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We’re Open: The Destruction of the SUT

In case you forgot, here is your reminder: there are plans to tear down the SUT. You probably know about the movie nights in Blackman auditorium — an academic space with a fitting vibe — and might attend a flick or two. If you’re a first-year student, you might not even know that we have a gem of a retro theatre — a real theatre — on campus. After a summer of fun and into a  semester of adventures, you might have forgotten about the SUT altogether. The Sewanee community has not received any updates on the fate of the SUT; would we notice if it was silently destroyed?

Photo Credits: Dixon Cline

March 30th, somewhere in the daily flood of countless emails, in a particularly long one (the kind many students ignore as the workload gets heavy), something made me gasp. Shyly in the middle of the email were the following less-than-affectionate words: “…removal of the SUT structure”, where the diplomatic “removal” stands for “tearing down”, and “the SUT structure” is our Sewanee Union Theatre, one of the oldest theatres in this part of Tennessee and a cherished part of the Sewanee community.

Apparently, this had been discussed many times in the Biehl Commons Planning Committee meetings even though the specific intentions were never explicitly announced. According to them, the SUT stands between us and a great new gathering place. The Biehl Commons is not yet real, but is already a part of our campus tours. It was an easy detail to miss, but you could fill out the form further down in the email to share your thoughts. Reading that email, I couldn’t help feeling like Arthur Dent, a character from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” whose house was in the way of the new prospective bypass:

“But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine month.” “Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything.”

<……..>

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?” 

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.” 

(Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 1)

It did the trick: there was not much talk after the email, no signs on the Quad, no new hashtags, no Sewanee clubs posting and reposting in support of the SUT. Yet what we would lose as a community if the SUT got torn down is much more than “a structure” or an old quiet movie venue.

The SUT has been with us since the 1930s, making it one of the oldest original movie theaters in the South. The SUT has known segregated Sewanee and it has known Sewanee without female students. In the 1950s the SUT survived a violent fire, and now it is approaching a century of life on the Domain through all the steps Sewanee took to become better. 

The SUT has been a scene not only for friendly personal meetings and movie showings but also a terrain of social change. Some stories are mostly forgotten: for example, a now-gone tradition of Owl Flicks — late-night movie screenings that were often the most attended nights at the SUT — is warmly remembered by older graduates. Before 1969 when women were allowed to attend Sewanee, the nature of the Owl Flicks was completely different, featuring “soft-core sex adventures”. With women matriculating into the undergraduate community, the repertoire became more socially conscious. This anecdote shows a positive social change manifested itself in one of Sewanee’s institutions: particularly, in a place of entertainment, where ideas spread easier and faster. Yet somehow, the administration seems more eager to tear it down than, for example, finalize the plans on getting rid of the hurtful signs of confederacy all around the Domain.

Not only is the SUT an integral part of our history — some of which we’re proud of, much of which we’re not, but it is also a staple of modern Sewanee and a major part of its charm. In attempts, however noble, to cater to students and follow the path of renovation, we as a community risk losing the things dear and relatable to many generations of students: things that are unmistakable as “Sewanee.” Sarah Marhevsky, former Coordinator of Global Initiatives and a Sewanee local poses an important question: “What are the ways we can hold on to things that are unique to Sewanee and set it apart from other places?”

Talking to students, community members, staff, and graduates, I could easily see how dear the SUT is to Sewanesians and how important it is to their experience. “I think that the SUT as it is now is a part of Sewanee’s ecosystem and natural environment”, explained Virginia Mcclatchey (C’21). Yet at the same time, many agree that the SUT’s current condition and attendance rate hardly match its importance: “Everybody loves the SUT, but we don’t really talk it up to each other, it’s just sort of a given, I think we all take it for granted”.

Low attendance was one of the justifications provided in the original email: “Attendance at the SUT averaged fewer than 25 patrons per night during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.” Last year with fewer students, lower energies, and COVID policies, it was probably even worse. However, this does not mean that the SUT should be deemed disposable. Another great thing Sarah Marhevsky said to me was this simple truth: “Rethinking is harder than tearing stuff down”. 

Re-thinking is what the SUT needs; or rather, re-energizing. We can’t “re-energize” community spaces by tearing them down. The SUT has not only a beloved place in the hearts of the community, but also a great potential that is so far unrealized. The drop in attendance is mostly a consequence of the lack of input and the lower priority of the SUT among both the students and the administration. It doesn’t mean we don’t love the SUT: it only means it’s being unfairly overlooked.

The last big renovation of the SUT happened almost 30  years ago in 1994-95, not including the purchase of a new digital projector back in 2013. From the outside, one wouldn’t even know there’s an old cinema theatre in the building: in place of some exterior ambiance, there’s a modest plaque and a bleak wooden door. Investing in upgrading the equipment and infrastructure could improve the quality of the movie experience. As of now, the theatre can’t even boast a working vacuum. At the same time, many students note that old shabby interiors actually appeal to them and create a unique atmosphere that they wouldn’t trade for a new modern theatre building. This not only means that the needed renovation will be less costly, but also testifies to the fact that the SUT is loved and needed: old but well-maintained, clean, and taken care of.

Yet the biggest energy we could gift to the SUT is not money or equipment but enthusiastic management, interested students, and clear impact. The SUT has been a vital venue for student organizations: it is probably the easiest and the most engaging way to screen a movie without having to worry about the set-up, the weather, or refreshments. Student organizations on campus often hosted events at the SUT: Spectrum, the WICK, Russian House, and Asian House, to name just a few. More involvement would help both the SUT and students organizations boost attendance, diversify their activities, and potentially increase their impact. Greek organizations have not been as engaged with the theatre, but there are ways to interest fraternities and sororities in the SUT and build a mutually beneficial relationship. Nearly two-thirds of students are in Greek Life, so they сan pour a lot of energy into the student theatre. We have a lot of work to do in re-examining our local culture, broadening our perspective, and being more engaged: a community theatre like the SUT is a promising location for that.

If we think outside of the student body, keeping the SUT and investing more effort in it could also help us bridge the gap between “town” and “gown”. Building a close relationship between the University and the community has always been a challenge, and the SUT is absolutely in a position to provide a meeting point and a shared platform for students and locals. In the past, the SUT has collaborated with organizations such as girl scout troops and Cumberland Center of Justice and Peace (CCJP). It had always welcomed staff, faculty, Sewanee locals, and even visitors from the nearby towns. Since the introduction of COVID restrictions, many community members have been really missing going to the SUT. With such an affordable price and a familiar venue, the SUT could become a vibrant social hub on central campus.

Re-engaging the SUT with students, locals, and organizations would, of course, involve some effort. Back in 1978-79, the SUT would send out questionnaires to the students and the community to find which genres were the favorite, what showtimes work best, and what would improve the movie experience. The SUT folder at the University Archives is full of report sheets and findings, followed by proposed changes in the SUT operation. A similar study could help find a good development path for the SUT, integrate the actual needs and desires of moviegoers into the theatre operation, and give students an opportunity to practice their research skills while leaving a tangible impact on their alma mater.

Last, but definitely not least, is the potential the SUT has to provide “alternative things to do on campus that aren’t alcohol based”. Party culture has always dominated the social scene, and replacing a quieter and sober alternative like the SUT with another party venue would only add more gravity to the party scene while taking away social options from students and the community as a whole. After all, on some nights, all you want is a dark room, a passive social interaction, a bag of chips, and a guilty pleasure movie.

Any decision that involves destruction should not be taken lightly. Here, however, we’re talking not just about destruction, but about loss. The Sewanee Union Theater is more than a student theatre: it is a piece of our history, a place with a very special atmosphere and distinct significance, a learning and working space, a social hub, and an untapped potential. It is “the happiest place on campus,” as our University’s website states. Moving screenings to Blackman or opening another theatre elsewhere simply won’t do. ‘Re-energizing’ the Quad should involve re-engaging the SUT, which is going to be a collective effort. As for the Biehl Commons patio, on a 13,000 acre campus there’s bound to be a place for it that doesn’t require tearing down the places that truly matter. This is especially true now that we know from Arcadian training that there are plans for another patio some thirty feet away from the SUT. 
Even the brightest plans and most promising designs shouldn’t blind us when it comes to seeing what Sewanee is and what Sewanee needs. We need to remember the SUT because as far as we know, its existence is not guaranteed. If the SUT is dear to you, too, and you haven’t yet voiced your opinion, make sure you fill out the feedback form on the Biehl Commons with your comments on the SUT. Ask administrators about their plans for the SUT, and make your concerns heard. Keep your ears cocked for updates. For all we know, it might make a difference.

One reply on “We’re Open: The Destruction of the SUT”

Hi there. I’m Kristy Thomas and I have a house on campus. I have spent a lot of weekends here renovating my little cottage and always looked forward to going to the SUT. Friends brought in to help were taken to the old theatre to show off the vintage elements that make it unique. The stone walls, the tiny ticket booth, the old reel to reel projector, the seats that sometimes pull down a little too far. The SUT serves as a transport to a cozy, seemingly simpler time when the world of a shared movie experience could unite us, give us common ground.
I ask you why people travel to Europe in masses? To experience the elegant new chrome buildings and modern furnishings? Upon occasion, but way more often to appreciate the past. We want to see evidence of other lives. We want to see what has changed compared to our present. We want to experience something in real time that is not of our time. Let’s reimagine things like the SUT. Let’s celebrate it, curate it, love it and give it a showcase and a purpose. Know your audience. Who are the young adults that want a college experience on top of a mountain with no big city or a plethora of bars and nightlife? What sets this place apart. Listen to your alumni. They are the people that came to Sewanee for some of those same reasons. Build on that draw. Understand and cultivate it. Treat the SUT like the business it needs to be. Let it be. Let it become.

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