Mary Baldwin University to open outdoor theater for live performances
One of Mary Baldwin University’s most beautiful but often overlooked spots will soon be home to a new outdoor performance space, thanks to the generosity of Sharon Homes Driscoll, a friend of MBU who resides locally in Staunton.
Tucked beside Rose Terrace and across the surrounding brick walls is a side yard, flat and rectangular — the ideal site for a tent, platform stage, and audience seating.
The new outdoor Rose Theatre will give undergraduate and graduate students in MBU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts the opportunity to bring their artistic talents to the stage safely during the time of COVID-19.
The outside nature of the venue, together with MBU safety protocols, aims to protect the health of both performers and audience members.
“The genesis of this project was my reading a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about the exponentially greater benefits of outdoor recreation (versus being in gyms),” said Paul Menzer, visual and performing arts dean. “And I thought that’s precisely what we need to do for those performance courses that require exertion and increased respiration.”
The CDC calculates that outside exercise lowers the chance of spreading the virus by a magnitude of 10 compared with the same level of exertion indoors, so creating an outdoor event space will help ensure the safety of singers, dancers, theatre makers, and audience members.
“I looked out the window from my office at Rose Terrace and thought, wait a minute, this is one of the prettiest and flattest spots in Staunton,” Menzer continued. “It’s perfect for a pop-up performance space that can allow our students and audiences to continue to engage in and enjoy the performing arts in a beautiful and safe venue.”
With gift, Sharon Homes Driscoll honors her beloved grandmother
Inspired by the vision and timely need behind the outdoor theatre, Driscoll has graciously sponsored the Rose Theatre project in memory of her grandmother, Dorcas Crosby Homes, who attended Mary Baldwin when it was a seminary for educating young women.
Born in 1883, Homes attended the seminary at some point, but Driscoll is not sure exactly when, despite attempts from MBU staff to find her school records from the time.
“I wanted to do something in my grandmother’s memory, and when Mary Baldwin contacted me about the opportunity to create the outdoor theatre, I thought that would be a good fit,” Driscoll said. “She taught school, was very into music, and directed all the church plays.
“I hope the theatre will still give students the opportunities they were hoping to have, especially our performing artists, while helping to keep them safe,” she said. “It’s a grand project and a very necessary project, so they can be in a safe environment while they continue their studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. I hope that a lot of people will benefit from it.”
About the theatre and safety measures
The Rose Terrace outdoor theatre will present the thrill of live performance within the safety measures of MBU’s comprehensive reopening plan, Back to Baldwin.
- MBU has capped attendance at half of the available seating (60 of the 120 seats) and will universally require face coverings and social distancing measures at the outdoor theatre, as across the rest of campus.
- Modular seating will be designated to facilitate social distancing, and risers will be attached to the stage so that socially distanced students can perform safely.
- The theatre can also provide an events space for the entire university community, who might use it for socially distanced class sessions and lectures.
- Audience and performers will be covered by the tent, which will provide shelter from both sun and rain, and Menzer hopes to enable performances through most of fall semester until the weather turns cold.
The Rose Theatre will hold its first official performance when students in the master of fine arts program in Shakespeare and Performance put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“This initiative perfectly exemplifies the fact that MBU’s entrepreneurial spirit coupled with philanthropic generosity can produce creative solutions to the most daunting of difficulties,” said Menzer. “Now, more than ever, we need to celebrate and enable the creative spirit. Mrs. Driscoll’s generosity has turned this dream into a reality.”
A new addition to a historic building
The new theatre also continues the story of one of the most unique buildings on campus.
After its construction in 1874, Rose Terrace was known as the most costly house in Staunton, and it later served as a private hospital.
Mary Baldwin purchased the property in 1919 for $10,000. It served as a professor’s house during the 1920s, the president’s home from the 1930s–50s, and became a residence hall for students in 1958. For many years, it was the French House, and now houses offices for the Shakespeare and Performance program.
The building appears on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Future plans for the theatre will be focused on lighting, and fundraising is needed to support a two-tiered approach for atmospheric ambient light and also performance-grade lights so that students can continue to perform in the evening hours.
To help with the next phase of development for the theatre, please visit mbuempowers.com for giving information.