The Nichols Center Finally Opens!

The John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols Center stands in the afternoon sun.

Maeve Dowd '23, Staff Writer

Loomis Chaffee students and faculty have grown accustomed to the noise of frequent construction projects around campus. Although these renovations take weeks, months, or years to complete, they deliver quality improvements to student life. The newly finished John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols Center for Theater and Dance, previously just the Norris Ely Orchard Theater (NEO), is a prime example of a project worth its wait, as it serves to enhance student’s experiences in the performing arts department.
The NEO was originally a barn-style theater housing musical and dance productions. It was constructed with the help of students and faculty in 1939. This barn-style theater housed musicals and dance productions and was a central part to student life. The Loomis community used the NEO up until February of 2020, and construction for its expansion began in January 2021.
The idea of expanding the NEO had been on the faculties’ agenda for nearly fifteen years. Plans for the new building did not begin in earnest until a few years ago, though, when John D. Nichols ’49 and his wife Alexandra C. Nichols donated $7.5 million: roughly half of the project’s overall cost.
Executing this massive undertaking required about 125 construction workers. “We were very deliberate in hiring women and minorities as 36% of the people who worked on the Nichols Center were either from a minority firm, or a firm run or owned by women,” said Associate Head for External Relations Nat Follansbee.
The committee overseeing the expansion made the decision to preserve much of the footprint of the original NEO.“We didn’t want to have a big theater, rather we wanted to have a tight, intimate, fun space for students to enjoy,” Mr. Follansbee said. The wooden beams supporting the area are the same ones used to construct the original theater more than 80 years ago.
Although the base structure is very similar to the original one, the theater at the Nichols Center has many improvements and is equipped with advanced technology for students. Before, the theater rows were built on one flat plane. The seating area now is wider and deeper with 50 more seats. The rows slope upwards, allowing the audience in the back to get a full view of the stage. The stage, the main focal point of any theater, is larger and deeper.
Among other exciting features, the stage offers new curtains, small televisions for actors to see the pit orchestra, and a trap door. The new Black Box theater is a new multi-purpose room built for small musical, dance, or drama performances with seating in the back and space for a pit orchestra in the front. The conductor in the Black Box will have a view of the stage and actors through the use of projectors and cameras.
The new dance studio in the Nichols Center is roughly two to three times larger than the current studio in the Athletics Center. Glass walls reveal a stunning view of the Meadows, and they allow natural light to permeate throughout the room. The dance studio separates the Black Box and the theater, and can be seen when first walking through the main entrance of the Nichols Center.
Madison Oh ’23, member of the Loomis Chaffee Dance Company, shared her thoughts on the new studio. “I love that the dance studio is connected with the beautiful views of campus which allows us to appreciate the Island and dance in such a peaceful and inspirational space. Having a studio connected to the theater department creates a closer arts community,” she said.
The new quadrangle in front of the Nichols Center was a separate project, but constructed simultaneously. This quadrangle connects the three arts buildings: Hubbard Music Center, the Richmond Arts Center (RAC), and the Nichols Center. This quad includes a natural amphitheater to hold outdoors music, dance, and theater performances. It will be dedicated officially to John Ratté, the Head of School from 1976-1996, this coming June.
“We have not had the theater and dance facilities that students deserve to have. We have an excellent theater program and an excellent dance program, and we wanted a space that reflects their excellence,” said Mr. Follansbee.