss of small, disproportionately influential performing arts spaces in recent years, including Common Ground Theatre and, this spring, Manbites Dog Theater.
Current and von der Heyden were independently developed over the course of years, but the similarities between them are startling. Both represent a clear departure from the monolithic theaters of yore, such as Memorial Hall and Page Auditorium, and from smaller, more recent additions like Reynolds Industries Theater and Fletcher Opera Theater. Perhaps that's less surprising when you consider that they are responding to the same evolving market. Carolina Performing Arts and Duke Performances, the region's largest academic arts presenters, downsized their new venues to meet the demands of performers and audiences.
"Many presenters today are looking for ways to provide an intimacy, to make the interactions between artists and audiences transformative instead of simply transactional," says Amy Russell, CPA's director of programming and curator of Current's inaugural season. One key to that transformation lies in changing the passive relationship between spectators and performers into a more active, collaborative exchange. Current opens with Paul Dresher Ensemble's Sound Maze, in which groups spend hour-long sessions playing visually striking, wildly unconventional musical instruments. Devices like the Peacock, a fan of wooden pipe-organ keys played with mallets, and the Field of Flowers, an array of resonant wooden and metal blocks swaying on flexible metal stalks, are accessible to novices and musicians alike. Sound Maze and upcoming performances by collaborative theater groups Gob Squad and 600 Highwaymen are focused on co-creating an immersive experience with the public.
"The closer we get an artist to an audience member, the more unpredictable and beautiful the experiences become," Russell says. "Changing the nature of how we experience performance increases the probability that more people have access to those moments."
- Photo by Chris Hildreth
- Duke's Rubenstein Arts Center's von der Heyden Studio Theater
Active collaborations also figure prominently in Duke Performances' plans for the von der Heyden. Its placement at the heart of Duke's new Rubenstein Arts Center, a seventy-five-thousand-square-foot facility across the street from the Nasher, makes it the nexus of a constellation of campus arts programs. The Rubenstein is the new home of Duke's dance program. It also provides seminar and studio space for the visual arts and film programs. According to Scott Lindroth, Duke's vice provost for the arts, it's designed to bring disparate disciplines together.
"To have a center where dance students are going to run into film students, painting students, and theater students gives us a better chance to consolidate the arts community and achieve a new kind of synergy," he says. Off-campus presenters also figure into von der Heyden's future. This summer, it will house selected shows in the American Dance Festival. Talks are underway for potential co-presentations with Full Frame in the facility's one-hundred-seat film theater.
Both venues are proudly billed as "porous." Current's window-wall can open like a garage door to let performances spill out into the courtyard, while massive, sliding side doors at the von der Heyden give similar access to the Rubenstein's lobby. But it remains to be seen how porous either venue will be for local, independent artists like those associated with Culture Mill, DIDA, or Bartlett Theater. Carolina Performing Arts' marketing director, Mark Nelson, says the organization "really wants Current to be a resource for the community," but its present rental policy states that non-university groups may only book the facility "on a date that falls outside the school year (such as summer break)." Similarly, Lindroth anticipates booking out the von der Heyden only when classes aren't meeting, "during the winter break or immediately after commencement"—and that only after seeing how the theater functions during its first year to eighteen months in operation.
For Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald, the von der Heyden represents an exercise in "right-sizing" a venue. For decades, emerging dance and theater artists have created works to fit the small spaces they can afford to rent. Subsequent attempts to transport these works to proscenium stages aren't always successful. Smaller venues give them the chance to stage such works as they were intended to be seen. Given Duke's increasing emphasis on commissioning new works, Lindroth says, "We need a place to incubate that work, to build classes around it and ultimately share it with the public in more intimate venues like this."