Pinckney Center for the Arts is just another building now, no more prominent or notable than Hitchcock Auditorium or Wille Hall. But fifteen years ago it was the epicenter of a theater program that was “the glue that held the fine arts together.” Plays, musicals, and even operas were performed every term and every part of the fine arts department was involved.
So what happened?
Pinckney theater wasn’t built until 1983, but the theater program at Central Oregon Community College was started in the 50s. The theater program was once “the glue that held the fine arts together,” according to Lilli-Ann Linford-Foreman, fine arts instructor and once head of the theater department. From the 1980s through the 1990s, Pinckney Center for the Arts was the center of a vibrant fine arts community that worked together on productions.
“Students from the music department would come and sing in the musicals, students from the art department would design sets,” Foreman said. “It is a real loss to the community.”
The department even had a ballet and modern dance program that was eliminated before the theater program, where students performed for credit through the college, according to Foreman. Steel Magnolias, Much Ado About Nothing, Pippin, and Extremities were just a few of the products of the collaboration.
At the time, there was an existing theater transfer degree that Foreman taught the classes for. Through her teaching and her extensive work with COCC theater, she saw the effect the department had on students’ lives.
“Young people formed lifelong friendships,” Foreman said. “I have been in touch with students from back in the 90’s and they are still performing theater in the community.”
One of the main people Foreman worked with was costumer Debra Fisher, who built all the outfits for nearly every production. Fisher, who had worked in Ashland at the Shakespeare Festival designing costumes, was nonetheless amazed by the scope of the productions.
“It brought a level of professional theater to Central Oregon that you just didn’t get in community theater,” Fisher said. “Just in the size and scope of the productions, because we put on some pretty big shows for a small company.”
Fisher worked with volunteers in the community and students doing work study to create costumes ranging from Puritan garb to Greek armor.
“Theater, in my opinion, is a team sport for artists,” Fisher said. “We think of artists as often being independent creators, but theater it is this group effort and it really is a team sport.”
But by the time Fisher and Foreman were developing at the “team sport” of theater, the program was already running short on time.
In 2003, as an indirect result of the recession, the state of Oregon disappropriated 16 percent of all funding from community colleges, according to Matt McCoy, vice president for administration at COCC. The college had to shut down the Prineville and Madras branch campuses, the sports programs, and many other things — the theater program among them.
The arts and athletics are always first on the chopping block, according to Gordon Price, director of student life. Price is a performance enthusiast, and wants to see the theater program return to COCC.
Price has encouraged the theater troupe for the last several years to try and revitalize the program, to mixed results.
“They try every year, but like any club, participation waxes and wanes unless they’re tied to a program,” Price said. “Most of your student interest groups have a harder time sustaining themselves.”
The community connection as well just isn’t there, according to Price, who attended the theater troupe’s show White People in spring of 2013.
“I went to a show and there were 6 people there,” Price said.
Pinckney still isn’t empty: Rehearsals, theater classes, dance recitals and even figure drawing classes take place in the center.
But campus services doesn’t rent Pinckney to outside sources anymore, because of the liability of renting and the state that Pinckney is in, according to Michael Gesme, chair of the Fine Arts and Communication department.
“The room is not a great representation to the community of the image we’d like to project,” Gesme said. “It needs a huge upgrade.”
“In looking at the demand for the program and the cost of operating the program, the determination has been made not to pursue that program,” McCoy said. “Having said that, it is worth reconsidering the decision from time to time.”
And reconsider they have: In the last ten years, Foreman has submitted three proposals to regain the theater degree. But the answer is no every time.
COCC administration looks at the many different facets of starting or restarting a program: The demand by the community, potential for growth, operating cost, willingness of the community to invest in the program, and especially job opportunities for graduates.
Even if a degree does provide job opportunities, McCoy said, they might not be the best opportunities.
“We used to have a turf grass management certificate,” McCoy said. “Though there are many golf courses around, the job opportunities don’t provide the living wage that we would hope our graduates would have.”
While the theater program may be low on the priority list of the college, it isn’t low on the priority list of the Fine Arts and Communication department, according to Gesme.
“It’s an embarrassment,” Gesme said, “that the thriving fine arts department that we have doesn’t have an active performance theater program.”
As department chair, one of Gesme’s “wishes” is to return Pinckney at least to a place where the college can rent it out once more. But what this would mean, besides a remodel, is a “point person” in a staff position who can maintain the facility.
The college is still far away from offering what it used to where theater is concerned, and there are no real indications of the theater program returning, according to Foreman. But she maintains that a college theater program is uniquely important.
“A college theater program offers students the opportunity to hone personal skills and discover and grow in a way that is not true in any other college course,” Foreman said. “By not having that we lost significant opportunity for personal growth and enrichment.”