A new space for artistic creation and expression

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Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie talks about IU alumnus Conrad Prebys, who passed away a year ago this July, but whose generous gift to IU created the new outdoor amphitheater for musical and theatrical productions. Photo by Chaz Mottinger, IU Communications

Last Sunday, renowned actor and Indiana University alumnus Kevin Kline won his third Tony Award, earning the prestigious honor for best actor in a play and adding to a list of major stage and screen accolades that also includes an Academy Award.

The next day, nomination ballots went live for the 69th annual Primetime Emmy Awards recognizing excellence in television. This year's Emmy contenders feature another IU alumnus, veteran character actor Jonathan Banks, who is seeking to be nominated for the fourth time in his career and second consecutive year for his portrayal of Mike Ehrmantraut on "Better Call Saul."

This past Wednesday afternoon, as IU President Michael McRobbie and several IU music and theater students joined together to dedicate the newest performance venue on the Bloomington campus -- the beautiful Conrad Prebys Amphitheater -- it was natural to wonder whether the new stage might serve as the starting point for the next Kline or Banks, who began their path to stardom only a few steps away from the wooded hillside area in which the amphitheater is now neatly nestled.

Constructed of locally sourced and carefully crafted Bloomington limestone, and capable of accommodating 275 guests, the new amphitheater, located between Bryan House and Ballantine Hall, provides a stunning performance venue for students and faculty of the Jacobs School of Music and the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance, as well as performances by visiting artists and other events.  

As McRobbie pointed out in his dedicatory remarks, the amphitheater reflects the realization of a vision of IU's legendary 11th president Herman B Wells, who initiated plans for a large outdoor performance space intended to be built on the gently sloping ground on the south side of the campus's Fine Arts Plaza. But as Wells himself wrote, "By the time we were ready to build the theater, the public had become so accustomed to air conditioning that there was little desire for outdoor performances and assemblages." Instead, IU's Lilly Library was subsequently built on the site. 

Over the ensuing years, the Fine Arts Plaza, centered around Showalter Fountain and the IU Auditorium, continued to develop with the addition of the Fine Arts Building; the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art; the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center, which is home to the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance; and the IU Cinema. All of these facilities are situated just a few yards away from the Musical Arts Center and other facilities of the world-renowned Jacobs School of Music. 

In more recent years, IU revisited the amphitheater idea after several reports suggested the need for more performance spaces on campus in support of the arts and humanities. One such report, by IU's Board of Aeons, a group of student leaders that advises the president's office on campus issues, specifically noted the lack of outdoor performance venues. IU Bloomington's successful First Thursdays arts and humanities festival, inaugurated last year at the Fine Arts Plaza, also highlighted a strong and increasing interest, in and around the IU community, in outdoor performance.

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Meaghan Deiter, a third-year MFA student studying acting, performs the part of Hecuba from "The Trojan Women," a tragedy by the Greek playwright Euripides, translated by Richmond Lattimore. Photo by Chaz Mottinger, IU Communications

The generosity of the late businessman, philanthropist and IU alumnus Conrad T. Prebys turned the idea into reality. A lifelong lover of music and the arts, Prebys, a graduate of IU's Kelley School of Business, gave hundreds of millions of dollars in support of a wide range of causes, including the arts. He supported San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, a professional theater company whose flagship theater is modeled after the original Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare's plays were originally performed. He also served on the board of directors for the Old Globe along with his good friend Audrey Geisel, an IU alumna and the widow of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

In 2015, Prebys donated $20 million to IU and the Kelley School of Business. His gift provided support for the Prebys Career Services addition at the Kelley School, which is scheduled for completion at the end of this year. His gift also supports student scholarships and faculty chair endowment programs in the school. 

Wednesday's dedicatory performance showcase provided an early glimpse into how the new amphitheater space promises to enhance IU's longstanding tradition of excellence in the arts and humanities and the variety of events it will be able to accommodate. The event featured performances by the Jacobs School of Music's Summer Brass Ensemble, a student jazz quartet and three third-year Master of Fine Arts theater students and one alumna who performed scenes from several Greek tragedies.

In concluding his dedicatory remarks, McRobbie summed up what many in the audience were likely thinking and feeling following the amphitheater's first performance.

"All of us look forward to witnessing the future heights of artistic creation and expression that future generations of IU students and faculty members will reach in this splendid new venue," he said.

McRobbie didn't specify what those heights might be, but on this day -- and following the major achievements of two of IU's most famous thespians -- no one could be faulted for wondering how many future Tony, Emmy and Oscar winners might one day grace this gleaming new venue. 

View more images from the event in the Prebys Amphiteater photo gallery.