Curtain rises on new theater space

From men’s club to ballroom, Sawyer space shifts its purpose

Jacob Geanous

As the unstable university prepares for its imminent departure off Beacon Hill, the hotly-contested issue of plans to replace its theater spaces has been at the forefront of university affairs since administration sold its Archer and Donahue buildings in July. While the Performing Arts Office is still awaiting its bid on the replacement of the C. Walsh Theatre, the theater department remains optimistic about its bittersweet upcoming move to the 11th and 12th floors of the Frank Sawyer building.

The transition has commenced with the construction of a new black box theater.

“Moving is sad anywhere, you know, but I think we need to be forward thinking,” said Marilyn Plotkins, professor and chair of the theater department, in an interview with the Journal.

“It’ll be different, but there will be so many things that will be better because we have been able to design so much of it from scratch,” she said.

Over her three-decade-long career at Suffolk, Plotkins has witnessed the evolution of the department that began in the basement of the Archer building and eventually relocated to the studio theater on the fourth floor. She believes she has effectively maintained the nomadic department for the duration of her tenure and doesn’t see that this move will pose a problem for the department’s future.

Along with the remodeled space, theater students and faculty will enjoy new, noteworthy additions to their department. A green room, ticket booth, reception area and laundry room for costumes will be among the features.

Director of the Department of Facilities Jim Wallace is spearheading the project on Suffolk’s behalf, collaborating with architects and the construction crew.

“I think it has been a great opportunity for Suffolk to build a new, state-of-the-art black box theater,” said Wallace. “I know the theater department is happy with the design, and they look forward to being in their new space.”

On the theater department’s involvement, Plotkins said, “The architects were so collaborative with our design team, and the technical team was involved in every aspect of the infrastructure of the studio theater so that it will function for students. It’s a definite upgrade.”

An adequate theater, according to Plotkins, must be at least two stories for proper lighting and space, which Sawyer can accommodate.

“It was because of former Dean [Kenneth] Greenberg, [who] remembered that the Sawyer building was built in 1913 as a men’s club and the top two floors, 11 and 12, were a ballroom and grand dining room,” recalled Plotkins. “When we learned that we could move into Sawyer, it was a joyful day, a cause for celebration.”

Previously serving as a two-story entertainment venue for the Boston City Club, whose focus was on growing the city of Boston, the introduction of the new black box studio theater will contribute to the history of the building that has been standing for over 100 years. With a dynamic design, this modern undertaking will bring the top of the building into the 21st century.

David Kadish, an architect working on the new space, commented on the building’s design in an interview with the Journal, highlighting how the existing layout of the space was critical in the upcoming relocation.

“The history was key. Without the two-story structure, it wouldn’t have been possible,” he said. “It was hidden, there was just a ceiling with 10-to-12 feet above it.”

The soon-to-be theater is currently in the process of being outfitted with newly-finished, black wood flooring and paint to “black out” the space, reminiscent of the black box studio they will soon be vacating.

In addition to the blacked-out theater, remodeled classrooms and a mezzanine overlooking the stage will transform the top floors of Sawyer yet again, this time into a haven for theater students.

“It’s a brand new theater,” said Plotkins. “It’s going to be beautiful, and it will function really well.”