The stadium rows of smurf-blue folding seats in the Pinckney Center for Performing Arts are looking neglected. Half of Central Oregon Community College's theater seats are folded up, and costumes from some bygone production are draped across others. One lonely wooden chair sits center stage.
One of Bend's few midsize venues, the space is acoustical and designed to be versatile. There is no formal stage, but a large open floor that stretches wide under vaulted ceilings. Somewhere between the elegance of The Tower Theatre and the massive seating capabilities of the Bend or Summit high school auditoriums, the Pinckney seats 300 when full.
If you've never heard of it, perhaps that is because for the past 10 years the theater has primarily sat vacant, except for use as a classroom. In the spring of 2003, COCC's theater—once a nexus for arts and performances in Bend—was done away with in a massive budget cut.
But, with soaring enrollment at COCC—the student body has grown 20 percent since 2001 to nearly 9000—and with a slew of administration changes—including a pending presidential change when President Jim Middleton retires next spring—could Pinckney be due for a renaissance? Or, will it simply fade away?
In 2003, Oregon was facing a massive budget deficit and high unemployment. Then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski began slashing spending and funding. Community colleges—although shouldering more students than ever as residents went back to school during the economic downturn—were not exempt; $33 million was taken from the collective budget of the 17 community colleges throughout the state, with Kulongoski explaining that raising taxes for education was out of the question, and that colleges could and should raise tuition costs to cover the deficits. COCC needed to cut $3 million from its $21 million operating costs for the 2003-04 school year.
The reductions came hard and fast, shutting down on-campus child care and phasing out a popular speaker series. Starting in the fall of 2003, the school drastically reduced a range of academic programs—and, in particular, eliminated a 20-year-old theater program, the college's concert band and two full-time teaching positions in the arts.
One of those indefinitely furloughed positions belonged to Lilli Ann Linford-Foreman, a senior faculty member who had been with the university since 1987 teaching acting classes and overseeing the dance and theater programs, Magic Circle Dance and Theatre (which had been established in 1971).
"It sent a clear message to the community," says Linford-Foreman. "They eviscerated the fine arts department."
Linford-Foreman renegotiated with the college into a position as a speech professor, which she maintains today. And, over the past few years, she has cobbled back together three acting classes at the community college. But she has not been able to revive full-scale productions that formerly lit up the Pinckney.
"The community lost out because I very intentionally chose challenging plays that provide opportunities for local actors to stretch and audiences opportunities to see things that might not be commercially viable," explains Linford-Foreman. "Theaters that rely on box office sales might not be able to put on those types of productions."
The program put on productions like Pippin, an unconventional musical, that became a collaborative project with the other students in the arts department. The byzantine mural for the set was created by a painting class, and students from the band and orchestra provided live music for the production. In 2001, the theater department also sold out the Pinckney for performances of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and often had full classes and collaborative casts of community members and students, according to Linford-Foreman.
"I was aware that the theater program was an ambassador of the college," says Linford-Foreman. "Everybody knew the name Magic Circle Theater in the way that people talk about 2nd Street or Cascade Theatrical Company now."
She continued, "For many years we were the hub and the center for cultural opportunities. It was a philosophical change of the administration to say, 'We can't afford to do it anymore, and other people will pick it up.' "
In contrast, Lane Community College in Eugene supports a fine arts department that includes music, dance and theater arts with a faculty of 12 in theater and dance alone. Yes, student enrollment there is roughly twice that of COCC, yet still, the commitment of that community college to performing arts dwarfs Bend's community college. Moreover, unlike Pinckney, which is gathering dust, LCC also houses an active 500-person center for performing arts theater that hosts frequent performances put on by the Repertory Dance Theatre, Symphonic Band, Jazz Ensemble and Choirs along with multiple Lane-produced theater performances. It even employs a part-time technical director (who also serves as a faculty member) for the space.
Such a position is nonexistent for booking and maintenance of the Pinckney. Yet despite the cuts and the vanquished state of theater, Michael Gesme, the newly appointed chair for the COCC Fine Arts Department, is grateful for what the college does have—and is optimistic for a renewed future for performing arts at COCC. Gesme also serves as the director of the Central Oregon Symphony, a class at the college and community group heavily supported by COCC.
"There are lot of Community Colleges in Oregon and around the country that have never had fine arts departments. They are just there to serve the nuts-and-bolts math and English needs," said Gesme. "We are fortunate here that people had the vision to be an arts presence in this community. They thought that was the right thing to do."
Of the 17 community colleges in Oregon, of which COCC ranked sixth in enrollment, nine have programs dedicated to theater arts. Schools that support programs include Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, with a total student enrolment of 9,935—just over half of COCC's 18,339 (credit and non-credit) students last year.
But although the performing arts program at COCC still exists, it is a ghost of its former presence. Beginning in the '70s and continuing through the '90s, it was one of the darlings of Central Oregon culture. The Pinckney Center for Performing Arts was named for Dr. Orde Pinckney, a professor and advocate for theater at the school from 1955 to 1996.
As Gesme and I discuss the changes to the arts department in the last decade, our voices echo off the vaulted ceilings in the theater. Gesme started at the college in 1996 as a professor and has seen the art programs through good and bad times; the worst perhaps being the massive budget cuts in 2003, and the subsequent attempts to rebuild.
"In music land, we're kind of back to where it was when I came here. The symphony is doing great. The concert band is doing great. We have great crowds, great support and great ensembles," said Gesme, who also mentioned that the two- and three-dimensional arts classes at COCC are extremely popular, and are often waitlisted. "The one thing we've not been able to get back is the productions."
Pinckney—as the functioning symbol of the college's interest and support of performing arts—has fallen so low in priorities that Gesme and Linford-Foreman both said there is often talk of scrapping the theater and turning the space into classrooms.
"There have been eyes on this space to be used as things other than a theater," explained Gesme. "I've sat in meetings where they've had various drawings of this space. Some are cool, like a 200-person boutique theater with a fixed stage, and in other diagrams it would be all classrooms. You can't fault anyone for saying this could be an option, but depending on how serious they are in those discussions of remodels they'll say, 'Let's not have anything in here because if we decide to go with this then we don't want this space to be reserved by people next year.' "
Such discussions have left Pinckney in limbo, not fully supported by a theater department 10 years after its furlough and stalled with talk about its potential renovation.
"The longer it's gone," says Gesme, "the harder it is to get it back."
What Was and What's to Come
During its cultural hey day in the late '90s the college brought in outside event company C3 to book and facilitate concerts, lecture series, workshops and films.
"We had a unique and wonderful private/public partnership that led to many great events," explained Cameron Clark, owner of C3 events. "For 15-plus years the student body government pooled their administrative resources, their salaries for student leader programmers, and their actual programming budget and we supplemented this with funds from a campus diversity committee, and from outside sponsors and ticket sales."
Events like Curious Thinker Series, a partnership among COCC, C3 and other local sponsors, were extremely successful and frequently sold out. The space also hosted acts like Ziggy Marley and Michael Franti—who both played in Bend this summer, but at other venues. And there were shows by members of the Buena Vista Social Club and other singer-songwriters, as well as lecturers from marquee speakers like Arizona Gov. and Clinton-era Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit, Ralph Nader, Maya Angelou and Winona La Duke.
But those events are as distant memory as is a touring company of RENT.
"There was no particular cause for the end of the collaboration. Administration was shifting around—new folks," said Clark. "It was mostly just the right time for it to end. Some of our fondest arts performances took place during that era."
The role of the college and the prominence of the theater has changed drastically since those days.
"We do occasionally make the Pinckney Center available for outside groups – Bend Experimental Art Theater used it for some performances last year, for example. But it is first and foremost an academic facility with preference to instructional needs," said Ron Paradis, spokesperson for COCC, in an email to the Source.
Back in January 2013, BEAT rented the space for its production of Annie, and Executive Director Howard Schor expressed interest in using the theater again for future productions. The on-campus theater troupe also put on a small-scale performance of the sardonic play White People in the spring. Before the calendar year wraps up, there also are performances from new group Opera Bend, and the space has been rented as an audition space for next year's Shore Thing production of Les Misérables.
Nancy Engebretson, who has lived in Bend for 21 years, participating in the dissolved Obsidian Opera Company and her own children's theater in the early 2000s remembers when Pinckney was thriving.
"A lot happened and then, for a few years, not much was going on," recalled Engebretson who will perform with Bend Opera in the space in October. "We like it because it's a really nice big space nice big backstage and it's not a huge theater so you don't feel like you have to sell 600 tickets but you can fit a nice amount of people in there."
But to continue to rent the space to community groups or to bring back more frequent COCC partnerships and productions, the theater needs support from the administration and the student body. Unclear plans for the space and the credo of "no new programs that don't pay for themselves" at the college leave such hope dim.
"I think it's definitly underutilized; it has been pretty quiet for the last decade or so," said director of student life Gordon Price. "What we tried to do last year was get the lights on again. What I would like to see is a thriving student community theater group up and running consistent productions or schedule students that are interested to take over facility usage and be stewards of the buildings."