October 1, 2015 | By Chuck Carlson
Royal Ward remembers stepping on the Albion College campus in 1979 and looking at the facility that would be his second home for the next three decades.
The Ray Herrick Center for Speech and Theatre was still relatively new then, having been built just four years earlier in honor of Michigan industrialist Dr. Ray Herrick.
And for Ward, who had come to Albion from Ohio's Hiram College to teach acting and to direct plays, this was the place to be.
"Absolutely," Ward said, "That's one of the reasons I was happy to come here. The whole building was pretty state of the art."
Now, as the theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary with its first production of the season starting Thursday night, the venerable place still has plenty of life left in it.
Through it all, the 180-seat Herrick Theatre, and the smaller and more intimate 150-seat adjoining Herrick Black Box have provided plenty of memories, hosting dozens of plays from modern avant garde writers to Shakespeare and providing countless opportunities to students, whether they were looking to careers in theatre or just wanted a chance to perform on stage to see what it was all about.
But the theatre has been more than that over the years.
The Albion football team uses it to view game film. It hosts the Mar-Lee School spring play every year. Classes are held here, too.
In short, it has become a focal point for many on campus.
Ward recalls how a colleague, Tom Oosting (who has been a professor emeritus at Albion since 2003 and came to the College in 1970), would talk about how almost daily he'd keep an eye on the construction of the complex.
"He oversaw the building of it," Ward said, adding how the creation of the black box was a constant concern. "The architects could never get it out of their minds that it was never going to ever be anything more than storage space. The blueprints said it was storage. They didn't understand it was going to be a black box."
Because of that belief, Ward said, there were only two electrical outlets in the black box/storage room. "We needed a lot of extension cords," he said.
But two separate theatres did develop, an unusual concept at the time but one which proved to be ideal for a school of Albion's size.
"I'd come from a school where the theatre was too big for the school, and that can be dispiriting to performers to look out and see so many empty seats," Ward said.
Ward recalls in the early years alternating shows from the main theatre to the black box, which offered opportunities to use different types of seating.
"We wanted to see the challenges it provided," Ward said. "We'd choose small-scale plays and put them in the black box. It was an empty room; you can adjust seating the way you want it. You could do a theatre in the round, and we'd have tennis-court seating where the audience faces each other on two sides. The black box theatre idea was fairly new back then, but not anymore. Most every place is doing it now."
And Herrick continues to be a vital part of the College.
"As things continue to grow, we don't know where we're going," said Mark Hoffland, who is in his 12th year at Albion performing various roles from staff technical director to scenic designer to staff lecturer in theatre and theatre design.
But the journey is half the fun, he said.
There will be three productions this academic year, with department chair Robert Starko directing the first production, Shakespeare in Hollywood, which runs October 1-4. Thursday, Friday and Saturday features 8 p.m. performances and Sunday's show is at 2 p.m. Admission is $2 for all performances.
Hoffland will direct the next production, The Fantasticks, set for November 19-22, and Starko will again be at the helm for the February 25-28 production of The White Snake. The season concludes April 7-10 with the performance of Home: Voices from Families of the Midwest in collaboration with the Performance Network Theatre of Ann Arbor.