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Wisconsin Union Theater

This renovation marks the first in the theater's 75 year history.

As a freshman, I attended a trio of shows at what is now called Shannon Hall, packed tight into the chilled and straightened annals of February and March: the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (Feb. 4, 2012), Gaelic Storm (Feb. 17, 2012) and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (March 1, 2012). Three acts so wholly dissimilar that, upon reflection, it seemed absurd that (as a student) I was afforded the opportunity to see them all under one roof. For cheap! Such an experience (in retrospect) was not to be taken lightly.

Now, after a brief lacuna in the mutual memory of the student body, the Union Theater is back. And while some may fete the fact that this means there’ll be no more construction around the Theater to stymie the flow of pedestrians to and from the Union, I prefer to celebrate the return of a venue that, at its core, throughout its history, has existed for students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now, the Theater has been refurbished, apparently after a long interval.

“The Theater has not been renovated in its 75 years. I mean, there have been small things, y’know…this is the first renovation, the first complete in 75 years,” commented Esty Dinur, Marketing Director (her official title, according to the Union site, is “Marketing & Communications Director and Chair for Artistic Selection, Madison World Music”).

If there is anyone to market and curate the Wisconsin Union Theater, it’s Mrs. Dinur, whose resume includes experience in modern dance, Israeli moviemaking and history writing. Indeed, she’s writing a forthcoming book detailing the history of the Theater in light of the venue’s 75th anniversary.

And the renovation itself, and all of its additions/changes, were conducted strictly to align with the anniversary, according to Cultural Arts Director Ralph Russo.

In an email, Russo outlined just a few of the updates made to the Theater space, manifested in the main space, redubbed Shannon Hall, which received a number of upgrades (improved handicapped access, larger seats, a bigger orchestra pit—capable of holding 48 musicians—a new HVAC system, new loading dock, new box office by the West Entrance and improved technical systems for light and sound).

The renovations also included two important changes, outside Shannon Hall: the Shannon Sunset Lounge (a favorite of Mr. Russo) and the Fredric March Play Circle that, according to Dinur, has all but been transformed.

“[In the beginning] the plans for the play circle did not manifest—what was built was very different from what was imagined—and so it ended up being a very difficult venue to work with…so it has worked for all the years that it’s been around, it’s been very busy too, but in a problematic sort of way.”

With the renovation, however—the addition of telescopic seats and the reconfiguration of the space into a black box—the Play Circle has emerged as a not only viable but appealing space, in the eyes of Dinur.

“In the case of the play circle, the renovation is complete, it doesn’t look anything like it used to look like.”

The theater itself, though—Shannon Hall—has not been so visibly changed. In point of fact, this is the point.

“They actually found a color that is pretty much the same color as the walls once was, the seating is different, the upholstery is different, and now we have a carpet. But basically it looks the same because it’s a historical building and the Historical Society was making sure we don’t change it, not that we wanted to change anything, because a lot of people are really attached to it as is.”

This attachment is, perhaps, a transitive one. Jordan Foster, Director of the Performing Arts Committee and Student Director for the Union Theater, was in high school when the renovations began. That has not stopped her from appreciating both the benefits of the renovations as well as the importance of Shannon Hall’s preservation.

“Not only is the space simply more comfortable and slightly more modern, but it also maintains its original look—these factors combined will help bring in new audiences and will also satisfy the needs of past audiences,” Foster said in an email.

Needs of past audiences, indeed. According to Dinur, the theater had a rather important antecedent, in a form of a classical music concert series that itself held the kernel of the Theater in it for 20 years prior to the Theater’s opening in 1939.

“The concert series is iconic, I mean, it’s the longest in the Midwest and it’s one of the longest in the country…pretty much everyone who is anyone in classical music has played in this series,” Dinur said.

In its very beginnings, the Theater was a place built for the series.

“It was taking place in the stock pavilion and in various other venues on campus, and one of the reasons for building the Wisconsin Union theater was for the series to have a permanent home.”

Very quickly, however, it attached to other immediate, nascent impulses in the University and developed further, according to Dinur.

“So [the concert series] was one of the reasons but there was also this feeling that by the director of the Union at the time, Porter Butts, that the campus needs a cultural center that will reflect the values of the University, y’know, the quality, the sift and winnow stuff.”

The process to necessitate the theater was long in the making, but the process to necessitate its renovation was a much briefer one, according to Russo.

“The beginning [of the renovation] dates way back to 2005 when the Wisconsin Union did Master Planning for the future which also included a new Union South and a historic preservation of Memorial Union.”

Since 1939, the Theater defined itself as not only as a quality space for classical music but as a milieu for quality music in general.

“One of the major things of our brand,” Dinur said, “So to speak, a theme that has been the theme since the beginning and still is, is we do quality arts. We bring quality artists to do quality arts, which is part of what the university is about, I think.”

In the Theater’s history, this manifested itself as the continual booking of acts who defied both normative standards and the status quo: world music in a time when “world music” was hardly a concept, black artists (such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson) in a time of heavy segregation.

“Fan Taylor, who was director many years ago [between 1946 and 1966], was bringing artists from all over,” Dinur commented, a precedent that the present management has sought to continue every season. “We’ve always brought some of the greatest artists of the time, and we’ve always brought the people who we expect will become the greatest artists of the time.”

As two examples, Dinur brought up Yo-Yo Ma, who was a young, burgeoning star when he first appeared at the Theater, as well as Texas band Snarky Puppy, whom Dinur trusts will become huge stars.

“Each one of these musicians works with very accomplished musicians—Erykah Badu, Justin Timberlake, etc. etc.—and they got together to come up with this kind of fusion, jazzy sound…And y’know they’re not that well known yet, but they’re excellent, they will be well known soon. And so we’re bringing them.”

But besides quality, Dinur said, the other defining feature of the Union Theater, in its history, was its involvement with students.

“We have always had students working here, we have always had student committees choosing the season students work here in all ways…there’s committee of students who work with a director to book seasons, who work with me to promote the season.”

The work goes beyond the administrative, too.

“We have students working the box office, front of house, students who work with our technical director and learn how to do all the technical stuff, there’s student organizations and departments that use the theater, so the theater department, they do shows here—they always did—and so the students learn how to work in a truly professional proscenium theater, which is an experience a lot of other students just don’t get: an extraordinary preparation for life in the arts.”

Foster alluded to this as well, in her assessment of the Theater’s function.

“The theater can be used as a creative outlet for students, it can give them the opportunity to perform in, likely, one of the nicest venues they’ve ever performed in. But it is, most importantly, a place for discovery of new music and culture, social connections, and promotion of diversity on campus—these definitely fit into the mission of this University.”

Students also involved themselves in the renovation process by way of a Design Committee—according to Russo—who worked alongside Schuler Shook, an architecture firm known for its theater design.

“We consider students to be a very important target audience,” said Dinur, “which is why we have special prices for tickets. Student tickets, except for Yo-Yo Ma, are $10 or less. Yo-Yo Ma, for which the tickets are more than $100, students can get for $25.”

The level at which students are involved in the Theater, in and out and around it, was staggering upon contemplation, a fact Dinur recognized quite well.

“In all of these ways—and probably at least 20 that I haven’t thought of—we are very much a part of the campus, very important part of the University.”

And the Theater is important, from a historical standpoint and a current, cultural standpoint. But it’s also important in a future sense. Something Dinur, Russo and Foster discussed, regarding the Union Theater Renovation, was how students would react to the Theater—freshman and sophomores who never experienced the theater in its original format as well as juniors and seniors for whom the construction represents the aforementioned lacuna in our college career, not to mention the scores of Madisonians who enjoyed the Theater in and out of college—and where its future lay.

Everyone was optimistic about the Theater’s future with the students.

“I’m confident they will love it...especially with all the great events that will take place this year,” Russo said.

“I would like to see students fall in love with the space and ultimately have it be a place for students, programmed by students,” Foster said. “I’d love to see it be a venue that students and community members (and beyond) think of as one of their favorite places and most common places to see a spectacular performance.”

And for Esty, the Theater’s history of student involvement and reasonable ticket pricing was assurance enough that students would take to the new Theater. She walked me through the program with energetic erudition, sharing a word on each of the acts appearing, but placed special emphasis on the Madison World Music Festival.

“This will be our 11th year, it starts our season, we bring really prominent artists from all over the world, and it’s all free.”

If that isn’t a winning pitch to new students to, if not embrace, then at least give the Theater a shot, I don’t know what is.

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