Pulaski Technical College may not sound like the place you'd go to hear Mavis Staples sing or see Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" performed or a gallery featuring work by Arkansas's premier artists. But, like Mavis, the college says it can take you there — to its new Center for Humanities and the Arts.
The 80,000-square-foot center, now the largest building on the Pulaski Tech campus in North Little Rock, celebrated its Feb. 2 opening with a preview of an upcoming performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by the school's Studio 153 Players; an aria from "La Boheme" by soprano Maria Fasciano-DiCarlo, a performance of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Genine Perez (accompanied by Steve Hudleson on guitar and Dr. Barry McVinney on saxophone); and an exhibition of wood sculpture and abstract art by Robyn Horn and Sandra Sells on opening day. Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Blackmon and "An Evening with Mavis Staples" followed.
The center's theaters and studios and workshops are something out of the ordinary for a two-year college that doesn't offer a specific degree in visual or performing arts. There are classes in drama, stagecraft, costume design, music, art and art history as part of its humanities division, Pulaski Tech's largest, but until now, the division has never had a home of its own.
Now, the college has a superb facility, constructed with a $30 million bond issue and being furnished philanthropic dollars, including $1.5 million from the Windgate Charitable Foundation. Drama students are no longer going to class in what had been an engine repair classroom.
Tim Jones, associate vice president of public relations and marketing for the college, said that virtually all students at Pulaski Tech take at least one class in the arts or humanities, and those who know they will transfer to a four-year school usually take several. (There are 7,100 students enrolled at Pulaski Tech.) Most two-year schools, Jones said, don't offer extracurricular cultural events. Many of Pulaski Tech's students "come out of poverty," Jones said: Dance, drama, fine art — they've often not been part of their experience. "This is an effort to provide that," Jones said, and enrich campus life.
The center, which Pulaski Tech calls CHARTS, includes a 500-seat theater designed by Perkins + Will of Dallas, architects for the Shanghai Natural History Museum, San Francisco Ferry Building and the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre in Vancouver, Canada, among other projects. The stage is large enough and equipped enough — with surround sound and an orchestra pit —that students could stage a respectable "Lion King" and its vast savannah if they wanted to. The theater can show movies as well; a screen descends from the proscenium for digital projection. Staples, who gave the theater's first concert, autographed a wall for the occasion.
The center also has a black box theater, a green room and dressing rooms for the drama students, who will put Shakespeare on stage at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. April 21-23 (tickets $10). The state finals of the Arkansas Arts Council's "Poetry Out Loud" competition will also be held there, a nice change from the multipurpose room it's been held in previously. The theater, while primarily for student use, will also be available to community for concerts, lectures and theatrical productions.
In the lobby, the fine arts gallery, named for the Windgate foundation, features Horn and Sells' "Merging Form and Surface," which will be followed by a student show.
The art studios on the south side of the building look out over a sculpture garden; the building also has a woodworking shop for prop building, a costume room, music rooms, arts studios, dance studio, writing and foreign language labs and places for students to kick back. By the look of things, Pulaski Tech may become an arts college; Jones said he wouldn't be surprised.
Upcoming events at CHARTS also include a talk by Graham Gordy, co-creator and producer of the Cinemax drama "Quarry," at 6 p.m. March 10, as part of the college's Big Rock on the Map series.