Maxwell PAT: A Cultural and Educational Asset

by James O’Meara

As Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University prepare to be merged, the infamous name change debate continues. This calls to mind a less controversial name change that occurred in 1984: the renaming of the Grover C. Maxwell Performing Arts Theater. Originally named simply the Performing Arts Theater, this building and the neighboring Fine Arts Center were built in 1968 (“Augusta State University Scrapbook”). The Fine Arts Center and the Performing Arts Theater were built to address a major need in the growth of Augusta College. The two buildings have played and continue to play a major role in assuring that the music and drama endeavors at this institution have a place to rehearse and a theater in which to showcase their efforts.

A quick clarification of terms will ease comprehension of primary source quotations: The “Fine Arts Center” was commonly the name of both buildings together for the years following their construction. Over time, the term “Performing Arts Theater” gradually became the more common term of the theater, probably to avoid ambiguity. Today, the division is relatively clear: the term “Fine Arts Center” refers to the academic building, while the term “Maxwell Theater” or “Performing Arts Theater” is used to speak of the theater. This document will use this contemporary terminology.

As Augusta College approached its first fall quarter as a senior institution, the Board of Regents embarked on a major construction project (Conley, “It’s a Year”). At the time, the campus possessed neither an auditorium nor an amphitheater. The Southern Association of Colleges, which is normally responsible for accreditation, observed this in their committee’s Report of the Southern Association of Colleges Committee’s Informal Visitation to Augusta College:

The absence of an auditorium, or some place which can be used for student assemblies or convocations, is a serious deficiency. Chairs placed in the gymnasium can convert it into a make-shift auditorium, but at best the acoustics in a gymnasium are not what one wants in an auditorium…. The administrators of the College should immediately consider long-range plans to provide a larger library, a larger gymnasium, a cafeteria, and an auditorium. (Reynolds 18, underlining in original)

Augusta College needed more than a “place…for student assemblies”; they needed a home for their drama, music, and art departments. Today, the art and drama departments use Washington Hall, but at the time Washington Hall was not available for their use. Student music performances took place elsewhere, sometimes in churches (“Messiah”). Drama productions were practiced and performed in the Chateau, a small building southwest of Fanning Hall that is still there today (Institutional 1970/71 vol. 3). The size of this building dictated that audiences were small. Art was sometimes shown in the library or the student center (Crangle; Conley “AC Students”), but it appears that the art department did not have their own exhibition room.

Augusta College’s need for a Fine Arts academic building was slightly less important than its need for a theater; the art, music, and drama departments were not without classrooms. However, predictions for enrollment growth indicated an urgent need for more classrooms (Reynolds 18). The art and music classes were held in buildings located in the quadrangle (Institutional 1962-63 110). The Institutional Self Study committee deemed the music building to be sufficient for the time, at least in 1963: “[The music building] adequately houses music instruction. Because of its isolated location, the students can sing and play musical instruments without interfering with any other classroom instruction” (Institutional 1962-63 111). However, it does not appear that this music building had individual practice rooms, which are quite useful for those who do not have access to musical instruments at home.

While the music building was mostly sufficient, the art department was limited to the basement floor of a building used for secretarial duties (Institutional 1962-63 110). These classrooms were lit with fluorescent rather than natural lighting, so it was effectively impossible to correctly view the colors of a given piece of art. Furthermore, the ceilings were quite low. “Live models”—living human models—were not possible subjects because the low ceilings prevented them from standing on raised platforms (110).

With all of this in mind, the Board of Regents concluded “that there is an acute need for the construction of the … [theater] phase of the Fine Arts Center at … Augusta College” (University 56). In March, 1965, they “unanimously … resolved” to allocate one million dollars towards the theater project (56). A few months later, they put an additional $600,000 towards the adjacent Fine Arts Center (Conley “State Funds”). This was a new step for Augusta College: no other buildings had been specifically built for educational use before. All other buildings, most notably the warehouses, had been adapted to their educational use (“Augusta State University Scrapbook”).

The ground-breaking for both buildings was held on March 30, 1966, a year after the resolution. Edward Cashin, author of A History of Augusta College, noted that Georgia’s Governor, Carl E. Sanders, attended this milestone event (100). His wife, Mrs. Betty Foy Sanders, was the first to break ground (100). Both buildings were expected to be finished in a year’s time (“Ground-Breaking” 6). The ground-breaking program optimistically described how the plans had developed: “Both architects and faculty worked on the design intensively for almost a year, visiting other centers and consulting with other architects and acoustical engineers to incorporate the best and latest.” They had hoped that it would “be the cultural heart of the college” (6). The president, Dr. Robins, called it “a great asset to the area” (qtd. in Conley, “State Funds”). He saw it as “another step in the direction of establishing a full range of senior college offerings” (qtd. in “Art Center Okayed”).

The Augusta community, represented by the Augusta Chronicle, enthusiastically supported and agreed with these ideals. Andra Conley suggested it “may become the college’s biggest asset” (“It’s a Year”). Another article, titled “Entire Area Will Benefit,” expected that the complex would contribute to the artistic interests of the “entire Central Savannah Area.” An article titled “Sands of Progress” compares it to the “ultra-modern and highly flexible theater in New York’s Lincoln Center.”

A few members of the Augusta community were not so optimistic. Phil Scroggs writes in the Augusta Chronicle, “While it will be an impressive addition to the Augusta scene, it will naturally be devoted principally to college activities.” He asserts that Augusta will still lack “a public theater or intermediate size auditorium” (Scroggs).

Progress on construction continued slowly, with delays from frequent rain. Finally, on October 27, 1968, the college started a month-long series of dedication events. The first of these events was naturally an assembly in the theater itself. “The Augusta College brass choir provided the music.” Carl E. Sanders gave one of the addresses, as did Dr. Robins (“Inauguration”). A week later, the famous choral director Robert Shaw conducted the Augusta College Choir and spoke on “The Conservative Arts” (“Robert Shaw”).

The structure was designed to “blend with the traditional Southern architecture on the campus,” (“Ground-Breaking” 6) but Cashin sees the Center’s modernity differently: “architecturally… [these buildings were] a break from the past. In contrast with the careful adaption of the old buildings [such as the warehouses] to new purposes, the new buildings were strikingly modern. Both styles were pleasing, but in juxtaposition there was a visual clash” (110).

The hole dug for the theater was quite deep—in fact, it was “three stories deep” (Dr. Robins, qtd. in “Sands”). The reason for this depth is twofold: the depth allowed backstage area to be greatly increased, given the amount of space that is below stage level. The underground backstage also allows the hydraulic lift to be lowered completely to the underground level. Todd Sullivan, the current Technical Production Coordinator, says that the lift can be loaded with large items, for transport to the main stage. It can also lift people during a performance for a dramatic effect.

The hydraulic lift is one of the most interesting features of the Maxwell Theater. The theater’s stage is a thrust stage: rather than being simply in front of the audience, it is shaped so that it projects (thrusts) into the audience. This two-part thrust stage doubles as a hydraulic lift, which can be raised to the level of the main stage or lowered to the level of the surrounding floor. It can also be lowered a few feet further to create an orchestra pit, or lowered to the underground level as mentioned above (Conley “State Funds”). The thrust stage allows the theater to have a semicircular seating arrangement, in which most of the seats are “within a dozen rows of the stage” (Sullivan). Even more seating can be added on top of the hydraulic stage when lowered, bringing the total seating capacity from 740 to 809 (“Maxwell Theater Technical”). Sullivan calls this an “intimate” seating arrangement: the audience feels closer to the performance.

Also in the original design were “clouds,” white panels attached to the ceiling, which were meant to improve acoustics. In reality, these were not terribly effective (Sullivan), despite that they were “similar to that in the New York City’s Lincoln Center” (“Ground-Breaking” 6). They were taken down about ten years ago. The entire ceiling was painted black to give it a less distracting hue (Sullivan).

The floor-to-ceiling curtains in the back of the theater were also designed to serve an acoustical purpose. They can be drawn behind the staggered walls to give the theater louder, brighter acoustics (Sullivan). Unfortunately, regardless of the position of the curtains, the acoustics of the Maxwell Theater do not live up to the expectations. The aforementioned ground-breaking program stated hopefully that it would “be so acoustically perfect that the slightest sound will carry to the farthest corner of the room” (6). However, Dr. William Hobbins, the current choral director, describes the unfortunate reality: “Singing in the Maxwell Theater is like singing in a box of wet tissues.”

The acoustics are a definite problem for musicians. However, the greatest drawback of the Maxwell Theater is that it lacks a full fly system. A full fly system raises and lowers backdrops. The Performing Arts Theater was unable to build a sufficiently tall building to incorporate a full fly system—backdrops can only be raised a few feet off the ground, not completely out of view. This was an unavoidable flaw caused by the proximity to the Daniel Field airport. It would have been necessary to build another sixty feet taller if a full fly system had been included, which is dangerously high for incoming airplanes. Sullivan hypothesizes that “If we had [[a full fly system]]…we’d be booked every day because of the intimacy.” Indeed, the intimate seating arrangement is a significant feature of this theater. The rental price is also lower than other Augusta theaters. Yet the inability to change backdrops renders many theatrical productions simply impossible (Sullivan).

As time went on, some of the theater’s uses became less necessary. The glassed-in lobby of the theater, for example, was used for years as was originally intended, “as exhibition space for both on-campus and community exhibitors” (Institutional 1970/71 vol. 3).Passers-by could even see the exhibitions through the windows during closed-hours (Institutional 1970/71 vol. 3). This use of the theater lobby became less common when the art department moved to Washington Hall. Most expositions now take place in the gallery in Washington Hall. Also more common for years were outdoor performances. The performers would be at the top of the steps, and the audience would be on the sidewalk area at the bottom of the steps. The construction of the amphitheater has for the most part superseded this use (Sullivan).

Of course, the origin of the name Maxwell Theater remains unaddressed. Grover C. Maxwell contributed large sums of money towards Augusta College scholarships throughout his life. He also contributed to his church and to the Augusta Community as a whole (Christenberry). Because of his extensive accomplishments, his name was chosen to be commemorated on the Augusta College campus. Corrie Maxwell unveiled a plaque on March 7, 1984, renaming the Performing Arts Theater after her husband. As of that date, the theater’s official name has been the Grover C. Maxwell Performing Arts Theater or the Maxwell Theater (“Theater Dedicated”).

The future of the Maxwell Theater is uncertain, particularly with the merging of ASU and GHSU. There is discussion of tearing down both the Fine Arts Center and the Maxwell Theater, and building a larger, newer version of each downtown. The new theater would seat over two thousand (Sullivan). Should we keep the Maxwell Theater and the Fine Arts Center, or are they too deficient? Would the space be better used for more classrooms? Whether they should remain or not, the Maxwell Theater and the Fine Arts Center have served the university well.

Works Cited

“Augusta State University Scrapbook.” Augusta State University. Augusta State University, 2012. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

“Art Center Okayed at Augusta College.” Augusta Chronicle 17 June 1965: 1. Readex. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.

Cashin, Edward J. and Helen Callahan. A History of Augusta College. Augusta, Ga. : Augusta College Press, 1976. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.

Christenberry, George A. Letter to Augusta College Faculty. 5 March 1984. TS. Augusta State University Vertical File, “Maxwell Theater” File. Augusta State University Library, Augusta, GA.

Conley, Andra. “AC Students Decorate College Center, Despite Absence of Campus Life.” Augusta Chronicle 8 Dec. 1966: 1. Readex. Web. 3 Oct 2012.

—. “It’s a Year of ‘Firsts’ at Augusta College.” Augusta Chronicle 27 Dec. 1965: 3. Readex. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.

—. “State Funds Okayed for Art Center.” Augusta Chronicle 14 Oct. 1965: 3. Readex. Web. 1 Oct. 2012.

Crangle, Susan. “Teacher Enjoys ‘Bagging’ Paintings.” Augusta Chronicle 28 Nov. 1965: 9. Readex.Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

“Entire Area Will Benefit.” Augusta Chronicle 18 Oct. 1965: 4. Readex. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

“Ground-breaking – Fine Arts Center.” 30 March 1966. TS. Augusta State University Vertical File, “Fine Arts Center” File. Augusta State University Library, Augusta, GA.

Hobbins, William. Personal Interview. 8 Oct. 2012.

“Inauguration of Dedicatory Exercises.” Bell Ringer 12 Nov. 1968: 2. Print.

Institutional Self-Study of Augusta College, Augusta, Georgia, 1970-71. 4 vols. Augusta, Ga: Augusta College, 1971. Print.

Institutional Self-Study of Augusta College, Augusta, Georgia, 1962-63. Augusta, Ga. : Augusta College, 1963. Print.

“Maxwell Theater Seating Chart.” Augusta State University. Augusta State University, 2012. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

“Maxwell Theater Technical Specifications.” Augusta State University. Augusta State University, 2012. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

“ ‘Messiah’ Program.” Augusta Chronicle 18 Nov. 1962: 2. Readex. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.

Reynolds, J. Paul, et al. Report of the Southern Association Committee’s Informal Visitation to Augusta College, November 7 to 9, 1965. Atlanta: n.p., 1965. Print.

“Robert Shaw.” Bell Ringer 25 Nov. 1968: 1. Print.

“Sands of Progress.” Augusta Chronicle 16 April 1967: 6. Readex. Web. 25 Sept. 2012.

Scroggs, Phil. “What Goes Here.” Augusta Chronicle 30 July 1967: 8. Readex. Web. 26 Sept. 2012.

Sullivan, Todd. Personal interview. 25 Sept. 2012.

“Theater Dedicated.” Augusta Herald 7 March 1984. TS. Augusta State University Vertical File, “Maxwell Theater” File. Augusta State University Library, Augusta, GA.

University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Minutes – Board of Regents of the University System. Atlanta: n.p., 1965. Microfilm.

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