Varsity Theater aims to enrich Dinkytown

Much more than just a theater, the Varsity has an array of events to engage students.

When Jason McLean opened the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown almost a year ago, he wasn’t out to create a typical club or music venue.

Anyone who’s seen the theater’s plush, Art Deco lobby reflected in its mirrored walls can recognize that.

For McLean, the theater is a laboratory and is representative not only of his desire to bring diverse entertainment to Dinkytown, but to foster “a culture of dialogue and exchange rather than inebriation” in the student community as well.

In its first year, McLean said, he had to support the new theater with events based less on culture and more on cash.

But slowly McLean is beginning to turn his focus to the smaller, more experimental events that he’s always envisioned. And he said he wants the University community to be part of that vision.

The “cultural exchange” McLean promotes happens daily at the Varsity through a broad scope of events.

February’s calendar featured sketch comedy shows, a film release party, a science lecture put on in conjunction with the University’s Bell Museum, a meeting of the Varsity drama club and, of course, myriad musical acts from jazz to rock.

But McLean said that despite the unique events he tries to bring Dinkytown, he feels some hesitation from the student community.

“I think the perception is that (the Varsity) is so unusual and presumably expensive Ö when it’s really anything but,” McLean said. “And I want to turn that around.”

Once a student himself at what used to be University High School in Peik Hall, McLean said reaching out to the University community was a priority when he opened Loring Pasta Bar in 2000.

“I want to make these facilities attractive to students so they become a resource, a gathering place, a sort of haven,” McLean said.

One member of the University community who took advantage of McLean’s business philosophy is art professor Tom Rose. For his spring 2005 Performance Art and Installation class, he said, he wanted to get his students involved in a public performance space.

“(The Varsity) seemed to have a real open-ended experimental feel,” Rose said. “One would be hard-pressed to go to another theater and find the kind of support we got there.”

Printmaking graduate student Kristina Knuth took Rose’s course and said many students had no performance background. Despite that, she said, the Varsity staff was available to help students in the class.

“It was really great of the Varsity to take a chance on us,” Knuth said.

She said she understands McLean’s disappointment when students pass up Dinkytown art and culture for the typical college bar scene.

“I think people outside of the arts community maybe don’t know they can afford things like this and that it can be fun,” Knuth said.

Journalism junior Kelly O’Connell agreed, and said students “can be a little timid to go to a theater or art show if they are not involved in the art community.”

University alumnus Noah Skogerboe books acts for the Varsity’s happy hour. He said the free weekly event and the accessibility to younger audiences are a definite plus for students.

Still, Skogerboe said, student attendance at such events is not as good as he’d like to see.

For some students, the ever-changing calendar is confusing. Journalism senior Kevin Hansen said students “aren’t sure if it’s a movie theater, a bar or just a place for people to hang out.”

Despite the confusion, variety is just what McLean wants. Beginning next week, McLean said, he will keep the doors of the Varsity open during regular business hours to encourage students to stop by.

He said he hopes to eventually have a full-service café open all day in the theater while rehearsals and show preparations are going on.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if people came and drank their coffee and watched play rehearsals?” McLean said.

But for now, he said, “the new bookkeeper will be there, a pot of coffee will be on. That’s the least we can do.”

Freelance Editor Emily Kaiser

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