The College's former Theater Manager Torrie Sanders and Michael Sundblad, former head of Performing Arts, 2013 in the Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium
When Michael Sundblad interviewed for a position at Thomas Nelson more than 15 years ago, the Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium (MTCA) caught his eye. He ended up spending countless hours, days, nights and weekends in the quaint space that became his second home during his time with the College.
A little more than a year ago, on April 5, the roof in Templin Hall collapsed, destroying the theater. Sundblad’s first reaction was profound gratitude no one was hurt. Then he was devastated by the loss of such an important place. Even though he left the College about two months after the collapse, he still has strong emotional ties to the auditorium.
“I think about every show, every concert, every musical, every play, the opera season,” Sundblad, who is a dean at Lewis and Clark Community College in Illinois, said of his reaction to hearing the words Mary T. Christian Auditorium. “They all come flooding back and run together. The lives we changed, the students who have gone on to New York and been in off-Broadway productions. There’s a whole history there.”
As the chair of the Performing Arts department at Thomas Nelson, Sundblad helped the College establish associate degrees in the Fine Arts department. He was also the driving force behind the College having an annual summer operetta. He pushed the performing arts department to new heights. He probably knew the MTCA better than anyone.
“We were really fortunate to have such a nice theater, such an attractive theater,” he said, referring to it as the “jewel of the College.”
He said it was designed to be an auditorium, not a theater. Those who work in both know the difference but still, it worked.
“It had such great acoustics,” he said. “The sound quality in there, even without microphones, was just top-notch.”
He acknowledged the space had its limitations, as does every theater.
“We learned to work with those and work around them,” he said. “We made it work for us.”
Several people who worked alongside Sundblad at Thomas Nelson also expressed strong attachments to the auditorium, which was dedicated Jan. 15, 2003. They were also thankful there were no injuries when the roof collapsed. They shared thoughts about its significance.
Victoria (Torrie) Sanders worked at Thomas Nelson for 13 years, joining the College in 2006. She was the theater manager and resident designer. She cried when she heard of the collapse.
“It feels like someone died,” she said.
With seating for 470, it was smaller than others in the area but large enough for the needs of the College.
“For a community college, and even going from the community colleges that I’ve worked with, it’s an amazing space,” she said. “Even compared to some of the new facilities I know of in the VCCS, it’s still bigger and better outfitted.”
It was also a community space. Among the organizations using it were the Chesapeake Bay Wind Ensemble, the York River Symphony Orchestra, and the Peninsula Concert Band, as well as numerous theater companies.
“It was for graduations and pinnings, and we did opening concerts. Nikki Giovanni spoke there,” Sanders said. “All of these things gave it life, and served the College and the community.”
For Sanders, one area stood out: a room behind the stage, between the shop and the theater. It was home to a Steinway piano. (How the College obtained it is a story in its own right.) That Steinway was specifically selected for that space.
“Because of the way that particular Steinway sounded, it was the best choice for that auditorium, and for that theater,” Sanders said. “That one was perfect. It sounded amazing in there.”
She, too, admitted there were issues with the space. She noted a three-quarter inch difference, in width and depth, from one side to the other.
“But it was full of art and it was full of love,” she said. “We made memories and we changed lives. And for 13 years, that was home.”
Dana Margulies Cauthen, a local teacher, has directed numerous events for Sundblad in the theater, including “Chicago.” The first time she worked in the space was in 2004.
“Every theater leaves an impression on your heart, even if you’ve only done one show, and I’ve done more than one there,” she said. “It was such a gorgeous space and named after such an important woman in the community. It just felt like such a great place to work.”
Among the things that made it special, she said, was its orchestra pit, which is rare in similar-size venues. She also mentioned the space for the Steinway.
“The piano had its own little house that they made for it, where it lived,” she said. “It was just a great space, and it was beautiful. Just a beautiful space.”
She has worked in numerous venues, and no two are alike.
“I felt like the size and where the seats were placed in the MTCA led to a pretty intimate feel between the performers and the audience, even with the orchestra pit,” she said. “It was a really good balance. The house didn’t dominate the stage, and the stage didn’t dominate the house.”
At great venues, she said, the space becomes a part of the show. That was the case with the MTCA.
“A lot of times, directors will mention the lighting is a character in the show, or the sound is a character in the show,” she said. “The stage space is another character. It figures so prominently in everything we do.”
Jeff Joyner knows the theater well, having performed there with the Poquoson Island Players and close to two dozen times with the College. He also sings with the Virginia Opera, so he’s familiar with opera houses in Norfolk and Richmond.
“Those are all state-of-the-art facilities, as well. The one at Thomas Nelson was more intimate,” he said.
He recalls needing to wear a microphone only one time at the MTCA.
“You were close enough to the audience where they could hear you and you could communicate,” he said.
One drawback he pointed out was there was no direct access from the stage to the audience.
“A lot of times, you want to do entrances through the audience,” he said. “That was difficult in there just because of the way the staging was built. You had to go out of audience view to get into the house.”
Michelle Ford, another community member, first did a show there in 2015. One of her favorite performances was as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” The audience is closer than at other places she has performed. She remembers many hours spent there, often with her daughters running around on stage and backstage.
“That was like home,” she said. “That really was a great place.”
Looking back on it, Sundblad thinks the MTCA was designed for lectures and discussions. Yes, it had wardrobe and practice rooms. It also had limited storage and staging areas, and no-fly system, making quick scenery and costume changes a challenge. Producing large-scale musicals and operas weren’t easy.
“It was not conceived of to be a theatrical venue,” he said. “But it was the only space we had to do theatrical works, so we had to work around those limitations.”
He said a large university would have separate venues for recitals, theatrical works, and operas.
“We had to use one to make it work for everything,” he said. “You want the right tool for the job, and we only had a single tool. So we had to make the jobs fit the tools sometimes.”
For a choir concert, he said it’s one of the best places he has performed.
“It had such great acoustics, voices worked really well in that space,” he said. “For recitals, top-notch. If you have a string quartet in there or something like that, it’s an amazing venue for those kinds of things.”
Of course, Sundblad and the others said the people made the MTCA special. However, that space brought them together.
“Because it was such an attractive venue, people wanted to be in it and on the stage and in the audience,” Sundblad said. “It was a very comfortable place to work or to be an audience member. It just created such a great synergy.”
Venues less attractive, less comfortable, less welcoming don’t attract people in the same way.
“We were really fortunate that the high-quality and beauty and comfort of the space attracted such great people,” he said.
He hopes the new place, which still is a few years away, will be able to do the same.