Fall 2018 Issue

The Final Curtain: Farewell for Now

Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall Goes Dark

By Sara K. Eskridge
Photos By Alfred Herczeg P ’23

Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall (PBK) is transforming. Much like a character in “Metamorphoses,” one of the last productions to be staged there, PBK is shedding the old and becoming something new. The building, which first opened in 1957, will be closed until the fall of 2020 as the entire Arts Quarter of campus undergoes an extensive renovation and expansion.

Generations of students and faculty alike have come alive in this space, which currently houses an auditorium, studio theatre, and the theatre, speech and dance departments. The facility has served as a springboard for the careers of actresses Glenn Close ’74, D.A. ’89 and Linda Lavin ’59, actor Scott Glenn ’61, television producer Bill Lawrence ’90 and Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long ’69, L.H.D. ’04.

When it was built in 1956, PBK was one of the best university theatre facilities on the East Coast, boasting a custom lighting system, an electronic dimming system and a flexible black box theatre space that allowed students and faculty to explore alternative performance styles. The facility played host to performances by multiple student groups, including the Sinfonicron Light Opera Company. The William & Mary radio station, WCWM, also operated out of the building from 1959 until 1986, when it was moved to the Campus Center.

I love you, you're perfect now change: A final look at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall before the building closed for renovations.

In addition to serving as the home of the Alpha Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, PBK also hosted the Virginia Regional Ballet and served as the home for the Virginia Shakespeare Festival from 1978 until 2016.

It has been the setting for a number of events and speakers of national renown, including a 1976 presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, award-winning actress Laverne Cox’s 2018 Atwater Lecture and a live CNN town hall event this past spring.

“There were no bad seats in the Proscenium Theatre,” says Dave Dudley ’75, who first joined the theatre department in 1977 and now serves as technical director. “Theatre can be performed anywhere, but good theatre requires a good facility, and you need an excellent facility if you want excellent graduates. Our auditorium was remarkable for a university facility.”

This is not to say that PBK never had its challenges. A fire decimated the Studio Theatre in 1991, and sometimes productions fell short of expectations. Occasionally the department dreamed a little too big and tried to put on too large a production in too little time. Department members are constantly attempting to meet the unique and varied demands of each play and keep up with advances in technology and staging, often on a shoestring budget, all while attempting to offer a variety of dramatic works and engaging musicals that would provide students with the full breadth of theatrical experience.

“Knowing that we were going to move this spring, we should have been packing, but instead we decided to produce some of the most ambitious shows we’ve ever done,” laughs Patricia Wesp ’76, the costume designer for the theatre department since 1983. “We had ‘Metamorphoses’ in the spring — a swimming pool on stage and 12 actors playing 65 roles!”

Despite difficulties, faculty and former students alike brim with positive memories of PBK. They remember the excitement that always preceded a performance, the gatherings of students in the side lobby and the enjoyment of experiencing personal growth with each and every production. Student performers often have myriad other academic interests — Wesp recalls one outstanding recent performer was a biology major — but performed as a creative outlet.

“Even some of the ‘less-than-successful’ results were invaluable for these young men and women, testing limits and uncovering possibilities,” says Dudley. “ I love seeing their excitement when they meet challenges head-on and realize they can rise to the occasion.”

Although the faculty and staff who have called PBK home for decades are wistful about the renovation, they are also hopeful for the future of the building, which promises a new studio theatre and dance recital theatre in addition to renovated Lab and Prosceneium theatres. The Proscenium Theatre promises a more intimate viewer experience, with fewer seats and state-of-the-art acoustics and lighting.

The new space will have three levels, more storage for the set and costume departments, more rehearsal areas, and a space for entertaining and receptions. The faculty hopes to maintain the functionality of the old building while being able to incorporate the latest technologies and techniques into the curriculum, to say nothing of creating a more enjoyable experience for loyal theatre patrons.

“William & Mary has always encouraged exercises in creative pursuit, and theatre and dance are great outlets for that expression,” says Dudley. “I am hopeful that this new space will encourage students to get out of their comfort zones and takes some risks.”