RIT’s new Sklarsky Glass Box Theater welcomes first audiences this weekend

AstroDance II takes advantage of new venue to mix dance with gravitational astrophysics

Erica Haskell

Ruth and Frank Sklarsky, benefactors of the SHED’s new Sklarsky Glass Box Theater, say they are thankful they are able to be a part of this creative space for students and community members for years to come.

The inaugural production in the newest building on the Rochester Institute of Technology campus, AstroDance II: Across the Universe, premieres Dec. 1 to 3, featuring a variety of dance, aerial and circus arts, and augmented reality, which will be presented in the new state-of-the-art Sklarsky Glass Box Theater.

The theater, named for RIT benefactors Frank and Ruth Sklarsky, is one of the main features of the new $100 million Student Hall for Exploration and Development, more frequently known as the SHED. The theater has 90 retractable fixed theater seats, with options to more than double the capacity by adding seating in front of the stage, at the sides of the stage, or even on the second floor mezzanine level, depending on the production. AstroDance II will have seating for 130 for each performance.

Frank and Ruth Sklarsky plan to attend the premiere on Dec. 1.

“We’re really looking forward to the performance there and taking it all in,” Frank said. “Architecturally and aesthetically, it’s very beautiful and a very welcoming space. It’s just absolutely gorgeous. The first time we saw it, it brought tears to our eyes. It’s really remarkable. We feel very thankful that we were able to be a part of it.”

Ben Willmott, director of operations for RIT’s School of Performing Arts, says the theater is extremely versatile.

“This space provides us with a unique opportunity to test some cutting-edge technologies and push the boundaries of how we are delivering our productions and performances,” he said.

The theater will also make performing arts, including dance, music, and theatrical productions, more visible and accessible on campus.

“The SHED is positioned in the heart of campus, so this changes the whole landscape for performing arts,” Willmott said. “There’s so much glass, people can look inside, walk through, and observe performing arts being practiced daily. Before this, rehearsal spaces were all in basements or in windowless rooms, so the SHED helps raise an awareness of the performing arts on campus.”

The theater walls can be darkened to turn it into a black box theater; the shades and blinds on its walls can dampen or lighten the space, depending on what’s presented inside. For AstroDance II, the performance space needs to be completely dark at times for theatrical lighting and projections to appear. A spring production, Ada and the Engine, will integrate the glass walls into the production, and all of those show times will be held in the evening to ensure darkness.

But a theater with glass walls can also pose challenges for acoustics, so there are 27 acoustic banners that line the perimeter of the performance space. These panels can be raised or lowered, individually or collectively, to liven or deaden the sound, Willmott said.

The theater also has a number of rigging points and a tension wire grid to configure lighting, projection, and sound needs for each production, concert, and presentation. Those rigging points will also be used for productions that send performers into the air.

And the theater has a portable Harlequin dance floor installed, which provides a soft cushion for dancers to perform in a safe and comfortable manner. Harder Masonite theatrical stage flooring is installed underneath if needed by tap dancers or other musical groups.

The theater will host a variety of theater, music, and dance classes, perhaps even for aerial artists who previously had to travel to off-campus locations to accommodate their flying skills. All of the performing arts spaces in the SHED are connected through a closed network for audio and visual recording that will allow for documentation and live-streaming of performances in the future. There’s also a green room, dressing rooms, and a control room nearby.

“This is a special place for those participating in performing arts at RIT,” Willmott said. “Rarely do you have so many flexible rehearsal rooms and studios in such close proximity to the theater. This allows the performers to get a better feel for the entire space and possibilities throughout the creative process.”

The space will also be available to the 44 student clubs focused on performing arts. Many of them have been seeking areas on campus to practice and perform.

“We look forward to strengthening our partnership with Student Affairs so the clubs may continue to thrive and build on their historically robust presence on campus,” Willmott said.

Frank Sklarsky, who graduated from RIT in 1978 with a degree in accounting, has been a member of RIT’s Board of Trustees since 2009. He participated in school plays and chorus when he was in high school.

“There was not much opportunity to do that at RIT then,” he said. “RIT has always done a fantastic job for people to prepare for careers and they hit the ground running and do a great job. But at that time, historically, there wasn’t a great opportunity in the performing arts.”

The Sklarsky family has been involved in music throughout their lives. Ruth has played violin both professionally and for enjoyment, while Frank sings and plays the piano. Their two daughters played musical instruments and performed in plays in high school.

The couple hopes the new theater will enable current and future RIT students to pursue their passions in the arts.

“We want the students to own this, use it well, take care of it, and realize this is part of their home at RIT, so they can think back fondly about it,” Frank said. “We want to enable their musical artistic pursuits, or dancing or acting, to create as many unique experiences as they can. Knowing the caliber and creativity of our students, they will come up with excellent uses of that space.”

AstroDance II: Across the Universe

AstroDance II: Across the Universe will be the first production in the Sklarsky Glass Box Theater in the new Student Hall for Exploration and Development (SHED) building.

It is a multi-media, experiential dance production exploring basic concepts of gravitational waves and the interactions between objects in space through a series of vignettes in dance, American Sign Language, music, and digital visual storytelling.

Conceived, directed, and choreographed by RIT’s Director of Dance Thomas Warfield, in collaboration with Manuela Campanelli, director of RIT’s Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, the production aims to engage performers and audience members on a shared journey of discovery, innovation, artistry, and education by combining ballet, modern dance, tap dance, hip-hop dance, step dance, and astrophysics, along with technologies of motion capture, projection mapping, and augmented reality interactive experiences.

“We are using dance to expand not only how we learn, but how we experience meaning,” Warfield said. “Through dancing and watching dance, we are transforming the ways we process and integrate information.”

AstroDance II builds on the success of the original AstroDance performed nearly 12 years ago. Funded by the National Science Foundation, it told the story of the search for gravitational waves.

AstroDance II is an interdisciplinary and collaborative project with students and faculty from several colleges, schools and departments at RIT: College of Science; National Technical Institute for the Deaf’s Department of Performing Arts; College of Liberal Arts’s School of Performing Arts; College of Art and Design’s 3D digital design program; College of Science’s Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation; and the Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences’s School of Interactive Games and Media.

Shows are 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 (may be sold out), 2, and 3, with 2 p.m. matinees on Dec. 2 and 3. Tickets are $12; $10 for RIT faculty, staff and alumni; and $5 for students and can be purchased at RITickets.com.

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