November 24, 2008

Student Groups Struggle With ‘Severe’ Shortage of Practice Space

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It is 10:30 p.m and while many students slowly drag their feet home after a long day’s work, some others, carrying drum sticks or hockey pads, set off in the opposite direction to begin practice sessions.
Many students, staff and alumni alike have voiced concern over a “severe” shortage of and “dire need” for sports and performing arts facilities on campus.
“The issue is that the University gives priority to classes, athletic teams and other academic or University sponsored meetings and events above student groups. Student groups get last priority for reservations, often leaving them to meet at night,” explained Elyse Feldman ’09, vice president of public relations of the Student Assembly Finance Commission.
For many sports groups, competition extends into the struggle for practice grounds. Lynah Rink, for example, is shared among two varsity hockey teams, several physical education classes, intramural teams and clubs from Ithaca College, according to Alex Bennett grad. As a result of tight scheduling, Bennett and other intramural hockey players often find themselves chasing the puck during 8 a.m. practice sessions or midnight games.
The blanket of snow that now covers Ithaca may also signify a long break from sports for many. Due to the scarce number of indoor facilities on campus, students who are passionate about soccer, ultimate Frisbee, rugby or other outdoor sports usually “have a horrible time finding an [indoor] place to practice,” according to Andrea Dutcher, director of Recreational Services.
“There is an extreme lack of gymnasium space on campus,” Dutcher said. She added that the situation is especially severe on North Campus, where the two indoor courts in Helen Newman Hall are shared by 3,300 freshmen and nearby residents.
“Helen Newman Hall is half the size it should be,” Dutcher said.
Similarly, the dearth of performance space has inhibited the student performing arts scene at Cornell. According to a 2005 Performance Space Task Force Report, 28 percent of performing arts groups on campus had to postpone or cancel an event due to venue-related issues. The report also pointed out “an unmet demand” for performance space, a “pressing need” for medium sized venues, and highlighted the lack of facilities that accommodate “the specialized needs of traditional theatre and dance.”
“It is clearly a problem when a student theater group has to go to Ithaca High School to find space,” said Kent Hubbell ’67, dean of students, who co-chaired the task force in 2005 with Catherine Holmes, assistant dean of students for student activities.
In stark contrast to peer institutions thriving with many active musical theatre groups, the Melodramatics Theatre Company is the sole group of its kind at Cornell, according to the company’s founder Justin Leader ’06. He believes that a shortage of facilities, especially of student theatres that provide for technical and storage needs, has greatly affected the survival of musical theatre groups at Cornell.
“It is an embarrassment,” he said.
Among the few existing facilities for traditional theatre and dance, the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts only reserves space for student organizations affiliated with the department of theatre arts. The only student-run stage, Risley Theatre, has many limitations for performing groups due to its location inside a dormitory, according to Josh Burlingham ’08, a trustee member of the Melodramatics. He strongly urged the University to provide a “real” student theatre, which is “a necessity on campus.”
“It’s a miracle [the Melodramatics] has been able to do the high caliber of work that we have done, and yet, I regret that we were not able to do better due to the limitations in rehearsal and especially performance space [at Cornell,]” Burlingham stated. After a fruitless search at Cornell, the Melodramatics now rehearses off-campus.
The 2005 report has contributed to “high-level discussions” about a lecture hall that could accommodate medium-sized performances in the future Humanities Building on East Avenue, according to Mary-Lynn Cummings, vice president for planning and budget and director of space planning.
The University also formed an Event Management Planning Team in September, according to Cummings. This committee of about 15 top level administrators will release a report by the end of next semester on a wide range of classroom and venue-related issues, including fees, facilities, scheduling, co-ordination and security.
Even so, Cummings was hesitant to directly acknowledge that facilities are lacking at Cornell.
“Frankly, I feel like we don’t understand the issue enough,” she said. “It is a real issue. The University recognizes the need for the better understanding of the issue, but we have yet to decide on if we need more space.”
After students return from Winter Break, the closure of Statler Auditorium for renovation is expected to further exacerbate the competition for performing space. Next semester, all but three time slots are already booked in Barton Hall for hosting concerts, according to Holmes.
The growth of some budding student groups is also being deterred by the lack of adequate venue. Among them, the newly-established Cornell Floorball Club is unable to train regularly due to venue-restrictions and competition for practice grounds. As a result, the club has had difficulty in expanding, according to Wai Kin Wong ’11, founder and president of the club.
Even for groups that manage to secure a regular practice room, existing facilities can be far from ideal. Yamatai, a Japanese Taiko-drumming team, finds Lincoln Hall the only place on campus that can accommodate their training and storage needs. The team’s practice room, however, is two floors below the Sidney Cox Library of Music and Dance. As the sound of continuous drumming seeps into certain areas of the library, the group is only allowed to drum from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on most weekdays.
“It is flaw in the design of the building. As far as I can tell, only the Taiko group reveals the flaw because of the volume of their music,” said Eric Feinstein, evening and weekend supervisor of the library, which closes half an hour after the drumming begins.
After two hours of vigorous drumming, however, some members of the group find themselves having troupe sleeping on practice days.
“It’s bad for our health. After practice I get a lot of adrenaline, so I cannot sleep even if I try to,” said Eva Kestner ’09, music director of Yamatai.
Although Lincoln Hall provides the ideal practice location for many music-related groups, it also charges some of the most expensive room rates on campus. While a weekly hour-long session in a room with an upright piano costs $75 each semester, the same time spent in a room with a grand piano demands $100 per semester.
As a result of the high price tag, some music groups are turned away from renting the music hall. A few times per week, Shimtah members collect their Korean drums from a free storage room in Lincoln Hall before trekking to other free venues to practice.
“Carrying instruments around is kind of a hassle, and the rooms in Lincoln Hall are nice,” said Andrew Seong ’10, president of Shimtah.
Yamatai, with drums less portable, is restricted to train in Lincoln Hall and is required to pay $450 for the room each semester.
Jane Belonsoff, manager of Music Department, explained that the rates are based on the cost of tuning one piano per semester, and said that “99.99 percent of extra-curricular groups” receive funding from the Student Assembly Finance Commission.
“The rooms are in high demand, and no one has ever questioned our fees,” Belonsoff said. She added that the rent is actually “very cheap” and has not increased over the past ten years.
But not all students are convinced by this explanation. Some pointed out that the Robert Purcell Community Center, where about 10 music-related groups practice, provides four free rooms with upright pianos. A few also wondered aloud if Lincoln Hall would charge the same rates if the SAFC did not help groups to fund their rents.
“I think it is an ethical violation that money from the student activities fee goes to the music department in such a huge amount. I feel [the department] is taking advantage of the SAFC,” said a Cornell alumnus, who ran one of the largest performing arts organizations.
Belonsoff strongly defended the department against the accusation. She believes it is fair that student activity fees help to pay for group’s rental fees. While emphasizing that the rent collected is used for tuning pianos, she refused to offer detailed information or breakdown regarding its use.
“Well, if [Robert Purcell Community Center] does not charge money, good for them. But this is our department’s policy … If pianos break, they are expensive to maintain,” Belonsoff said.
The SAFC had approximately $600,000 to allocate to groups this semester. About $5,000 was allocated to 18 music-related groups to pay for rent in Lincoln Hall, according to Terry Ector, an accounts representative of the SAFC.