fred harris

...To celebrate the healing power of the arts

A Conrad Prebys Foundation gift funds a new second stage theater, part of a renovated Performing Arts District at SDSU.

By Lisa Haney

July 21, 2021

The arts didn’t stop during the pandemic. Artists found new ways to create — and even to perform. SDSU students rehearsed in parking lots and put on virtual concerts and theater productions, including “Pippin,” in the spring. But the full magic that happens when performers and their audience are in the same space for a live show, gathering in community, was lost.

Now, the next time we’re able to assemble safely together for a show, we’ll appreciate it more, predicts Peggy Shannon, dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts. “We won’t take for granted the joy that live performance can bring,” she says.

While science has been so key to getting us through the pandemic, the arts can help us heal. “The arts allow human expression … to tell our stories that lift people up,” Shannon says. “More than ever, we need the ability to speak proof to what we go through as a world.” And soon, SDSU students will have a beautiful new space to do that.

The details:

The gift: $6 million grant to PSFA’s ”On to a New Stage” fundraising campaign

The donor: The Conrad Prebys Foundation, which carries out the vision of its namesake, a San Diego real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist who passed away in 2016.

The purpose: Funds a second stage theater, The Prebys Stage, for student productions. The new stage will be part of a renovated Performing Arts District at SDSU and will include the latest lighting and sound technology. Construction began in June.

About the Performing Arts District: What began in 2019 as a plan to renovate the Don Powell Theatre to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, has grown into an entire reimagining of the performing arts at SDSU.

In addition to upgrading the main stage, a $37 million California State University contribution will create a full-fledged Performing Arts District. Among the plans: The Don Powell will go down to 350 seats (from 500) to make room for ramps, roomier areas for wheelchairs and better sight lines. The new Prebys Stage, to the west of the Music Building, will provide a more intimate performance space with 150 seats. On the east side of the Prebys Stage will be an outdoor third stage for music, film and theater with the sloping lawn forming an amphitheater.

A separate amenities building between the theaters will house the box office and concessions for all of the performance spaces. On its promenade, a small fourth stage will spotlight acts like solo musicians.

“Suddenly, it’s a district that will have just this very cool vibe of performance and art and artistic expression, indoors and outdoors,” says Peggy Shannon, PSFA dean.

The second stage was just a shell of a concept until the Prebys gift came along and funded state-of-the-art technology for lighting and sound, as well as dressing rooms and seating. “Their gift really transformed a beautiful idea into a complete reality,” she says. “It’s just a game changer and we’re so thrilled.”

The cutting-edge theater and district as a whole will make the university highly competitive in attracting new students and preparing them to be industry-ready, says ’Niyi Coker, professor and director of the School of Theatre, Television, and Film.

“That’s very critical because our mission of education is paramount and we should be educating with up-to-date facilities,” he says.

Construction over the next two years will force inventive staging of ongoing productions — including a reconfiguration of the main stage theater while the auditorium is being refurbished. Coker sees the opportunity for experimentation as a good challenge to have until the full vision of the district is realized.

“We still have some ways to go,” Coker says, “but in a time of a pandemic and when we were worried about cuts, this is definitely an endorsement of the performing arts.”

Additional reporting by Jeff Ristine.

Other recent Conrad Prebys gifts that leave a lasting legacy at SDSU:

conrad prebys

Conrad Prebys (courtesy of The Salk Institute)

$20 million: in 2014 toward student scholarships in seven areas, recognized on campus with the renaming of the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union.

$8 million: in 2021, over five years, toward a new building for KPBS radio, a public service of SDSU. His previous gifts to KPBS and Masterpiece have also helped support programming devoted to local news, arts and San Diego culture.

“Conrad was adamant that his higher education was a catalyst for many of the successes in his life. He had a deep love of the visual and performing arts, so we felt that this project, in particular, would have made Conrad very proud.” —Dan Yates (’83), president of the Conrad Prebys Foundation