On Coming to Wright State University by Abe Bassett

Abe J Bassett, Professor Emeritus of Theatre Arts, 1970- 1988

I was in my early 40's and reasonable fit. Driving to work in the morning through the back streets of Beavercreek gave me 15 minutes to prepare my mind for the day’s work. Five would have been enough. I was anxious to get to work.

By the time I came to Wright State University in 1970, I had been a college professor for 10 years and had learned to handle pressure, to set goals, to work with my bosses aBassett.jpgnd my colleagues.

When I came to Dayton in the winter of 1970 to interview for the position of Director of Theatre I was excited about the prospect of building a vibrant theatre program. The campus was sparkling new. The campus consisted of only four buildings—the Quad. However, the state had appropriated four million dollars to build a Creative Arts Center. To my way of thinking this was an ideal situation. Here was a new, developing state-supported University in a large metropolitan area in a great state. Of course I was happy about the prospect of returning to Ohio after ten years living west of the Mississippi. Our families were located within 75 miles of Dayton, and Sharon and I and our two children would be able to see them on a frequent basis.

I was told later that of the four persons brought to campus to interview, I had been the one with the greatest enthusiasm for the position. The position was offered and I accepted by early February; each month thereafter I flew to Dayton to be involved in the design of the Theatre portion of the Creative Arts Center. It is hard to express how exciting this was. I worked very closely with Fred Meyer, the department’s Technical Director, whom I quickly came to respect. We worked well together and enjoyed each other’s company.

Besides teaching, directing and producing plays, and attending meetings, my priority those first three years was to help design and supervise the building of the Creative Art Center’s theatre.

I was new to creating a theatre building and there was much to learn. We had the architects to guide us and they hired a theatre consultant. Unfortunately, the lead architect who taught at Miami University took the year off, leaving the design to two more junior colleagues. And the theatre consultant had a negative reputation. So much of the work that Fred and I did with regard to the design of the building was to counter or rectify the architects’ and consultant’s design decisions.

Fred was 6 feet 4 inches tall and I was 6 feet 1 inch. Our long legs made us very aware of how uncomfortable it was to sit in chairs in crowded aisles. We insisted from the beginning that the rows be spaced 40 inches apart. Since we had “stadium seating,” that is, with no aisles except at the end of the row, the extra space allows patrons to enter and exit was relative ease.

A second consideration in audience comfort was the chair itself. Here I had personal experience in chairs at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and I insisted on specifications that would favor the American Seating Company. We did have samples from four companies, which we kept for several months, asking everyone to give their opinions. When the bids went out, we discovered that the building’s general contractor had switched seats favoring another company. This was resolved by dealing directly with the general contractor.

A third audience consideration was the viewing angle. As the architects presented a new iteration of the auditorium, Fred and I would take out our straight edges and check the sight lines. Once the architects presented a plan in which an audience member siting in the balcony could not fully see an actor who stood downstage. Although the auditorium had fewer than 400 seats, the architect said that we could simply refrain from selling affected seats when that was a problem. He also said we would probably never sell out a production.

A fourth auditorium consideration was the height of the stage relative to the first row of seats. In the 19th century, 48 inches or more was standard. That would not be acceptable to our audiences in the rows closer to the stage that would be forced to sit looking up at a steep angle.

We had great difficulty forcing the architects to make the adjustments we wanted. The coup de gras came when, for “aesthetic reasons,” the architects wished to have a great curve on the exterior wall of the scene house. “You don’t understand” one said, “This is the main entrance.” The problem was that a considerable portion of the stage would have been rendered unusable.

It was now at the end of the fall quarter in the second year of design work. Fred and I prepared a detailed critique of the design faults, which we presented to the architects. Our conclusion was that the building design needed to be abandoned and we need to start anew. This was a drastic suggestion and the architects must indeed have been upset.

At the next meeting a few weeks later, the knowledge of the problem had become known. Fred White, our acting President, was at the meeting, and after a few minutes, he informed the architects that they must “satisfy the user.” He said it quietly but firmly. The architects asked what changes would satisfy us. We proceeded to tell them, and the changes were made.

The construction was exceedingly slow. Once, when a large, heavy electrical board was being installed on stage, the chain hoisting the board snapped, severely damaging the equipment when it fell to the floor. This accident paralyzed the electricians. They spent the next month playing poker.
Any new building, perhaps all new buildings, has design and construction problems. This was certainly true for the Creative Arts Center, and many of the following problems persisted for years.

  • Noisy transformers that could be heard in the auditorium;
  • Leaky skylights;
  • Un-insulated tin covers for stage exhausts fans that acted as drums during rains;
  • An exit from the commons to the parking lot that was unpaved and caused a lawsuit;
  • Stage lifts that were below ground water level that became flooded; and
  • Sound systems that did not function.

At the same time that we were dealing with the design and construction of the building, we were building curriculums, teaching classes, and directing and producing plays in a temporary building off campus. In spite of the immense pressure, we began attracting a coterie of talented and intelligent students. We worked them hard and they responded. There was an excitement in our department. Opportunities were there for the students, and a great opportunity was there for the Department and for the Theatre program.

 A traveler on a train once asked the Conductor if they could smoke and he said no. “But those people are smoking.” the traveler said. The conductor replied, “they didn’t ask.” That was a guiding principle for me. Our university administration was under pressure, things were chaotic, control was loose, and opportunity abounded.