ST. THOMAS – Anansi the spider, a Ukrainian “Mail Order Bride,” a polar bear and an ornery St. Thomian bus driver joined many other characters to create the 5th annual Playwrights in Paradise New Play Festival that took place in the UVI Little Theatre on Sunday, April 27, 2015.
ST. THOMAS – Thursday morning on March 12, 2015 was an ugly morning; a combination of steel-grey cloud bands choking the sunlight from the sky, along with a growing heat emanating from the ground made for muggy conditions across UVI’s St. Thomas campus. For Professor Pamela New and the students of her “Voice and Diction” class, their teaching space wasn’t much of an improvement: a dimly-lit, derelict mini-stage room within the second floor of the CAB building known only as “The Little Theater.”
For many performers, students and Humanities professors, to say that conditions within UVI’s “Little Theater” are “humble” would be considered a gross understatement. The stage consists of little more than bare concrete flooring and rickety, raised plywood platforms covered with scattered screws and nails that have fallen from the patchwork ceiling, from where the stains of water damage and raw electrical cables hang exposed for all to see.
The seating consists of nothing more than 30 or so raggedy stadium chairs, some with a view of the stage that is obscured by the handful of ill-placed support beams that are strewn among the front row seats.
Completing the forlorn and creepy atmosphere, almost the entire room – from the derelict stage, to the splintery plywood walls, to the dilapidated ceiling, and even the aforementioned support beams – are covered in endless layers of thick black paint. Coupled with the non-existent sound system and lighting that operates seemingly on its own accord, the conditions of the old theater can be considered absolutely oppressive by modern standards, and unquestionably neglectful for a $40,000-a-year University.
Despite the horrendous conditions, however, the UVI Little theater and those who have dedicated themselves to the craft have given the island some of the most critically acclaimed performances in modern memory: plays such as The Lady of Param, Angels in the Snow, and the recent “Hubert Harrison” have all received universal praise and serve as powerful examples of the students’ dedication and talent for the arts.
The performing arts are not the only discipline to feel the sting of the university’s neglect; a mere fifteen feet away from the foreboding darkness of that crumbling theater lay the offices of the Humanities: a cramped, narrow wooden trailer segmented into 12 claustrophobic rooms. Whereas fields such as mathematics or the sciences are given proper, expansive offices and supplies to properly conduct business, it would seem that the Humanities constantly find themselves shortchanged and disregarded at every turn, regardless of the success and acclaim that they earn.
In light of the praise and recognition that the Humanities (and the Little Theater in particular) earn for UVI, one question surfaces: “Despite UVI’s self-marketed identity as a “Liberal Arts” institution, is the university truly dedicated to the Arts?”
“The quick answer is ‘no,’” says Dr. Alexander Randall, a professor of communications. Fresh from his late afternoon communications class, his jovial, laid-back disposition brimming with energy nevertheless dims with frustration at the aforementioned inquisition. “No university gives enough support to the Humanities, yet cannot explain ‘why?’”
Speculating on the reason behind the lack of support, he said “There’s more of a focus on ‘practicality’ versus ‘passion.’” An example of this alleged preferential treatment of the other disciplines over the Humanities lies in his recent successful campaign to add two new art classes to the curriculum.
“It took 2 years of constant battling with the Curriculum Committee, just to add those two classes,” said a weary and frustrated Dr. Randall. “All the while, they fought back by nitpicking over things like the font used in the required textbooks, or the margins in the report I had to submit. Then at the end of it, some guy from the Business department came in and casually requested, like, another set of textbooks and they immediately fast-tracked his request, without the two-year process I just had to go through; It’s very frustrating.”
One Humanities Professor, the resident playwright David Edgecombe, offers a more sympathetic, but similar view. With his salt-and-pepper hair askew and his eyes bloodshot from a lack of sleep, he sniffles and coughs throughout the interview, his illness stemmed not from a cold or flu, but rather from a flurry of preparations and last-minute adjustments; it is the premier night of his latest work at the Little Theater, a biopic play about the titular character, “Hubert Harrison.”
“The question of whether or not the Humanities are being marginalized is a difficult one,” he said. “Like anything, it’s a matter of costs; resources are scarce, and sometimes people aren’t attuned to looking at the arts. That’s not entirely the responsibility of the school; it falls also on the artist to promote the arts to the public.”
Other Humanities instructors, such as the aforementioned Pamela New, equate Dr. Randall’s views.
“”The Arts are being under-funded and are under-supported,” stated Professor New plainly, who despite suffering a sore shoulder earned during some household gardening, remains passionate and dedicated to the subject at hand. “The Humanities are being marginalized and are lacking support; Performances are being carried out in disreputable conditions with faulty equipment.”
Despite the various setbacks, restrictions and varied opinions on the matter, however, everyone agrees that the Humanities are still popular and important, not just for the school but the local community overall.
“Students are still interested,” Professor New said. “Students are still signing up for Humanities courses, Reichold Theater events bring in a great amount of capital for UVI, and most of the events such as the theater productions are usually sold out… So there is still definitely interest.”
According to Dr. Randall, “The arts are very important to local culture; the Humanities make us aware of the unknown, what it means, and inspires us.”
“Theater helps to understand the world and culture around us,” professor Edgecombe said, equating the views of Dr. Randall. “The concept of ‘education’ is progressively outpacing the institution of the ‘academy’ or the ‘school.’ If we are to avoid becoming an anachronism, we must learn to embrace a wide spectrum of subjects, rather than prioritizing some subjects over others.”
With the overall feeling of oppression by the bureaucratic masters of the school, the final question that arises from this subject is “what would these champions of the arts do differently, if given the authority to change the current status quo?”
Both Dr. Randall and Professor Edgecombe believe that the answers lie not with academic bureaucrats or high-minded college professors, but instead with high school students, and those who are not yet certain about their future.
“The management should treat the Humanities with respect,” Dr. Randall commented. “Instead of prioritizing one subject over another, we should be considering more high school rallies and career days, and convince the next generations on why college is important.”
“A ‘theater-in-education program would be a wonderful bridge between the humanities and other education departments,” Professor New said. “Everyone remembers the teachers that engaged us through vibrant, dynamic communications skills and content… I would also restore the Little Theater, which would grant students a proper place to perform, while serving as a source of additional income to recoup the costs.”
Time will tell whether or not the gulf between UVI’s business side and artistic side can be mended. Until then, that darkened antechamber of theatrical wonders will remain in its dilapidated repose, and both Professor New and her students will continue their performances within the little theater painted black.