The Phoenix: A Tradition of Change

April 21, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Double the age of most current IWU students and the result will be the number of years the Phoenix, a student performance space located in the basement of the Memorial Center (104 E. University St., Bloomington), has been a part of Illinois Wesleyan’s campus.

Aptly named the Phoenix after a mythical bird that dies and is reborn out of its own ashes, the space has been through its own set of rebirths. Continuously evolving throughout its 42 years as a campus fixture from use as a coffeehouse to its current operation as a small theater, at one time the Phoenix even hosted disco-dance nights. Currently, the Phoenix is configured as an adaptable black-box theater, comprised simply of bare, black walls with minimal furnishings.

In recent years, the Phoenix has supplied a space for students of any major to stage a variety of creative presentations, particularly short plays and musicals. Unlike other performance spaces on campus, the theater is open for use by any student or faculty production, not reserved solely for use by the School of Theatre Arts.

Shows staged in the past school year have included everything from two short operas, A Hand of Bridge and Gallantry, to a musical, Edges. Other shows have included student adaptations of literary works in particular, James Billings’ The Nutley Papers and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Born in 1966 as a student-run coffeehouse, the Phoenix provided entertainment including poetry readings, folk singers, speakers, and student performances. Reminiscent of the “beat” generation, the coffeehouse catered to an independent and expressive minded audience.

“It was a place for students to talk about issues and exchange their own ideas,” according to Professor Paul Bushnell, who began teaching at IWU the same year the Phoenix opened.

Once a free-standing structure, the original building, which stood on the corner of Park and Beecher Streets, was dismantled in 1971 due to concerns about its age. Utilizing materials from the original structure, the theater was reconstructed in the basement of the Memorial Center where it is located today.

Since its move, the Phoenix has undergone several renovations. The most recent, in 1999, installed extensive lighting and sound systems to make the space more viable for staging performances.

The present day Phoenix maintains a character all its own with late night shows that often draw crowds far exceeding the small theater’s capacity of 40 audience members. These crowds result in lines snaking from the doors of one of the Phoenix’s two entrances—where many are often turned away—a testament to the popularity of its performances.

A committee, comprised of students and faculty, operates and schedules shows.

“I take submitted applications for shows and then present them in front of the student committee that approves or rejects them,” explains the Phoenix’s student manager Marshall Garrett, a junior theatre arts major.

Embodying the spirit of its past the Phoenix continues to move with the times.

“We’re constantly striving for new and interesting ways for students to discover their own voice and apply what they’ve learned independent of their classroom experiences,” says Garrett.

For additional information, contact the Office of University Communications at (309) 556-3181.

Contact: Heather Lindquist, ‘09, (309) 556-3181