King’s theater plans spark drama

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First Posted: 3/25/2013

The planned growth of one of King’s College’s academic programs could lead to the relocation of another.

Discussions are ongoing between college administrators and heads of the physician assistant studies and theater arts programs. One result may be the physician assistant studies’ program expanding into space now occupied by the George P. Maffei II Theatre on the first floor of the administration building.

If this moves forward, as early as this fall, the campus’ Theatre Arts Department and the theater the students practice and perform in will be relocated to the former Memorial Presbyterian Church on West North Street in Wilkes-Barre that has gone mostly unused since the school acquired it in 2011.

The brownstone building is as much a local landmark at the top of the West North Street hill as it was when it opened its doors in the 1870s.

College spokesman John McAndrew said nothing has been finalized and several options are on the table, including having the physician assistant studies program moving into the former church building and keeping the theater program in its current home.

McAndrew said none of the discussions would lead to the demise of the theater arts program or the elimination of a physical theater on the King’s College campus.

“King’s College is in the final stages of determining the feasibility of a plan to renovate the North Street Church facility into the college’s performing arts center. A final decision is contingent upon developing an adequate plan for interim Theatre program operations while the project is under construction.

“Administration and Theatre department faculty will be working together on those plans over the next few weeks. The outcome of those discussions and plans will determine the final action plan,” according to a college statement sent by McAndrew.

“If the renovation takes place, the current theatre space will be utilized to develop a state-of-the-art lab and classroom facility allowing for the integration of Physician Assistant program facilities and expansion to meet the growing demand for the program,” the statement went on. “Alternative plans are also available and ready to be implemented to support the expansion of the Physician Assistant program and to re-purpose the North Street Church facility.”

In an e-mail sent out Wednesday by Sheileen Corbett, chairwoman of the school’s theatre arts department, to some department alumni, she urged alumni to contact King’s President Jack Ryan to voice displeasure. Her message informs alumni that this isn’t something being discussed, but something that has already been finalized, without her input.

“This is happening, beginning May 13th. We just finished renovation (of the theatre) in the amount of $750,000 from a gift donation. The promise is a renovated church, however, there is no funding and no plans for the project… Plans were set in stone before I or anyone from the theatre was ever consulted,” Corbett’s email, which was obtained by The Times Leader, stated.

Corbett, via an email to The Times Leader, noted that “nothing in that statement negates that fact that we have a start date for removal of equipment and construction on the existing theatre on May 13. There just are no plans in place or theatre funding for the future of the theatre.”

When asked further questions, she declined comment, stating that she “has been instructed” not to talk to the media.

McAndrew said part of the long-term plan of the college is to focus on programs that have growth potential and the Physician Assistant studies program is among those targeted. While student numbers in this major have remained steady – up 20 students to 209 this current year – it’s because there’s no room to grow, he added.

Any growth, he said, would likely come in the fifth- and sixth-year graduate program, not the undergraduate program.

McAndrew said targeted growth is expected to be about 30 students over the next four years.

Dwane Engelhardt, a 1981 King’s graduate and a theatre major, was one of several alumni to e-mail or call The Times Leader to express concern with the way the situation has been handled. He said he hopes the school will do whatever it can to not only relocate the theatre, but also spend the money to do it right.

“Don’t just give them the building, a ramshackle place, and say, ‘It’s yours,’” said Engelhardt, of Kingston.

He said workshops and a design room need to be built and other renovations have to occur to get it to the level the current theater areas are at. Though he stopped short of accusing the school of plotting to end the program, he said art and music programs have been eliminated previously.

“They slowly kind of phase them out,” he said.

McAndrew adamantly denied this was the case for the theater program, which has 14 majors and seven minors.