Before a Vassar student theater production begins auditions, there’s the infamous spaces meeting. During this time, members from all of the upcoming productions gather together to debate where each show will be performed. These meetings have a reputation for being very tense, as each production team dukes it out to justify why they deserve to be in a space instead of another team. Despite the variety of options on campus, there’s always one space for which every production team fights: The Susan Stein Shiva Theater, endearingly shortened to The Shiva. Because of the black-box style and abundant technical equipment, it’s easy to see why members of student theater community gravitate toward this space when trying to achieve their creative visions.
On Thursday, May 10, at 5:30 p.m., the student theater community will be celebrating the “Shivaversary,” the 20th anniversary of the Susan Stein Shiva Theater.
In an emailed statement, Assistant Technical Director of the Shiva Madhavi Jere ’20 provided details on Thursday’s celebration: “We’re planning on having a pretty low-key gathering with some food and drinks, without any particular performances as such. A couple of alums will be visiting, and we hope to get people to talk about what the Shiva means to them! We’ll also be decorating the lobby (as in actually painting on the walls, so come through) with the names and pictures from past shows.”
Originally a coal bunker that provided energy for the campus, the space was transformed into The Coal Bin Theater in 1994, which was the Shiva’s name for its first four years. In 1998, the theater was renamed in honor of the late Susan Stein Shiva ’57, a Vassar drama major who appeared in the original 1961 Broadway production of “Take Her, She’s Mine” and was also on the original board of trustees for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Through a generous donation from the Susan Stein Shiva Foundation, Vassar was able to renovate the space and provide it with technical equipment.
Student theater member Philip Macaluso ’19 has had the pleasure of performing in The Shiva on multiple occasions. He explained the prominent position it holds in student theater, stating, “It’s certainly the main place everyone wants to do student theater in. It creates a very good all-around space for most people to create their vision. It’s certainly [played] an integral role [in] the shows I’ve been a part of. It’s provided many different spaces for many different shows I’ve done. Without the Shiva, none of those shows would have been able to have the same impact that they wound up having.”
Nic Penn ’19, who previously served as Technical Director in Fall 2017 and will continue in the role next year, added, “I think the Shiva is an incredibly important space for student theater, as it’s the only space we can truly call our own. We can support it and help it grow, and take responsibility for it in the same nurturing way: There have been so many beautiful creations put up in the Shiva, and I think as a space it really helps a lot of people prove themselves. I hope the Shiva continues to be the space it’s been for me: a blank canvas for experimentation and creativity. I also hope it gets a little more TLC!”
Besides student theater, The Shiva has served as a venue for other performance-based groups on campus. In February, Vassar Burlesque and the Barefoot Monkeys performed their own shows in the Shiva, and the comedy group HEL put up a show there last semester. In March, WVKR held Pink Noises, their annual evening of music highlighting femme and non-binary artists, in the Shiva.
Speaking on the increasingly diverse function of the theater, Jere stated: “We’ve recently been trying to get more non-theater events in here to bridge the student theater and non-theater divide, and really hope to keep pushing that. I hope it’ll stay a fixture on this campus for a while, and continue to bring people together like it has been doing for years.”
One of the special features of the Shiva is Shiva Love Days. For every production that uses the space, there is a series of rules that must be followed, such as leaving the space before a certain hour or not bringing in any alcoholic beverages. Any violation means having to work off the resultant fine at some point during the semester. Members from all of the shows that have been fined are asked to fix various parts of the theater with the added incentive of pizza.
Expressing his delight in Shiva Love Days, Penn said, “Shiva Love Days are always really memorable to me: It’s like seeing a season finale of a TV show, where all the cast members return for one last hurrah. I just love seeing everyone from the past semester’s shows come back and give a little, and we make a day out of it.”
This year, student theater productions have managed to transform the space into a medley of different worlds, from 19th-century Germany in Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” to an Underworld with an elevator that rains in the production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” to a 1950s Communist propaganda film featuring a gigantic moon in Philaletheis’ “The Moon Is Red.” All of these shows started out with a simple black box and altered the Shiva into a whole new world.
Speaking about the part of the production process audiences don’t get to witness, Jere concluded, “My fondest memories are from when I’ve done shows in the space, but it’s also a really special feeling to walk in late at night during check and to see the evolution of a show as tech week progresses. It makes seeing the finished product all the more special, and I’m constantly in awe of the way that student theater makes the best of what they have to make art.”