Theaters typically acquire their names in one of two ways: some are named after a generous benefactor who donated an impressive sum of money (thank you, Anna Bing!), while others are named after the venue’s address, such as USC’s McClintock Theatre on McClintock Avenue.
But every so often, a theater earns a title that tells the story of its past — a past that has nothing to do with unimaginative surnames and street names.
One such case is USC’s Scene Dock Theatre located on West 37th Street near the Vermont Avenue gate — an area of campus that students rarely pass on their bicycle commute to class and even tour guides often ignore.
The Scene Dock’s story begins in June 1996 when the Greenroom Theatre burned down in a fire, leaving USC’s School of Theatre one intimate venue short. With no other choice, the theatre department looked to its resources and ultimately decided to convert the old campus scene shop into a 99-seat performing arts space (for comparison, Bing Theatre has a capacity of 500). Soon, curtain calls were taking place in a tiny theatre that was once home to the power tools used to create scenery for campus productions.
These days, the Scene Dock Theatre retains a sort of funky charm that hints at its humble beginnings as little more than a carpenter’s workshop.
A small courtyard gives way to this modestly sized stucco building with a paneled garage door entrance. Outside hangs what looks like a blacksmith’s creation — a metallic silver sign with the theater’s name, flanked by overlapping cut-outs of hammers, saw blades and paint brushes that serve as tiny reminders of the building’s history.
“Except for the sign that says ‘theater,’ you wouldn’t know what goes on inside,” Technical Director Duncan Mahoney said.
The Scene Dock Theatre may only be capable of accommodating audiences a fraction of the size Bing can. It may not have the height, the orchestra pit or the acoustic chops to boot. But don’t think of the Scene Dock as just some pathetic excuse for a playhouse fit only for the runt of the USC theatre litter — not even for a second.
What the Scene Dock lacks in size it more than makes up for in versatility. It can support a number of different seating arrangements including the standard proscenium set-up, as well as thrust (audience seated on three sides of the stage) and in-the-round (audience completely surrounds the stage) arrangements.
Associate Dean Jack Rowe, with the assistance of other School of Theatre staff and faculty, calls the shots when it comes to determining which student productions will be performed in each of the five campus theaters — Bing, McClintock, Massman, Village Gate and, of course, the Scene Dock.
“There are certain plays where you need the space of Bing to do them justice. Some need to be more intimate, and the Scene Dock is perfect for that,” Rowe said.
This fall, the School of Theatre will be putting on its first production of the season — Cindy Lou Johnson’s The Years — in the Scene Dock Theatre. The cast is made up of only six actors and deals with family troubles and other domestic themes that might be lost or overpowered if staged in a big auditorium-style theater. On the other hand, some larger productions, such as last spring’s 40-person-plus musical Brigadoon, fare much better when enacted in ample performance space.
Though he admits it’s not an exact analogy, Rowe compares this difference between performing in a Scene Dock-sized theater versus a Bing-sized theater to a close shot and a long shot in a film. When the audience or the camera is closer, there is more nuance available to the performer.
“We’re trying to help young people develop into professional actors. In the world we live in now, a young actor has to be equipped to do everything — film, large theater, small theater — and we want students to have opportunities in all of those areas.”
So although the Scene Dock Theatre’s primary function has changed over the last decade or so, its basic purpose has remained the same: to provide a space for theatre students to sharpen and perfect their craft — whatever that craft may be.