Augustine Ripa, a theatre professor and co-founder of Zoellner Arts Center, teaches a workshop on how to stage a perfect performance. The program gave students a "backstage pass" to the inner-workings of Zoellner's theaters. (Vicky Tahos/B&W Staff)

LearnX event offers backstage pass to Zoellner’s history, influence

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When theatre professor Augustine Ripa arrived at Lehigh in 1979, the university didn’t even have a theatre department.

In an attempt to promote the arts and humanities, Ripa and music professor Paul Salerni laid out plans for an arts center.

“I was very lucky to come to Lehigh at a time when people already here were starting to reinforce the presence and image of the College of Arts and Sciences,” Ripa said.

He said this was the first time Lehigh students not only expressed interest in subjects like anthropology, but also wanted to diversify their experiences by participating in the arts.

Ripa’s dream of opening a center for the arts came to fruition when Zoellner Arts Center opened in 1997. Prior to its construction, students had performed in Wilbur Powerhouse and Coppee Hall.

To Ripa, Zoellner does not feel new anymore. Instead, it feels like home.

On Feb. 12, students, faculty and staff got a backstage pass to Zoellner’s facilities through a LearnX Series led by Ripa. The tour showcased Zoellner’s different theaters, including Baker Hall, Diamond Theater and Black Box Theater.

Ripa said besides his office, Diamond Theater is his favorite part of the building.

He led the group to the top of Diamond Theater onto the tension wire grid above the stage’s lights. He said Diamond Theater is a thrust theater, meaning the stage can extend into the audience. The theater can house an audience of 300 people and the seats are arranged on a steep incline to create an intimate setting.

“Much of the theater I’m interested in requires the intimacy (Diamond Theater) offers,” Ripa said.

Ripa said he enjoys the relative level of informality and intimacy that the building establishes between students and professors.

“When you’re working with a student on some of the most amazing pieces of drama, where you’re talking about intimate, personal stuff, there’s no room for ‘Professor Ripa,’” he said.

He said there is no reason for anyone to outrank anyone else.

Baker Hall, the facility’s largest theater, can be set up for “shell mode” or “theater mode” and the transition between the two modes can be completed within an hour. Shell mode is used for orchestra and choir performances, and theater mode is used for speakers and theater activities.

Ripa said Black Box Theater is a universal space for teaching and productions.

In addition to the auditoriums, the tour explored several of Zoellner’s behind-the-scenes areas, including the costume and scene shops.

Trisha Alexy, the director of curriculum for the Iacocca Global Village for Future Leaders, signed up for the tour because of her daughter’s love for theater.

“My daughter has always been in theater, and I’ve never seen the behind the scenes,” Alexy said.

Diana Shepherd, the director of the Iacocca Global Entrepreneurship Intensive program, also took part in the LearnX series tour of Zoellner to expand her knowledge of Lehigh. She said her experience attending multiple performances at Zoellner, including both student-run and outside shows, motivated her to tour the center.

Ripa said Zoellner has proven to be one of the more diverse spaces on campus. He said the center serves as a melting pot for people from all backgrounds and interests.

However, he said he thinks fewer students are expressing interest in the arts and humanities now than in the past.

Ripa said with the popularity of television shows, film and Broadway, there has never been a greater need for acting and actors. He said the human desire to consume and participate in theater will keep it alive.

“Theater always was,” Ripa said. “It is never going away.” 

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