In October, we welcomed the first performance in the new Michael D. Eisner Center for the Performing Arts. Students, faculty, staff, and community members joined Denison trustees, including Michael Eisner ’64, for whom the Center is named, to watch a stage adaptation of Bojack Horseman. The show was created and performed by Denison students in the Center’s Sharon Martin Hall.
It was a big night, years in the making. The 108,000-square-foot Center holds performance and rehearsal spaces, classrooms, faculty offices, and the departments of dance, music, and theatre. But what makes this building so special is that it is both a nod to the history of the arts at Denison (the new building encompasses Burke Hall, so the old blends with the new), while also being a physical representation of the College’s continued commitment to the future of the arts.
As we look forward to the first year of learning, teaching, and performance in the Eisner Center, I sat down with Susan Booth ’85, a Denison trustee and the Director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, to discuss the arts—their importance to Denison and the liberal arts at large, and their relevance on the national stage.
Why are the performing arts so important to the future of the liberal arts?
Way back, the ancient Greeks changed our world in a couple of ways. They came up with democracy, and they came up with theatre. Same place, same time, same folks. And there’s nothing at all coincidental about this. Because just as our democratic ideals rest on the shared assumption that we must embrace the multiple views of our diverse citizenry, the premise of all great theatre is the concurrent existence of divergent truths. When we experience performance—whether as participant, student, or audience member—we are witness to multiple languages coexisting in real time. The capacity to hear, process, and value the story or point of view that is not your own is a fundamental and foundational skill for a successful liberal arts education.
As a trustee, you were a huge champion for the Eisner Center. Can you explain why the building is a game-changer for the College?
Architecture expresses values. Both in its aesthetic design, but more importantly, in its de facto existence. When a new or prospective student comes to Granville now, they will receive the loud and proud information that this university—by dint of a beautiful new Center right on our campus welcome mat—values the performing arts. And whether it is a practice one hopes to study, an avocation one hopes to enjoy, or a new adventure one has been longing to take, the Eisner Center tells you that you’re in the right place.
You were a theatre major at Denison. How did studying the arts at Denison inform and prepare you for your life and career?
There is a life-altering rigor to majoring in theatre. Whether rehearsing a play or preparing for a concert, the arrow is moving swiftly toward an immovable target. Leonard Bernstein famously said, “to achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” This is the description of every opening night. Most impactful, though, was the work of critical analysis required by my major. Whether deciphering classical text, historical analysis, or the psychology of the character I was portraying, Denison demanded that I lean in with fierce curiosity to all things and all people. That’s served me in a career as a director and the leader of a theatre—but what I am most grateful for is the cultivation of both intellectual and emotional compassion.
What about the growth of Columbus and the ways a growing regional arts scene creates unique opportunities for the College?
Nothing we study, be it theatre or economics or biology, exists solely in the academy. And the beauty of Columbus turning into this world-class city that’s right down the road, is that the laboratory for observation, application, and practice has become huge. The gift of one’s undergraduate years is permission to try, fail, and then try again and fail better. To be able to take some of one’s attempts down The Hill and out into the world provides the real-world bridge from study to life.
Let’s talk about career exploration and preparation, which has become an important part of Denison’s focus. Why are the performing arts important for students who may be going into a range of other careers and professions?
Empathetic listening and the nimble construction of the right narrative for one’s present audience are skills that come with the study of the arts. And I cannot imagine a more necessary set of skills to take into the career development phase of one’s life. The capacity to communicate with deep emotional fluency in a diverse workforce is a highly prized skill in all sectors right now, and that’s the core muscle developed in any acting class. The ability to present one’s story in compelling fashion to a prospective employer is developed by learning to analyze and write scripts. And nothing will hone your in-the-moment ability to learn on the job than taking a dance class, where you see, you synthesize, and you do—in interdependent harmony with others.
Finally, let’s end with something a bit larger. Why do colleges like Denison have an ethical obligation to the arts, especially if we want to prepare students to be engaged and effective citizens?
We live in a precarious American moment. Rhetoric has displaced connection; volume and vitriol have displaced empathetic dialogue. If we do not have the capacity to care about the other person, then we will never have the moral and imaginative choices that will carry our collective interests forward. We will forget—if ever we learned—how to live in a society. It is only by listening to the lives of others that we come to know ourselves more fully, and strive for the collaborative creation of a more generous world. This is what the arts do for us. They restore the humane to our humanity.