A brisk but intermittently sunny Sunday afternoon in spring. Tour groups, recreational walkers and clusters of students are drifting across the Gonzaga University campus. Close to its western edge, still no more than a stone's throw from the historic St. Aloysius Church, is the not-quite-opened Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center, its stubby landscaping freshly planted in meticulous rows. Unlike St. Aloysius or the even the Jundt Art Museum it faces across DeSmet Avenue, the center's facade is distinctly modern, all sharp angles, floor-to-ceiling windows and rectilinear copper-colored accents.
Inside, seven young women from Gonzaga's elite dance troupe are rehearsing on the main stage. Flanked on either side by pole-like structures that could easily be mistaken for real birch trees on wheels, they're practicing a choreographed routine. Their arms sway, their toes trace delicate arcs on the floor as they physicalize a choral work by British composer Alec Roth.
Called A Time to Dance, Roth's work has only ever been sung. For this inaugural production it's been augmented by choreography, regional poetry and other live performances under the adapted title A New Season. The title is symbolic, as is the multidisciplinary nature of the show itself. Both are meant to showcase the collaborative spirit and the creative possibilities of the new $30 million, 52,000-square-foot performing arts center.
"I could've directed a musical, but it would've relied on a handful of students being in those lead roles, and it just didn't feel right," says Suzanne Ostersmith. She heads the university's dance program and is "curating" A New Season with help from her colleagues Tim Westerhaus (music) and Kathleen Jeffs (theater), plus other faculty. Assistant professor Leslie Stamoolis, for example, has designed dozens of original costumes inspired by the local seasons.
"We want this to be everyone's building, so from the beginning my vision was, how many people can we get to work together on one massive collaboration? I knew I wanted to have choir and orchestra and dance and acting. And in addition to as many of my students as possible, it's also been about involving as many of my colleagues as possible."
Initially Ostersmith was leaning toward Carmina Burana, the collection of medieval poems and texts set to music by Carl Orff in 1936. But Roth's A Time to Dance gave her the "epicness" she wanted along with the opportunity to root the work to the new center, to Gonzaga, to Spokane, to the Inland Northwest. A nine-person acting ensemble will frame each of the seasons with regional poetry; 29 dancers from three different Gonzaga companies will give physical expression to Roth's music, which will be performed by nearly 100 singers and orchestral players.
A New Season opens its four-day run on April 25, commemorating the official opening of the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center, named for the lifelong Gonzaga supporter who left $55 million to the university upon her death in 2014 at the age of 104. University President Thayne McCulloh began discussing the center with her in 2012.
"From that point, moving forward, over successive months, we worked together to refine what at the beginning was just a very broad concept, and we tried to begin to narrow the parameters of what the facility would include. And, obviously, interpreting that into construction documents becomes a very detailed process," he says. "She was fairly intimately involved in talking — and wanting to talk — about what this would look like, where it would be, what its capabilities would be."
Working closely with Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak, dean of Gonzaga's College of Arts and Sciences, McCulloh solicited and incorporated input from a number of additional stakeholders — especially those who would be using it on a regular basis.
The completed facility, designed by Los Angeles-based Pfeiffer Partners with Spokane's Bernardo Wills Architects, is state-of-the-art in terms of its equipment and purposeful in its layout. Ceiling panels in both the recital hall and the main stage are adjustable to dial in better acoustics depending on the type of performance. Walls in the recital hall can rotate to reveal full-sized mirrors for dance practices. The floors in all the key performance and practice spaces are sprung to better absorb impact. Capacity is variable, too. The 168-seat recital hall can expand and retract its seating, and the first three rows of the 759-seat main stage can become an orchestra pit. AV systems are wired and interlinked throughout.
"Hopefully, all of the students at Gonzaga will be able to take advantage of the facility," says Laura Sims, the center's new director. She adds that everything from the backstage to the box office offers students a way to gain real-world experience. "It also is a learning lab in that we will have a design studio where they will be able to teach lighting, costume and scenic design classes."
The potential extends beyond the performing arts.
"I've already been talking to one of the faculty who teaches film studies, because we have this wonderful giant projection screen," Sims says. "There are ways we can work with the history department, the English department, even the law school. Really, we truly want to see how many different ways we can make the space accessible and have uses across the community and the campus."
Kathleen Jeffs, who chairs the university's theater and dance department, says that A New Season is a prime example of the promising platform that the MWPAC is already providing.
"This is something that's absolutely brand new," she says, describing how high-tech digital projection is allowing them to accommodate the dancers, choir, orchestra and actors on a single stage while still leaving room for fluidity of movement. "It's all of the art forms together, and you then run into challenges with scenery, and that's where the technological capabilities of the building come into play. If you imagine it, it's the kind of thing you could only do in a building of this size and with this technology."
Looking to the near future, she says the forthcoming production of Romeo and Juliet scheduled for the fall is also likely to make use of some of the new amenities, such as the trapdoor-equipped floor or the full flyrail for more ambitious scenery.
Broader collaborative efforts with outside organizations and the community at large are still only ideas. Jeffs, Sims and others point to space rentals as the most basic way for those beyond the Gonzaga campus to take advantage of what the MWPAC offers. McCulloh specifically sees opportunities for local youth theater and possibly summer camps.
"The creative arts, fine arts and performing arts are an important part of what those of us in Jesuit higher education think about when we think about a well-rounded education — the idea that the very nature of human existence is enriched meaningfully by an appreciation of culture and the ways in which creativity is expressed," he says.
"Clearly, education for Mrs. Woldson was very important. She saw it as the portal to a better life, but she also felt the way people were being educated was important too. And I will always be grateful to her for inviting me into her life, and considering how we might participate with her in bringing some of her dreams for the future to life." ♦
A New Season • April 25-28; Thu at 7:30 pm, Fri (school matinee) at 10 am, Sat and Sun at 2 pm • $25–75 • Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center • 211 E Desmet Ave. • gonzaga.edu/mwpac • 313-2787