School of Dramatic Arts students to get new central home on campus

The university is revamping the United University Church into an innovative space with new resources for SDA, which has long lacked sufficient practice and performance space.

A photo of the United University Church on 34th Street.

Renovation of a historic building on campus for USC’s School of Dramatic Arts was announced Thursday, Sept. 9 by Dean Roxworthy. Scheduled for completion in December 2023, the United University Church is set to be transformed into SDA’s central on-campus location.

After years of struggling with limited space, SDA is welcoming the expansion of performance venues, classrooms, student support services, a new cafe and garden courtyard. These are intended to better prepare and train students for the modern entertainment industry.

For current students, finding a space to rehearse can sometimes be difficult due to a lack of rehearsal areas and studios.

“I definitely relate to feeling a bit displaced in my classes. I’m taking a movement class in the McClintock building, and in our studio space they’re also rehearsing one of the mainstage shows so we’re having to do our classes and work around the set that is currently being built,” said Jasper Mott, a sophomore majoring in theatre. “It’s a little bit frustrating that we don’t have a studio space to be working in.”

Many students also have to trek across campus to buildings as far as the Shrine Auditorium, a 13-minute walk from campus, to attend their acting and theatre classes.

“My roommate is also a theater major and she only has one class in this building. All of her theater classes are at the Shrine, which is really inconvenient for her,” said theatre major Mihira Stanek, a transfer student.

The United University Church, SDA’s soon-to-be central on campus location, was acquired by USC in October 2015. USC attempted to purchase the church building several years prior to expand the campus’ main hub in the area around Jefferson and Exposition boulevards.

At the time USC purchased the building in 2015 there was pushback from the religious community. Nearly 800 people signed a petition asking USC to preserve the building and continue allowing religious groups to use it, envisioning it to be a “Christian student center and house of worship.”

Officials said they would preserve the structure. “The university will not tear down the building,” said Varun Soni, USC’s Dean of Religious Life to the Los Angeles Times.

Six years later, USC is looking at a “significant revival and redesign” of the church. The new facility will be a 40,000 square-foot, five-story building. SDA plans to use the building to increase student services, including an in-house career center and a new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The plans also contain two new performance venues, a 110-seat flexible theatre and a smaller cabaret space.

This collaboration will not only be within the walls of SDA, but also across all of USC’s art schools. Located at the intersection of Jefferson and Hoover across from the USC Village, SDA joins an “arts corridor,” becoming neighbors with the School of Cinematic Arts, the Thornton School of Music, and the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. Their move into what USC President Carol Folt called “an already vibrant hub of creativity” allows for partnership and networking between all young artists in the USC community.

“With the future of media, you have to collaborate with everybody. Even if you look at media like TikTok, or any of those media forms, you need to collaborate,” said Veronica Powers, a USC junior pursuing a BA in theatre.

SDA Dean Emily Roxworthy, emphasized the importance of collaboration between the ancient art of theatre and modern technologies that they experimented with during remote learning.

“Media explosion in terms of digital possibilities has had a huge impact on what we do, and we saw some of the possibilities for this during the pandemic when we had to make theater on film, or we had to stream live theater as recordings,” Dean Roxworthy said. “What we really need to do is teach our students to use these [digital] tools and to be so deeply trained in their craft of the dramatic arts that they’re able to apply them to any platform in any medium.”

Roxworthy said that they want the new building to be an inclusive space where theatre encourages students across campus “to ponder the great questions of humanity,” as they did in ancient Greek society.

According to SDA, great care is being taken in order to preserve the history of the former church and its Italian Romanesque Revival-style, while making it a functioning and sustainable home for 21st century artists.

“It’s exciting for us to have our own space that we can call ours, as the School of Dramatic Arts community,” Mott said. “To have a place that’s nice, new, and refreshing on campus to hang out, take classes in, or rehearse is definitely going to be nice.”