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  • Mitch Galloway

The Oaks Theatre remembered - Olivet College should think about creating a new stage for students

Photos by Mitch Galloway

“Thou timshel,” Adam Trask, a character in “East of Eden,” said to his confused son, Caleb.

There, in the final scene, Adam’s bed was white like cotton, and there, in the final moments, a dying father’s loose jaw and vegetable stare caused a purging of emotions for Steppenwolf’s audience.

Gasps could be heard. Awes could be felt. Tears could be seen.

The mise-en-scene from Steppenwolf’s version of Steinbeck’s beloved novel featured a Disney-like Tree of Life, creaky oak floorboards that wept when a character moved too quickly, and a loud gun stinging the anaphylactic crowd.

An Olivet College group of seven students and a professor made the trip to Chicago’s 1650 N. Ave. for a Sept. 26 penultimate preview of “East of Eden.”

The Steppenwolf ensemble, according to its website, “first began performing in the mid-1970s in the basement of a Highland Park, Illinois church. Steppenwolf operates as a not-for-profit organization relying on community support to produce or present up to 16 plays and nearly 700 performances, readings and other events every year on our three stages.”

The trip to Chicago was almost three hours in length. A college van, colored a stoplight red, smelled of Victoria’s Secret “Pink” perfume and Ralph Lauren red cologne, as students exchanged banter on the way home to Olivet, raving about the play’s lack of closure in its dénouement.

But neither of those smells -- the-pink-or-red sort -- could beat the pungent aroma of reality: Olivet College no longer had a theater.

And this stinks.

“Before the public announcement regarding the Oaks, Dr. (Maria) Davis asked for a meeting,” Theater Professor Arthur Williams, Ph. D., said in an email on Oct. 5. “She wanted to let me know that the college was going to sell the theatre. It was getting worn, and the upkeep threatened to become prohibitive. Although it was sad news, I appreciated the courtesy.”

Another professor at Olivet College seemed upbeat, too, about the college’s use of the theater program during these rocky times.

“I’m sad we don’t have a dedicated theatrical space now, let alone a theatre program,” Humanities Professor Kirk Hendershott-Kraetzer, Ph.D., said via email on Oct. 4. “It’s a loss to the life of the campus and to the surrounding community. I’m excited about some of the plans that I’ve talked about with Dr. Williams: they make the best of a difficult situation, and I’m glad he’s the point person. His love of theatre and his desire to see it return to Olivet are immense and inspiring.”

This loss, which happened two years ago, hit the community like a pending doom.

“I was told about the closing of the Oaks, as a courtesy, shortly before the campus-wide announcement,” Hendershott-Kraetzer said. “It was a challenging space to work in, though I think the production of ‘Lysistrata’ I directed there was successful because of the skill and commitment of the people who were working on the production: they knew the space and how to work it.”

But The Oaks Theatre, purchased by the school in 1961, like many sad estates in the humanities department -- e.g., where did the daily issues of the New York Times go? -- is now a church called City on a Hill Community Church.

Olivet College Alumna Lisa Beauchamp Simpkins wrote in a Facebook post about that transition on July 9, 2014. “Sad times - I heard this morning that Olivet College sold The Oaks Theater to a church,” she wrote. “All of those memories.....”

But why did the college get rid of the Oaks and the theater program?

Well, you see, the theater had fallen on hard times.

“The program was cancelled in the 90s and then again in 2009,” Williams said. “There are, however, occasional glimmers. The Provost (Davis) is a strong supporter of the arts, which can be shown by her funding the recent trip to Steppenwolf. The library hosted last year’s Readers Theatre presentation, The Great War. This fall, the music program will feature readings integrated with music for its Veterans Day concert. Finally, the Theatre Club is hosting an Improv Night every Friday in the Comet Cafe. We don’t have a theatre building, but Theatre doesn’t need the effects. If we can give performers a chance to find an audience, theatre can thrive at Olivet College.”

The proceeds from the sale of the theater were put into the arts program’s funds, according to Davis, Ph. D., in Hannah Scott’s Jan. 31, 2014 article in The Echo.

Despite this notion, though, there is still no theater in the making. The 20/20 Plan has seen improvements to the campus’ bathrooms in Dole, Blair and Shipherd Halls; improvements to the sidewalks around Dole Hall and the College’s Square; and even improvements to Burrage Library with the Library Learning Commons renovation.

But where’s the theater? Where’s the stage a future Marlon Brando could make famous? Where’s the next Old Vic establishment housing hundreds of future Olivetians?

It’s nowhere to be seen, and this stinks -- despite the optimism from Olivet College’s professors.

Dear Olivet College, if you want to embark on change, if you want to give students the ultimate education for social and individual responsibility, if you want to increase enrollment (see the marching band and football team), then build a new, attractive and sexy theater.

There, at the new theater, “East of Eden” could be on the playbill. There, at the new theater, the Trees-of-Life will reach taller to the skies. There, at the new theater, the oak floorboards will creak to our own step – our own characters. There, at our theater, the gun shots will ignite a cold-wax candle, sparking a red lamp of learning.

Flicker. Flicker.

I understand the college is making the best out of a tough situation, but I promise that if you build a new theater a part of the 20/20 plan, they (the students) will come.

Until then, this situation will continue to stink.

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