Redefining the Classroom

Music, Performance Arts Professors See Programs Growing In New Center

Posted: April 2nd, 2003

April 1, 2003
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – If you build it, they will come.

While it may seem trite to use the phrase made popular by the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams" to describe Lake Superior State University's fine and performing arts center, it may be fitting in this case. Based on student, faculty and community feedback, the University is confident that the center, to open in fall 2004, will be welcomed by all of those who have been longing for more offerings in the arts.

"This center will give us the appropriate kinds of spaces for instruction in three major fields that we are contemplating: art, music and theater," said John Wilkinson Ph.D., professor of music at LSSU. "We've never had the right kind of spaces for instruction in these areas. That's the major achievement of this building – the right kinds of instructional spaces for courses in the arts.


"In addition, the center will provide a wide range of possibilities for LSSU to develop classes from a non-credit approach," he continued, noting that community members have been interested in more arts-oriented classes at LSSU, but lack of space has hindered any additional offerings.

Wilkinson has been teaching music in two old Fort Brady buildings since his arrival at LSSU in 1976. For years, music classes were held in East Hall, Fort Brady's former jail. In recent years, the program expanded to Brown Hall, the fort's former headquarters. In both cases, the buildings provide less than adequate space for instruction with little room for storage of musical instruments and other equipment.

Likewise for the University's theater program, which has taken on new life in recent years with the arrival of Gary Balfantz Ph.D., associate professor of English and speech. Balfantz said one of the reasons he chose to come to LSSU to teach in 2000 was because of the promise of a new arts center.

Balfantz' students have revitalized theater at the University, forming the Lake State Theatre Company and Drama Club and putting together several productions each year. It was only within the past two years, when the group established residence in the basement of Brady Hall, that the theater company had a dedicated space for rehearsing and production. The small space has been fixed up as a 'black box' production area and has been successful in spite of its limitations.

"Like any fledgling theatre company, you use space until you find something better," Balfantz said of the increasing interest in LSSU theater.


Both Balfantz and Wilkinson see enrollment growing at LSSU once the center is built and its possibilities are realized.

"Our students are already excited about this," Wilkinson said. "We'll attract and retain more of them when we have the place to offer these types of opportunities to them."

Space may not seem as if it would be a hindrance to offering arts classes, but there is more to offering art, music and theater classes than finding a room with some seats in it. Most, if not all, of the classes demand much room to store musical instruments, props, supplies, projects and equipment associated with such classes.

The new building will meet those requirements. It will house space for students to work in paint, sculpture and graphic arts, as well as greatly increased room for theater and music.

The center will include three areas for theater: a classroom that can serve as both a teaching and rehearsal space; a choral room that could double as a small theater, much like the current stage set in Brady Hall; and the auditorium itself. There is also a large scene shop work area.

"There is flexibility with the choral room because there is not a lot of furniture in it," Wilkinson said. "It can double as a small, experimental theater…with performers in the center or even mingling with the audience, if you wanted to do it. You could do some neat things that would be harder to do in the auditorium.

"That will be a very busy space, because it will be used for chorus, vocal ensembles, rehearsal for musical theater productions, children's musicals and theater, and as a recital hall."

"It's going to be a very nice facility for our students and visitors," said Balfantz, who noted that more students are expressing interest in the facility and its offerings.

"The more we can offer here, the better it will be for our students," he said. "There is something to that notion that 'if you build it, they will come.' We haven't had a facility to offer these types of programs, so with it our programs can only grow and mature and get better…We have several difficult years ahead as our program grows, but it will happen."

For music, LSSU students will be getting two very large rooms: the choral and orchestral rehearsal halls.

"They are the largest instructional spaces in the building, outside of the auditorium," Wilkinson said.

The area includes teaching studios that will serve several functions, including practice and dressing rooms, piano labs and more. Musicians will be able to use the auditorium, too, which has an orchestra pit that can be covered when not in use. The stage will be equipped with a portable acoustical shell that will create the proper environment for presenting music on stage.

"Otherwise, too much sound goes up," Wilkinson said. "The shell puts sound and energy into the audience instead of it filling up the stage."

Wilkinson said the shell, consisting of an overhead piece and portable pieces rolled in from the sides, also serves the purpose of dressing up the stage.

Art students will finally have a home that suits them, with a three-dimensional and wet studio or pottery room, including a kiln and room to store works in progress, as well as a graphic design studio.

"Many students and community members want to take these arts courses, but we haven't had the room. We have had to turn people away. Now we'll have the square footage," Wilkinson said.

The center will include an art gallery with nearly 1600 square feet for exhibits – semi-permanent and traveling. Several years ago, LSSU would play host to a few traveling art exhibits each year, usually in the Shouldice Library. The remodeled library does not have enough gallery space for such exhibits, so the new art gallery is a welcome addition to the fine and performing arts center.

"We will again be able to accommodate exhibits from the Smithsonian and other entities, as well as student exhibits," Wilkinson said, noting that the gallery will be a great place for students' end-of-semester projects to be put on display.

Excited about the instructional space, Wilkinson said the new auditorium might be even more welcome off campus.

"The auditorium is maybe even more significant, in a way, because not only has the university itself lacked adequate space for theater and musical performances, but the community lacks it, too. The auditorium will allow us to present performances on a good-sized stage in a room with really fine acoustics."

Balfantz is equally enthusiastic about the auditorium and all of its possibilities. He and his students are looking forward to the day they can offer their new Superior Festival -- an annual performance festival and colloquium approaching its third year – in the new digs. The festival brings several students and faculty from around the country to LSSU.

"What a wonderful place to host that festival," Balfantz said. "We'll have a real, legitimate space where artists can come to perform and present their work in a more technically proficient way…My students learn from four or five professors during that weekend. It's like taking a whole course in a weekend. That's why the festival is important and why it's important to hold it in a place that is appropriate for it."

Balfantz said classes in performance arts are being lined up in advance of the center's completion and said he envisions great achievements for LSSU students in all aspects of the arts.

"Well offer acting in the fall for the first time in 25 years or more. We really are like the phoenix rising up from the ashes and I think that's very exciting…Uniting that energy, putting us all under the same roof, allows dialogue between all of the academic disciplines housed there and that dialogue is a very powerful, invigorating force."

Although LSSU is working toward development of programs in the arts, many of them will not come right away.

"Uses and programs for the fine and performing arts center will be developed over the life of the building," said Dave Eitland, director of development with the LSSU Foundation. "It would be unrealistic to think that we would have all our programs that use this building ready on the day of opening. Many performance and lecture series, classes, and degree programs will develop as we spend more time in the center and secure the necessary private donations and corporate sponsorships to make them happen."

To find out how you can contribute to the LSSU fine and performing arts center, perhaps by participating in the Have A Seat campaign, call the LSSU Foundation, 906-635-2666 or visit To get more information on taking arts classes at LSSU, call Admissions, 888-800-LSSU, ext. 2231, Balfantz, 906-635-2278, or Wilkinson, 906-635-2265. -LSSU-