At first glance, Marquette University does not seem like a hub for performing arts. There is no college of fine arts and the university is more widely known and nationally recognized for Division I basketball than for musical theater.
Yet with student dance groups like Dance Inc., Pure Dance, Hype, Mazaa Bollywood Dance and Saoirse Irish Dance, acapella groups like the Gold ‘n Blues, The Meladies and The Naturals and acting groups like Marquette University Players Society,
Just as some theaters and auditoriums on campus are often overlooked by those unacquainted with the performing arts scene on campus, Marquette’s vast community of musicians, actors, singers and dancers can sometimes go unnoticed. But they’re there; whether center stage or behind the velvet curtains, student performers find opportunities to showcase their talents and shine.
Home to Marquette’s Theatre Arts and Dance programs, Helfaer Theatre was built in the ’70s. Seating is traditional yet intimate.
Catey Ott-Thompson, an adjunct instructor in the dance department, describes the theater as “so quaint.”
“It’s clearly not a studio theater,” Ott-Thompson says. “It’s still a proscenium, but it has a sense of cushion and hominess to it.”
Marquette’s dance program allows students from any major to pursue a minor or simply take classes they enjoy.
Ott-Thompson teaches six courses in rotation: Ballet I, Ballet II, Modern I, Modern II, Dance History and Composition and Choreography. She also works with students in independent study.
To showcase students’ hard work, the dance department puts on an annual spring concert.
Since she arrived at Marquette in 2013, Ott-Thompson says the spring concert has been at of Marquette’s three main theaters. Depending on space and availability, the showcase rotates between Helfaer Theatre, Weasler Auditorium and Varsity Theatre.
Ott-Thompson says the concert returns to the Helfaer this year, which she describes as the program’s “home theater.”
“Our dance studio is there,” Ott-Thompson says. “We have no issues with the other two venues, it’s just nice to be home.”
Marquette’s Theatre Arts program also uses Helfaer as its home.
Maaz Ahmed, a freshman in the College of Communication, is involved in Marquette’s Theatre Arts program. Like many other theater students, Ahmed finds a haven in Helfaer Theatre. Ahmed says when he takes small breaks between classes, he often heads to the Helfaer and sits in the green room to pass the time.
Ahmed says while he and some others would support a renovation or update of the building, it functions well as a home for Marquette theater.
“It doesn’t have any windows. You walk in there, and then 20 minutes later you walk out and it’s pitch black outside and like five hours have passed,” Ahmed jokes.
Ahmed says he believes Marquette theater is sometimes overlooked by students outside of the program.
“Marquette theater is, like, surprisingly really good. … I feel like a lot of the Marquette community doesn’t know a lot about us, and they should come see our shows,” he says.
Carl Wacker, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences and member of The Naturals, says the all-male acapella group has performed in various locations across campus. He says the ensemble appreciates any opportunity to perform, but Varsity Theatre is its favorite venue for concerts.
“It’s just a really cool space. Acoustics are really, really great,” Wacker says. “It’s a big stage. It’s a lot of fun to perform on. It’s got a certain feel to it, a certain, like, aura that’s kind of really energetic.”
Varsity Theatre houses 1,075 seats and a 32-foot stage. The theater is technically a part of Holthusen Hall, which was originally built in 1937 as the Varsity Building before being renamed in 1985.
Besides providing a venue for various performing groups on campus and occasionally hosting large classes, guest speakers, presentations and weekly movie nights, Varsity Theatre is home to the university’s band program.
Erik Janners is Marquette’s director of music. He leads the music programs, which include two concert bands — Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band — two jazz bands, an orchestra, the Marquette Chorus and the pep band.
Janners teaches Wind Ensemble and the orchestra classes, and he co-directs the pep band. Each ensemble rehearses on the Varsity’s stage, right where they perform during their three to four concerts a year.
Janners says rehearsing in the performance location is beneficial for the ensembles.
“A lot of college music programs have an instrumental rehearsal room, which is a totally different space than the stage they perform on,” he explains. “And so, when they go from their rehearsal room to the stage, there’s this big adjustment period. … Here we don’t have that problem, it’s the same place we rehearse, so it’s very comfortable.”
Varsity Theatre undergoes a renovation in 2007 — the same year Janners is hired — to improve the theater and build a home for the Marquette band program. The renovation includes practice rooms and office spaces in the basement of the Varsity and adjustments to the house of the theater to improve sound.
“It was great, because prior to this being created, there wasn’t a central place for music at Marquette,” Janners says. “It’s our home. It’s where the band students come to socialize and see their friends. And it’s where we prepare for pep band before we get on the bus to go down to Fiserv (Forum) or walk across the street to the Al (McGuire Center). So it’s really a sense of a home base for the band program.”
For many groups on campus — particularly student-run organizations — performances occur wherever they can find space.
The Weasler Auditorium, considered both an auditorium and a smart classroom, can hold large lectures, guest speakers and other events. But it also provides a functioning theatre for performing groups. Adjacent to the main building of the Alumni Memorial Union, the Weasler seats 496 with a 32-foot stage. It additionally has a box office, a coat room and two dressing rooms.
HELFAER DANCE STUDIO
Marquette’s theater scope extends beyond just the three main theaters. Not all performance groups on campus seek a big stage and space for a large audience.
The Helfaer dance studio, Ott-Thompson says, can be converted into a small, casual studio theater for senior projects and other small performances. There is a basic lighting system, curtains to cover the mirrors and chairs available to bring in for an audience of about 40, she says.
Perhaps the least well-known performing space on campus is in Straz Tower, which was once a YMCA. It contains a small theater, complete with a stage, music closet and ample seating, which students and groups can rent. MUsic regularly inhabits the miniature auditorium.
MUsic is a student-run organization that works to create a community for musicians and music lovers to share their work and listen to others.
“We aim to bring together artists and musicians on campus who wouldn’t find each other otherwise, and we kind of try and like, create connections,” says Julia Bellair, a junior in the College of Communication and vice president of MUsic.
Bellair says the theater, which other groups like ROTC, Marquette University Players Society and some acting classes use, is small but functions as a working theater, with lights and a control board in the back. MUsic takes advantage of the music closet inside the theater to hold instruments for students to borrow.
“It’s a little bit smaller, but it’s pretty quaint. I really like the vibe in there,” Bellair says of the Straz Theatre.