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PEA breaks ground for new center for theater and dance

April 27, 2016

Cast members from Into the Woods celebrate at the groundbreaking.

PEA celebrated the groundbreaking for the new Center for Theater and Dance on April 21. Designed by award-winning architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the state-of-the-art building will strengthen and broaden Exonian involvement in the performing arts. 

Originally conceived by the architects as a geode encasing brilliant crystals – ”Our buildings are still on the outside, quiet, giving very little away, but, we hope, filled with life and activity and surprise within, just like the psyche of an adolescent,” Tsien said at the first meeting – the 63,000-square-foot center is projected to have a light-colored brick exterior with three large interior performance areas: a modified proscenium mainstage with 350 seats and orchestra pit; thrust stage theater with seating for 149 on three sides; and dance performance studio with 119 seats. DRAMAT, PEA’s student-run drama club, will have its own rehearsal and meeting area. Flexible spaces for teaching, rehearsal and exploration are included, along with dedicated areas for technical design, craft and storage.

Donors and trustees joined students and PEA employees at the groundbreaking ceremony, where students, faculty and Principal Lisa MacFarlane spoke. Cast members from the winter musical Into the Woods also performed selections from the show.  

Theater Instructor Sarah Ream ’75, who played her first PEA role in a 1972 production of West Side Story and has been a PEA instructor since 1997, used these words to describe her hopes for the new building:

”I imagine a comfortable room where interested young filmmakers can bring the film they have just shot on an iPhone and come to us for software they can’t yet afford, to improve it with better sound, editing or special effects, before they upload it onto YouTube. A helpful adult is there but to help, to guide, not to solve the students’ question. No stage on a stage. Harkness on its feet.

”A playwright wants feedback on her new play. Instead of sitting in her dorm room with friends late at night – fun, though that may be – she comes to the theater, books a room with space and light and a few chairs, and hears her actors read the play and move with it if they feel so inclined. Student-centered learning. Harkness on its feet.

”A top-notch dance troupe, say, Dance Theatre  of Harlem, makes Exeter part of its New England tour  and performs for the school, because now we finally have the place and resources to accommodate them. The company stays and works with our young dancers; does a movement workshop open to everyone. In so doing, they model not only grace and discipline and athletic prowess; they model the reality of a diverse America and the fact that a life in the arts can be a reality. They inspire. Harkness on its feet.

”Where will we go with this facility and what will we do? I cannot wait to find out.”

Scheduled to open on the south side of Court Street in spring 2018, the Center for Theater and Dance is at the heart of the revitalization of South Campus. With student interest in theater and dance increasing each year, and more growth expected once the building opens, the center will provide a major gateway to the southern side of campus, joining athletics fields and buildings – including the new Field House slated to open in 2018 – and the Academy woods.