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Center will extend college’s educational reach

Even without a single Bunsen burner or white coat, the newly renovated Nazareth College Arts Center is a kind of laboratory, school officials say. Students learning to flutter across the stage or transmit emotion through the tip of a paintbrush now have a state-of-the-art facility in which to test their book smarts, confidence and creativity. 

"A lot of people don’t think about the fact that as we educate young artists, it requires space to do that," Nazareth music professor and department chair James Douthit said. 

Considered a jewel in Rochester’s cultural scene even when it was founded decades ago, Nazareth’s arts center has undergone sweeping changes in the last year. Improvements to the 41-year-old Callahan Theater alone include a new stage with a sprung floor, a fly system for moving sets and seating with better sight lines and accessibility. 

Those physical changes have practical and educational value, said Deborah Dooley, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Besides fostering more collaboration among the academic departments, the $9.1 million renovation provides a new venue for roughly 450 arts majors to think critically, solve problems and lay the foundation for vibrant careers. 

Experiential learning also will get a boost from the renovation, arts center director Lindsay Korth said. Students attending performances at Callahan Theater will see visiting artists’ work in its original form, now that the more flexible hybrid stage-a cross between a thrust and a proscenium, or "picture frame"-has eliminated changes in actor and set placements. 

Douthit said students cherish their exposure to visiting artists. 

"Many times those artists do master classes or even just have a slight intersection with the students that can be meaningful and sort of influence them in their choice of career in the arts," he said. 

The arts center’s location, at one of the main entrances to the college, illustrates its importance in campus life, Korth said. 

"There is more of a sense of occasion when you enter the campus," now that renovations are complete, she noted. 

As Nazareth officials prepare for the arts center’s weeklong opening celebration beginning Sept. 25, other local campuses are putting finishing touches on their own arts-related projects. 

In October, the University of Rochester will open Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, part of a $46.5 million renovation and construction effort that enlarged the theater’s lobby and added box seats. The project is in its second phase, which calls for building a new recital hall, recording studio and rehearsal space for the Eastman School of Music. 

Construction at Rochester Institute of Technology is nearly complete on new studios for the School for American Crafts’ ceramics, metals and glass programs. The new wing is part of a 30,000-square-foot project that will include the future Vignelli Center for Design Studies, slated to house the archive of acclaimed graphic and furniture designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli. 

Though the performing arts will play a major role at Nazareth’s arts center, the visual arts will not be shortchanged. The facility has a new, 2,000-square-foot art gallery adjacent to Callahan Theater, to feature student and faculty exhibitions in an enclosed space instead of a "glorified lobby," Korth said. The gallery also will feature work from regional and nationally known artists, offering students even more chances for learning and growth. 

Additional opportunities for students to see their professors as artists in their own right extend to the Wegman Family Sculpture Garden, a revamped four-season outdoor space featuring artwork by Nazareth faculty members. 

Douthit said students and faculty will test the arts center’s potential for staging opera this February with a run of Mozart’s "Cosi Fan Tutte." The renovation did not add an orchestra pit to the arts center, but the new stage’s flexibility allows for setting up a pit-like structure, where college orchestral students will perform. Voice students and faculty will sing the lead roles. 

Douthit said Nazareth has tackled opera performances before, using the college chapel. That venue lacked clear views of the stage and was less than ideal. At times, Nazareth students would resort to performing at nearby St. John Fisher College. 

Students who like working in the backstage side of the arts also stand to benefit from the renovation, Korth said. The size of the costume studio has doubled to match the caliber of the scenery shop, which underwent expansion a few years ago. A glassed-in area now showcases the new design studio, where stage management and theater technology classes take place. 

"No theater department succeeds unless it has a very healthy backstage life," said Korth, who is chairwoman of the theater arts department. Theater jobs behind the scenes are now plentiful across the country, she adds. 

Students who prefer the spotlight will get a better grasp of how to produce theater magic because of the renovation, Korth said. Combat scenes and sleights of hand simply work better on a stage with a proscenium arch, where the audience can see only one side of the action. 

Academic programs are likely to expand. The college already offers a minor in dance, "and I know the faculty isn’t going to blink" when a dance major comes up for formal consideration, Korth said. If approved, the major could begin in the fall of 2011. 

Connected to that future major is the premiere of Nazareth’s Summer Dance Festival, slated for next July. In exchange for interning for the event, Nazareth students will attend master classes led by acclaimed dance organizations. 

"When I was that age, I can think of nothing more exciting than a whole week of working with world-class companies and getting master classes from them," Korth said. 

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

09/18/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call  585-546-8303.

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