Susan Stein Shiva Theater Celebrates 30 Years of Students Taking the Lead

Photos by Karl Rabe

For decades following the College’s founding, the large room beneath what is now the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Center served as a coal bin, a space that contained the fuel that provided warmth in buildings throughout the campus. Thirty years ago, that space was transformed by then-architecture instructor Jeh Johnson into a “black box” theater that has fueled the passions and imaginations of countless students who have been autonomously producing plays and other performances there ever since.

A group of people on staging standing behind microphones singing.
Members of the cast of this year’s Shiva performance of Next to Normal perform "You Don't Know/I Am the One Light."

The Susan Stein Shiva Theater has also been a space for professional actors, playwrights, and other theater professionals to spend the time that enabled them to create such works as John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play Doubt and Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton as part of Vassar and New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater Program.

On May 4, members of the Vassar community and students who put on some of those plays this year, as well as two alums who have been responsible for its success since its opening in September 1994, gathered inside the theater to celebrate the conversion of this former coal bin into a transformational creative space. “For 30 years, this has been a place of passion and laughter and tears,” said Sandro Lorenzo ’24, who co-directed Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years with Grace Adams Ward ’24 in the theater earlier this year. “Here’s to 30 more.”

Two people performing on stage pointing and singing for an audience.
Shiva veterans Sandro Lorenzo ’24 and Grace Adams Ward ’24 were jovial, wacky MC’s.

Lorenzo and Ward acted as jovial hosts of the event, which featured musical performances from student actors in three of the plays that were produced in the Shiva this year. Following the performances and some rollicking silliness by Lorenzo and Ward, President Elizabeth Bradley took the podium, obviously somewhat reluctant to speak. “I don’t know how to follow all that,” Bradley quipped.

Person behind a lectern with a microphone speaking.
Vassar Trustee Alexandra Shiva ’95, daughter of the theater’s benefactor, said she was certain her mother would be proud to know how the theater has thrived for the last 30 years.

The President then paid tribute to Susan Stein Shiva ’57, the alum who had endowed the theater in 1997 to ensure its permanent survival. Bradley said attending the student-produced shows there had been one of her favorite activities since she came to Vassar in 2017. “We are here to celebrate 30 years of incredible performances like the ones we just saw,” Bradley said. “And it is the Shiva family that has been responsible for re-making this space, including some renovations in 2017.”

People seated in an audience smiling.
Alexandra Shiva ’95 and her husband, playwright, poet and actor Jonathan Marc Sherman, react to the frivolity on stage.

Susan Stein Shiva’s daughter, Vassar Trustee and documentary filmmaker Alexandra Shiva ’95, told those gathered at the celebration that the metaphor comparing the fuel that had once powered Vassar and the theater that has fueled the passions of so many over the past 30 years was an apt one. “I know my mother would be incredibly proud to know how valuable this space is for all of you, a place run completely by students,” she said.

Person standing behind a music stand and some microphones smiling.
The Shiva’s first student manager, Jennifer McDermott ’95, returned to join in the celebration.

Another alum, Jennifer McDermott ’95, recounted the joys—and challenges—she experienced as the theater’s first student manager when 22 student-sponsored plays were produced during the 1994–95 school year. “Thirty years later, it continues to be a dream come true, it’s still a vibrant place,” McDermott said. “I applaud all of you who have worked so hard to maintain this space. Thank you, and keep it going.”

McDermott offered special thanks to former Director of Campus Activities Ray Parker for supporting the students in producing their plays. Vassar’s current Associate Director of Campus Activities, Edward Cheetham, said Parker deserved credit for supporting the students while letting them make all of the key decisions about the performances.

Cheetham said that policy—promoting a student-run theater—remains part of Vassar’s culture today. Typically, plays are produced in one-week cycles, he said, with students arriving at the empty theater on Sundays and turning the space into a vibrant place for a performance by the end of the week. “To my knowledge, it’s one of the few totally student-run theaters on any college campus in the country,” Cheetham said.

People standing on a stage behind a music stand and some microphones.
Abby Bettencourt ’25 (center) and other members of the 2023–24 student staff, expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to work and play in this unique space.

Abby Bettencourt ’25, this year’s Shiva Theater manager, closed the event by observing how “generation after generation” of Vassar students had seized the opportunity to express their creativity. “We do a lot of theater here,” Bettencourt said, “but it’s also been a venue for the Barefoot Fireflies [the student acrobat and juggling troupe], burlesque and drag shows, and other amazing works of art. Every Sunday, an empty room is transformed into a space with sets and lighting, and on Thursday or Fridays we have a full performance.

“I’m so grateful to have this space,” she concluded. “Thanks for celebrating with us, and here’s to 30 more years.”

Exterior view of the Susan Stein Shiva theater.
May 17, 2024