The Wisconsin Union Theater has been a bit of a ghost for the last two years. As construction cast a dusty, loud and annoying veneer over the West Wing of Memorial Union, many students had more important things to think about than where and how to attend a theater show. But now that the new theater is open, modernized and terraced, with new spaces and the same incredible acoustics that have made it a distinguished theater, it invites students to expand their knowledge of the arts and reacquaint themselves with the theater.
Since this year marks the 75th anniversary, now is as good a time as any.
Despite exterior changes, the Wisconsin Union Theater looks the same from the inside. The theater staff worked closely with the Historical Society, making sure that the theater itself, Shannon Hall, remains the same bastion of the arts that it has always been.
However, the hall has sacrificed some seats for the benefit of new-and-improved chairs. A bright, heavy orange still brightens the theater walls. The spacious stage opens like pop-up art. Standing onstage with the affront of empty seats is nearly overwhelming. One can only imagine what it must be like for artists to actually perform on the same stage that has boasted such figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and John F. Kennedy.
The 75th anniversary is the theater’s chance to celebrate the new, as well as the old. The student Performing Arts Committee has partnered with the professional theater staff and put together a season that includes a handful of performers who have graced the stage at least once in the past.
Marketing and Communications Director Esty Dinur shared the staff’s mindset for the season.
“This is the 75th anniversary, so it’s a bigger season than most of them,” she said. “It reflects the 75 seasons up until now in several ways, one of them being that the Union Theater has always been known for bringing in both the big stars of the day and the up-and-comers. So Yo-Yo Ma, for example, was here as a very young man, before he was well-known, as well many other people like him.”
Yo-Yo Ma, the world-famous cellist with a whopping 16 Grammy Awards, will be coming to Madison for the 7th time in October with Pianist Kathryn Stott. Visionary talents like these are what give the stage its legendary status. This year will see many musicians returning to the Wisconsin Union Theater, including Acadian folk trio Vishten and “20 Years of Freedom,” a program that illuminates the struggle of Apartheid.
However, according to Dinur the theatre will be welcoming many new acts to the stage as well.
“We have several artists here who have been in the theater before, and are coming again to celebrate the 75th anniversary, but we also have some of the new talent that will become big stars, but are not yet,” Dinur said. “We are very good at identifying these people and bringing them [to the stage]. In that sense it’s kind of the same, in that we always look to some of the best in the market and some new ones, but it also very consciously hearkens back to the last 75 years.”
This season boasts a diverse collection of performers, with more than 30 acts coming to the theater throughout the season. Big names like Don McLean and Judy Collins grace this year’s calendar, but so does the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which brings a variety of ukuleles to the stage in an act that is equally funny and enchanting.
The Union has also created an entirely new space to host their performances: the Play Circle.
The Play Circle is a Black Box theater. Essentially, it’s a black room without a stage. Jordan Foster, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin and director of the student-run Performing Arts Committee, is excited about how this space will transform the theater’s role in the community.
“[The Play Circle] is a really cool, intimate and unique place,” Foster said, citing groups from that Isthmus Jazz festival that were first to perform in the space.
“Pretty much everyone that performed was just in awe of the space and were saying how they had all these ideas on how we could use it, and how it’s one of those places that can be really useful for the community,” Foster said. “Madison students can use it to put on their productions and it can also be good for smaller shows that we bring to the community that maybe aren’t quite as well-known, but up-and-coming. It’s an awesome place.”
This is just one of many ways that the theater is attempting to attract more students. In addition, the committee is bringing comedian and Vine-sensation Bo Burnham, as well as Indie folk group Horse Feathers.
The Madison World Music Festival, the theater’s first event of the season, will be coming to Memorial Union and the Willy Street Fair Sept. 12 and 13, with aerobic group Bandaloop — which looks a lot like a gravity-confused offshoot of Cirque Du Soleil, as well as a handful of worldly musicians. The festival is just another chance for students to discover new music and artists through the theater.
Most performances throughout the year are $10 or less for students, which is cheaper than your typical concert at the Orpheum or the Majestic.
“We would like every student to come through our doors at least once during their stay here,” Dinur said. “It’s definitely part of the mission of the University: To open students’ horizons to things they don’t know about, but that are essential to our cultural lives and to becoming a more whole person.”