The 1933 Bishop reports on the glimmer of an idea at a Brooks School still in its infancy. “In the fall of 1931 a pair of ambitious souls thought how nice it would be to have a play on the weekend of the dance,” the Bishop reads.
It continues:“[T]hus the Dramatic Society was started. [Former senior master Arthur] Milliken was duly appointed coach of the Society. At the outset he asked all concerned if they knew how much work they had to do. The reply was in the affirmative, although none had the faintest idea of the tasks involved.”
The Bishop goes on to note that, “after much quibbling,” two plays were chosen by the fledgling Dramatic Society to perform in the spring of 1932: “The Crimson Cocoanut,” by Ian Hay, and “Where the Cross Is Made,” by Eugene O’Neill. “The audience came, the audience clapped, the audience went,” the Bishop concludes. “The actors hoped they were amused, and some of the audience claimed they were. The stage, a masterpiece of carpentry and art, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.”
The stage may have disappeared as quickly as it had appeared — in the first years of the school, performances took place in today’s Frick Dining Hall — but the students’ desire to engage in theater didn’t dissipate as quickly. The next year, the Dramatic Society had officers, a constitution and another play in the works: “The Cat and the Canary,” which had recently enjoyed a run in movie theaters.
Beginning with the earliest student performance on record — a 1931 student-written, six-act comedy titled “Faculty Frightfulness,” in which a fictional boarding school headmaster, Mr. Ashbomb, calls for a regimen of strict discipline to be carried out by his faculty — art, and the focus of this piece, the Brooks theater program, has been a steady undercurrent of the student experience. Theater at Brooks has humble beginnings (“Faculty Frightfulness” was performed without a set, and instead showed the characters in silhouette behind a white sheet strung across the entrance to long-gone Jackson Dormitory). This evolved to the detailed scenery envisioned by faculty emeritus Fessenden Wilder in a newly renovated Auditorium.
From there, further efforts by the school to modernize and expand the Auditorium allowed for student creativity to flourish. In the final years of the 20th century, the Brooks administration began to focus on making the arts a pillar of the school’s academic program, and today’s students take arts classes as a major subject.
The Early Years
Through most of its evolution, the theater program at Brooks has been housed in the auditorium, which sits at the center of campus and has been a steady surveyor of daily life at Brooks since the school’s founding. The first production to take place in the Auditorium was in 1935, but the building dates to the 19th century and Brooks’s origins as Lakeview Farm. Today’s Auditorium was yesterday’s barn. The building, which was built in 1871, originally served as shelter for cows, horses and other animals. It measured 120 feet long and 40 feet high, and was one of the largest livestock barns in North Andover. The basement of the barn’s three stories housed animals, and the upper and rafter levels were built to hold more than 200 tons of hay.
Brooks was established in 1926. Since then, the barn has been home to: a garage; a gymnasium; locker rooms; basketball and squash courts; music classrooms; and theater space itself, which has hosted theater productions and the student body’s traditional School Meeting.
Brooks theater productions continued to take hold of the Auditorium through the 1930s. Notably, students performed Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 1938, despite most of the cast suffering from pink-eye, laryngitis, chicken pox or a combination of the three, as well as T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” in 1939, which was the Dramatic Society’s first attempt at a poetic drama.
The Rise of Theater
In 1941, a girl graced a Brooks theater production for the first time: Phyllis Ashburn, founding headmaster Frank Ashburn’s daughter, appeared in “Juno and the Paycock,” the second installation in Sean O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy.” In subsequent years, beginning in 1948, Brooks productions cast girls from Abbot Academy, a girls school in Andover, Mass., that has since merged with Phillips Academy; Abbot Academy students were routinely cast in female roles for Brooks productions into the 1960s. Faculty emeritus Eric C. Baade credited Fessenden Wilder as the architect of a new era of ambitious Brooks theatrical productions.
Baade wrote in 1981, in an article titled “The Performing Arts at Brooks,” that Wilder “rivaled David Belasco in the detailed accuracy of his naturalism. On Fessenden’s stage gas stoves could be lit, running water really ran, and if a newspaper was lying around, it was from the right city and of the right date of the play. The Auditorium began to become a theatre in the best possible way, growing organically and adding new features as they were needed.”
The 1940s also brought new inroads to creativity with the founding of The Players’ Club, a student group that produced plays on a less formal scale than the Dramatic Association demanded. The Players’ Club presented its first show, Kenneth Sawyer Goodman’s “A Game of Chess,” in 1945. Baade suspected that the high level of student investment in the theater program related to the large amount of free time Brooks students had in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Baade wrote: “Then, there were fewer courses required, there were very few afternoon classes, lower athletic teams practiced about an hour a day, and the students were practically never (and the faculty hardly ever) allowed to leave the campus. Everyone was forced to have a hobby, just to fill his abundant free time, and the hobbies were usually either scientific, mechanical or artistic … It was like living in a juvenile version of the Italian Renaissance … There were years when there were as many as ten dramatic productions: Four official Brooks School Dramatic Association ones and six dissident or disgruntled student ones, all the products of spare time.”
The Golden Years
The Auditorium was renovated in 1948 through the generosity of the Rheem family, coinciding with the introduction of the Abbot girls to Brooks casts. Former faculty J. Tower Thompson, writing in the book “Thirty Years at Brooks,” described the renovation: “In place of the hard wooden folding chairs, comfortable chairs fixed on a sloping floor were installed. In place of the shallow platform and the squash-court dressing rooms, we were given a deep stage fully equipped with every sort of theatrical device,” he wrote. “Only after all the new luxuries became accepted facts did one realize under what difficulties the Dramatic Association had been operating for so long, and how remarkably well they had made out with such scant facilities.”
The Dramatic Association rose to the glories of the renovated structure, performing Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in 1951. In the 1961 academic year, the group performed three major productions in a year for the first time, turning again to Shakespeare and to George Bernard Shaw: “Richard II,” “Caesar and Cleopatra,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The 1964 production of “Coriolanus” was the most ambitious up to that date, with a cast and crew of almost 50 students, and the 1965 production of “Biederman and the Firebugs” was presented in English and German on consecutive nights.
A 1969 update further enhanced the Auditorium. In October 1969, The Brooks Shield ran a front-page article that reported: “In its new role as a center for the creative arts, the enlarged Auditorium provides space for an art studio and several instrumental music practice rooms. The quality of dramatic productions should also be greatly enhanced by numerous improvements on the stage.”
The article points to an increased number of lighting circuits, the installation of movable seats and the redesigning of the backstage area — including the appropriation of the lower floor of the former Rogers House as dressing rooms, a prop storage room and a study room — as some of the building’s improvements. It also mentions, almost as an afterthought, a new safety feature that may be of interest to our modern standards: “The installation of a floor 40 feet above the stage itself will be a great aid in making scene changes and will also be an added safety factor, since such changes have previously been made by boys crawling across open beams.”
The Dramatic Association made use of the newly renovated space. Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” the first musical produced in the Auditorium, debuted in 1970. The following year, students took advantage of the renovation’s movable seats to perform Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” in a theater-in-the-round.
A Shifting Priority
“After this heyday,” Baade wrote in 1981, “things began to crumble. A generation of actors arrived who had been educated by the then popular no-rote learning methods, and they found it hard to memorize. We couldn’t do plays with long roles; several plays we did try had to be cancelled. This meant that we could not advertise plays in the neighboring towns, and we lost our loyal audience from outside the school.
At the same time, the new vogue for spontaneity in all things made the very concept of long rehearsals and planned effects repugnant to the students. Most of them felt that if they more or less knew their lines by the first performance, they would somehow invent the appropriate business, movements and expressions on the night.”
Baade’s concerns aside, the 1970s ushered in a new era with lasting influence at Brooks: Musicals took hold, including “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” in 1974, “Man of La Mancha” in 1977, “The Boyfriend” in 1980 and “Anything Goes” in 1981.
This push toward an integration of acting and music performance was reflected in a push to turn the Auditorium into a space for all of the performing arts at Brooks. It also reflected the new perspectives and priorities that Brooks students and faculty brought to the theater program. The Auditorium saw additional improvements in 1981, when gifts from Mrs. Richard Russell and the Vanoff family facilitated the renovation and expansion of the lower floor of the building, renamed the Richard and Katherine Russell Performing Arts Center. This renovation included the construction of the Vanoff Black Box Theater. The addition of music classrooms and the black box theater helped productions excel by using the space more efficiently: Actors could rehearse and musicians could practice while scenery was being constructed on the main stage, for example.
The black box theater also allowed students to expand their repertoire toward more experimental plays and smaller, often student-led or student-written, productions. The lower floor of the Auditorium had previously been used for athletic locker rooms and equipment rooms. The black box theater took the place of the equipment room. (To meet building codes, the floor had to be lowered four feet, leading to the current “well” surrounded by stairs and an L-shaped walk.)
“In addition to providing an opportunity and locus for small productions,” former faculty Tom Burgess wrote in an article titled “The Drama Laboratory in the Russell Arts Center,” “we hope that this laboratory may be a focal point for a curricular program in the theatre arts which will make the entire Auditorium complex a fully integrated part of the Brooks curriculum.”
Burgess concludes with a question, given the “threshold of construction of the arts center.” He wonders, “What role will theatre arts play in the school curriculum in the future? We are hopeful that it will be an integral one, wherein every graduate of Brooks will have the opportunity to participate fully in some form of the arts through course offerings in drama as well as music and art.”
An Academic Push
Until the late 1980s, the spring 1997 issue of the Bulletin reported, the Brooks theater program “was considered more of an extracurricular school activity or workshop rather than a serious part of the academic day.” By 1997, according to then-Director of Theater Michael Walczak, the tone had changed. Brooksians had become committed to their theater classes, and, Walczak said, more came “with theater in their soul.”
The 1997 course catalog, the Bulletin continued, offered a variety of performance-based courses. The number of quality student projects was rising as Brooksians explored performance or dramatic literature outside of the classroom. Brooks had also connected with several professional groups, including Shakespeare & Company, Boston University’s Huntington Theater and the American Repertory Theater, to offer students valuable experience. And, the broadening theater offerings weren’t only benefitting a self-selecting group of students: All students were required to complete a year-long course, Integrated Arts, as third- or fourth-formers.
The interdisciplinary course rotated between visual arts, music and drama segments. Since then, the arts have become even more integrated into the Brooks academic day. Two years ago, the administration categorized arts courses as major course selections, and today’s Brooks bustles with courses in visual, musical and performing arts.
The program has grown, substantially, in the Auditorium. The Auditorium has hosted more than 80 years of performances, 80 years of effort, 80 years of meaningful experience. Under the Auditorium’s watch, the theater program at Brooks grew from a group of boys eking out the beginnings of the Dramatic Society, to a collective, impressive effort at beauty and realism in scenery and performance, to the introduction of musical theater and an integration of art forms, to today’s well-run productions that mimic the professional stage.
A 19th century barn gave way to a 20th century space for high school students to experiment, to push their boundaries, to showcase their strengths and brave their weaknesses in front of their peers. Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, few buildings on campus have both the depth and breadth of history that the Auditorium has: Every Brooks student has sat in those seats, has walked across that stage, has learned and grown within those walls. In 2017, the Auditorium can no longer accommodate the school’s growing vision for its arts program or its community spaces; but the failure of the Auditorium to meet the school’s current needs is a function of its success at meeting and incubating the school’s past needs. It’s fitting that the new Center for the Arts will be built largely in the footprint of the building it replaces: The new structure will usher in unbeatable opportunities for Brooks students, faculty and community members, and it will do so resting on the foundation of the starter home — the simple, outdated, humble barn — that sheltered, fed and supported the Brooks arts community as it grew.