Venerable Chester Fritz Auditorium finds new life in pandemic

Historic venue for plays, concerts and commencements is now a classroom, too

Chester Fritz Auditorium.

Since its opening in late 1972 with a performance by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir, the Chester Fritz Auditorium on the University of North Dakota campus has provided a stately stage for plays, concerts and commencements. But this fall, the auditorium, whose columned façade – familiar to generations of students – stands tall next to the English Coulee, will be assuming a new function: that of a classroom.

With the entire campus, from residential halls to lecture rooms, reimagined in accordance with the requirements for physical distancing during in-person classes this fall, the Chester Fritz Auditorium is to host about nine courses, from meteorology to music to theatre arts.

“It’s basically called ‘Doing our part,’” said Betty Allan, Chester Fritz Auditorium director. “This is what the university needs right now. And this is what we can do. Everybody needs to do whatever they can to make things as normal as possible.”

The auditorium, a space of roughly 2400 red seats spread out on a ground level around a 35-foot deep stage and on two balconies, is to accommodate only about 200 students. While its capacity has been drastically slashed to allow for at least a six-foot separation among occupants, the Fritz is likely to be the largest classroom at UND this upcoming semester, making courses with high enrollment numbers possible.

This is not the arrangement that Chester Fritz, a University alum who donated $1 million toward the construction of the auditorium, perhaps had imagined. Yet, it somehow fits his vision for what purpose the building ought to play on campus.

“It is my hope that this building will be an additional means by which future students at my Alma Mater may gain clear visions of truth and beauty and integrity; and that the added opportunities for weighing comparative values will inspire listening students to rise to higher plains of world understanding, purpose, and stewardship,” Fritz said, as quoted in a historic report Allan penned on the occasion of UND’s 125th anniversary.

The auditorium in 1975.

From an auditorium to a classroom

Yet transforming a space made for large, mostly artistic, gatherings into a room for learning turned out to be no small feat. The University Information Technology (UIT) division worked over the summer with auditorium staff to establish the internet bandwidth and assemble the equipment needed for lectures.

Because the auditorium is so vast, there will be no plexiglass dividing the stage from the seats, as is the case for lecterns in regular classrooms. But faculty and students will still have to don masks. Most of the classroom devices – the computer, the digital whiteboard tablet, the cameras – will rest on a cart that can be rolled off stage in the event of a theatrical or a musical performance, said Allan.

A movie-theater-sized white screen will be the background for digital presentations for students, who can choose to attend classes virtually or physically, and will take only those seats in the auditorium that are marked with green dots.

Brad Reissig, associate chair and associate professor in the Theatre Arts Department, is excited to teach an Introduction to Theatre Arts class in the Fritz this fall. As of last week, more than 200 students have enrolled.

“It is going to be pretty fun to be able to point to actual things in the theater and say, ‘See this thing? This is where that originally started, and this is how it’s evolved.’ Being able to show students something exactly as it is – that is going to be a really cool thing,” he said.

Despite the appropriate venue for his class, Reissig, who toured the Fritz last week to familiarize himself with the new classroom setup, has made some adjustment to the curriculum. He has had to rethink assignments and activities so that students can actively participate, regardless of whether they are physically in the auditorium or logged in from their computer.

Mike Poellot, atmospheric sciences professor, is teaching at the Fritz this semester, as well – an aviation meteorology class. He has also had to adapt, shunning printed assignments and exams for digital equivalents and filling the in-class time with discussions and examples instead of conventional lectures.

“It’ll definitely be a different experience for me and for the students in the auditorium,” Poellot said.

He still wonders about the interactions in the Fritz. Will students be so far away from the stage that he will not be able to decipher their facial expressions and body language, which often give away their comprehension of the material? How will they actually communicate with him?

When it comes to the latter, because the class comprises roughly 110 students, some of whom will likely attend online, Poellot is to offer a chat function for everyone in class.

“We’ll see how this works,” he said. “But we will figure it out.”

Despite the challenges of reconfiguring the Fritz into a classroom, the historical significance of the process does not escape those involved in it. “Here we find ourselves in this certainly unexpected and interesting situation where the Chester Fritz Auditorium has become an asset in a new way,” said Ryan Zerr, chair of the Theatre Arts Department.