Performing Arts Unite Under One Roof

University, county and state collaborate on new Clarice Smith Center in College Park.


March 11, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Audiences at Maryland's newest arts center this spring will quite literally have a chance to see theater in the making. Or should that be theaters?

With six major venues under one roof and extensive rehearsal and teaching space, the $130 million Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center is one of the most complicated projects of its kind in the country -- part teaching laboratory for the University of Maryland, College Park, and part professional arts center for Prince George's County.

A formal dedication won't take place until Sept. 29. But after nearly a decade of planning and construction, the center is 95 percent complete and beginning to bustle with activity. Within the past month, every major performing space has been christened -- often before standing-room-only audiences.

The dance troupe led by Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig drew a full house in February. Students produced "Life is a Dream" in the proscenium theater. Pianist Andre Watts will appear in the large concert hall on Wednesday.

The university, which owns and operates the center, is using the first half of 2001 as a breaking-in period -- a time to check acoustics and theatrical systems, so every space will be ready for a full slate of events starting in July. When fully operational, the center could be the setting for more than 900 events a year.

"We're calling it a work in progress, a test run," said Brian Jose, director of marketing and communications for the Clarice Smith Center. "The bricks and mortar are in place. Now the fine-tuning is under way. It's like test-driving a car."

People who attend the inaugural events have a rare opportunity to be part of the action, said executive director Susan Farr. Just as there are those people who like to see performances in preview, or who enjoy the excitement of an open rehearsal, she said, "we expect that our audiences this spring will feel like they are part of the collaborative process."

Three departments united

The center was built to bring together three departments at College Park -- the School of Music and the departments of theater and dance. It also will be the home for Maryland Presents, the center's own program of events, which will include chamber and early music, world music, jazz, dance and theatrical productions by renowned and emerging artists.

With 318,000 square feet of space spread over 17 acres on the north end of campus, it's one of the largest public buildings in Maryland. Besides its six main performing spaces, which seat between 100 and 1,100 people, there's a performing arts library; the International Piano Archives at Maryland; and the Prince George's County Room, a multipurpose space. Academic spaces include specialized prop, costume and scene shops; 30 classrooms; 50 rehearsal rooms; 100 faculty offices, a restaurant and a coffee bar.

These spaces were previously spread through different buildings on the campus. Administrators wanted to consolidate them as a way of stimulating collaboration and innovation between departments and disciplines.

The result is a diverse collection of performing spaces that can accommodate practically any dramatic or musical production, no matter how large or complex. Conceived as a training ground for young artists, it's also a bridge between campus and community. The center has been likened to Washington's Kennedy Center in the way spaces have been consolidated, and it makes College Park one of the only educational institutions in the country to have so many performing venues in one location.

"This is really about 10 buildings under one roof," Jose said. "It would have been easier not to have it this way. But since its mission was to foster collaboration between artists, the center really has been designed to make that happen."

"I think that something can happen here that is unlike anything that happens on any other university campus," said Farr, former executive director of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. "The size of the performance halls and the relationship to the performing arts departments offers an opportunity for visiting artists to be closely related to instruction and for audiences to be exposed to artists as their careers grow and develop. We truly hope to blur the lines between performance, learning and community."

'Campus within a campus'

Named for a Virginia artist who attended the University of Maryland in the 1950s and who donated $15 million toward the center's endowment fund, the building is on Stadium Drive near Byrd Stadium. It was designed by Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica, Calif., and Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore, which won an international design competition in 1994. In their entry, the architects described the center as a "campus within a campus," with many different components making up an "arts and academic village."

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