I had the pleasure of seeing Wheaton’s main stage theatre show, “What Happens When,” last Friday (for my full review, click here).
To my astonishment, the line for tickets extended out the door of Watson Fine Arts and almost into Meneely. At no performing arts event except the Trybe Gala have I ever seen a line this long.
I have been involved in a number of shows in Wheaton theatre. Not one performance — except maybe our performance of “Romeo and Juliet” for high-schoolers in November of 2011 — filled the 300-something–seat house of Weber Theater. And yet on Friday night the house for “What Happens When” was chock full. The audience was similarly large on Thursday, and while Saturday saw fewer people, Sunday’s reservation numbers were positive at the time this was written.
I am thrilled to see Wheaton’s theatre department garnering so much attention for what is a topical and arguably necessary production. But I can’t help but wonder: Why has no other performing arts event received this kind of publicity? The theatre department routinely chooses important and provocative work to showcase on the Weber stage. Too often, it goes unnoticed and unappreciated, and I think there is a direct correlation between institutional commitment and campus engagement.
Never before has there been the kind of institutional support for the performing arts at Wheaton as there has been for “What Happens When.” Promotion for the show has been extensive, helped by a grant from the Department of Justice to assist the college in reframing sexual assault policy and awareness on campus. This has resulted in full buy-in from administrators, faculty and staff (some classes and most athletic teams are required to attend the show). Posters for the event have gone up all over campus, and not just the usual posters on walls and bulletin boards; big, loud, billboard-style posters have been placed in Emerson, Balfour-Hood, and the Wallace Library, with a full-size banner advertisement in Watson that looks like it came straight out of a lobby on Broadway.
I acknowledge this increased publicity is at least in part due to funding. But it frustrates me that what it takes to promote the arts at Wheaton — and thereby enhance engagement in the arts — is an unsubtle production that immediately furthers a goal the college has set for itself (and rakes in grant money). This is how the arts become utilitarian: when they are useful to an institution and its strategic goals, theatre gets its moment in the spotlight (Everybody go! Tickets are free!) But when they are not, the rhetoric — what little of it there is — is a distinctly different tune (The play? What is it this semester? No, I don’t think I can make it).
There is no doubt “What Happens When” will reflect well on the theatre department. It is a well-produced show and people on campus will be talking about it. But it concerns me that Wheaton hasn’t offered more support to the arts, which grapple with relevant social issues on a daily basis, until they have been able to produce something of seemingly tangible worth. This narrow-minded attitude rules out the intangibles, all the things theatre is good at showcasing.
So, pay attention. This happens every semester.