It was not your typical subject matter for a work of musical theater. There was the requisite love story. There was mystery. But mainly, the plot centered on ... climate change.

The production, The Great Immensity, began in a 2009–10 atelier class offered in Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. It was an unusual collaboration, bringing together scientists and artists from the Lewis Center, the Princeton Environmental Institute, and the Civilians, a theater group that would go on to receive a grant of almost $700,000 from the National Science Foundation to show how theater can increase public engagement with scientific issues. Students and faculty came not just from Princeton’s arts programs, but from fields including bioethics, biology, engineering, environmental studies, and geosciences. 

Above: The New Music Building, part of the Lewis Arts complex. The top of the center’s six-story tower, with offices and exhibition space, is visible behind. 

The Great Immensity is about a woman named Phyllis, whose husband, a nature documentary producer, disappears while on assignment on a tropical island. While searching for him, Phyllis discovers a plot to disrupt an upcoming climate summit in Paris. To tell that story, students in the atelier produced inventive work: Andrea Grody ’11 and KC (Wade) Jean-Pierre ’11 co-wrote a song about forest fires, based on their conversation with a North Carolina firefighter. Jackie Hedeman ’11 spent weeks immersed in online chat rooms to research the predatory snakehead fish. Inspired by her interview with an ecologist, Erin Sherman ’11 painted a watercolor that depicted how humans are affected by climate change.

READ MORE What’s in the Neighborhood?

“We were turning statistics into songs,” recalls Grody, who was the show’s music director and is making her debut as a music director on Broadway this fall.

In 2010, the show was presented as a work in progress at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Four years later, developed by the Civilians’ artistic director, Steve Cosson, it debuted in New York. Since then, it has drawn national attention — and not just for its art. At a press briefing last spring, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Federal Office of Management and Budget, said the production exemplified the “crazy stuff” the Obama administration had funded. “Do you think that’s a waste of your money?” he asked rhetorically.

Certainly not, believe faculty in the Lewis Center. They still speak of the class as perhaps the best example of how a university arts program could break new ground. Poet Paul Muldoon, director of the atelier program, explains the philosophy: “We reinvent the wheel with each course. It’s a step in the dark. And that, one might say, is what all art making is about.”

Muldoon was founding chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts, launched in 2006 with a $101 million gift from the late Peter B. Lewis ’55 and championed by former President Shirley Tilghman. Now the final piece is in place: a three-building arts complex that campus officials say will enable further expansion of the arts at the University and bring new life to the area around McCarter Theatre, where a new restaurant and a new bar have opened. The complex is part of a 22-acre development that also includes a new train station and Wawa (see accompanying story). 

READ MORE Arts, Meet Tech

The three buildings house the dance, music theater, theater, and atelier programs, as well as facilities for the music department, which is not part of the Lewis Center and remains based at the Woolworth Center of Musical Studies. (Two programs within the Lewis Center — creative writing and visual arts — are not moving.) 

The project faced a contentious four-year approval process and lawsuits filed by local residents who objected to moving the Dinky rail station farther south to make way for the complex. Moving the train station “is still a sensitive issue,” says Princeton mayor Liz Lempert, but “there’s also a recognition that the new complex is going to be a great addition to the community.” 

Unlike many other universities, Princeton does not offer majors in the arts, with two exceptions: music and visual arts. As theater program director Jane Cox says: “We are philosophically opposed to a major ... . You don’t know enough about the rest of the world when you’re 18 to study theater full time.” The approach means students mix their love of the arts with a deep background in the liberal-arts fields they are studying. Obie-winning playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins ’06, for example, studied African American studies and anthropology at Princeton, preparing him to wrestle with issues of race and class — something he does in his plays today. 

The lack of majors has not stunted the flowering of arts programs. In recent years, Princeton has expanded not just the numbers of arts faculty and courses, but the range and variety of its offerings. A program in music theater was launched in 2016. New fellowship programs have been created, bringing in a range of professional artists — both prominent playwrights and lesser-known stars such as David Bengali ’04, a projection and lighting designer fresh from Broadway, and award-winning Pakistani filmmaker Afia Serena Nathaniel. Since 2006, the Lewis Center faculty has grown about 70 percent, to 107, and the number of courses has increased more than 50 percent. Students enrolled in Lewis Center courses 1,673 times last year, up 70 percent from 10 years ago. 

Arts alumni have gone on to stellar careers. Silas Riener ’06, now a world-renowned dancer and choreographer, first studied dance as a Princeton student. The graduate music-composition program (not part of the Lewis Center) has produced two Pulitzer winners in the last four years: Julia Wolfe *12, who won in 2015, and Caroline Shaw, a doctoral candidate who won in 2013. In the creative-writing program, students have become top novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers after studying with writers like John McPhee ’53, Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jhumpa Lahiri, Muldoon, and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a professor emerita. (Yiyun Li, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner known for her elegant writing about the experience of Chinese immigrants, joined the faculty in the fall.) 

Novices are welcome. Walid Marfouk Layadi ’17, who majored in operations research and financial engineering and had no previous experience in the visual arts, took a course in digital photography on a whim. He got hooked. For a senior-thesis project, he used a large-format viewfinder film camera and halogen cinema lights — both commonly used in the 1950s — to capture images of family members in his native Morocco to offer a perspective on Muslim identity. He ended up winning a Princeton arts prize. 

“At Princeton,” he says, “no one was judging me for not fitting the typical definition of an arts student. All that mattered was the art I made.”

The opening of the Lewis Arts complex comes at a challenging time for the arts. President Donald Trump had proposed eliminating the arts and humanities endowments (a House bill retains them, with cuts) — making commitments such as Princeton’s all the more important, says Jordan Roth ’97, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five Broadway theaters. “It’s essential that Princeton has made this wholehearted and defining commitment. It’s not just, ‘Let’s put an arts building over there.’ It’s, ‘Let’s conceive of our community as one that is infused at its very core with the arts.’ That is the kind of bold, man-on-the-moon initiative that an institution like Princeton can do.”

Nonprofit arts groups face growing uncertainty. Sixty percent of the revenues of nonprofit arts organizations come from ticket sales, merchandise, and services, points out Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts. That means these organizations may be reluctant to stage shows or exhibitions that take great artistic leaps but may not have wide popular or commercial appeal. 

With their mission of teaching and advancing knowledge, however, universities don’t worry about ticket sales. Instead, liberal-arts universities play a critical role in encouraging experimentation and innovation in the arts. “Universities have a responsibility to push the field forward,” says Lewis Center chair Michael Cadden. 

“The confines of a university are a haven that supports students’ artistry at a particularly exciting and expansive moment in their growth,” says James Bundy, who worked in the nonprofit arts world for 20 years before becoming dean of the Yale School of Drama. “They can have many productive failures with virtually no negative consequences.” 

Princeton offers seemingly unending opportunities for low-stakes risk-taking, both in classes and in the thriving community of extracurricular arts groups. (In addition to well-known organizations like a cappella groups, Triangle, and Theatre Intime, there are dozens of ensembles pursuing all manner of art, from improv, Mexican folk dancing, and slam poetry to African dance, Chinese theater, opera, and Japanese drumming.) As a student, Lileana Blain-Cruz ’06 led an artistic rebirth of the student drama group Black Arts Company, which allowed her to stage obscure theater pieces. 

“You get to live in an ideal dream space at a university because it is solely about the art; it’s like a theatrical research space,” she says. “The feeling was you could try anything.” Today, Obie winner Blain-Cruz is a busy New York City director with many theater credits and a reputation for innovative interpretations of classical and contemporary works. She returned to campus a few years ago to direct Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a production she described as having the feel of “both a ballroom and a frat party.” Most of the play took place in a field of roses that filled the Berlind Theatre stage. 

The theater and music theater programs “are unique in our commitment to supporting the creation, production, and performance of original, student-written, and student-directed work,” says Stacy Wolf, director of music theater. “This kind of opportunity typically doesn’t happen until a student is in graduate school or in the professional theater/musical theater world — if then.” 

Innovation abounds in Princeton’s visual-arts studios as well. Anthropology major Amalya Megerman ’16 used art to examine childhood memories and the interplay of nostalgia and identity. She turned a gallery into a beach scene, hauling in hundreds of pounds of sand and decorating the space with mementos such as old family photos. Eggshells — which she had collected all semester from campus cafeterias — were scattered throughout the exhibit, and her father’s old button-down shirts were sewn into a curtain. Megerman’s project was a “poignantly moving meditation on the cycle of life,” says her adviser, senior lecturer Martha Friedman. Friedman encourages students to be “experimenting and making a mess.” 

In the course “Transformations in Engineering and the Arts,” students explore design and composition with professors from computer science and engineering, as well as from creative writing, dance, music, and visual arts. A team of students in the class in 2016 made “Mother Womb,” in which people climbed inside a portable tent made of clear plastic and listened to sounds intended to make them pay attention to their sensory experiences. In “Extraordinary Processes,” offered this fall, students are focusing “on the strategic challenge of turning waste material into a viable consumer product” — in this case, hanging light fixtures. The waste material is the ash wood left after the destruction of ash trees by beetles known as emerald ash borers. 

“Art is not about art. Art is about the world,” Cadden says. “If you’re thinking about art in a narrow way, there’s an excellent chance you will have nothing to offer except technique, and what we need is vision.”

Cadden believes the new complex will allow even more students to experience art. Additional studio space for dancers means that students working on their theses will be able to rehearse at convenient hours, not just during the 10 p.m.–2 a.m. slot available before. Senior dance lecturer Rebecca Lazier is especially excited about the dedicated faculty studio she will use to plan choreography and warm up before teaching. In the past, she tried out new steps in the hallway.

Low ceilings in a theater studio will enable students to experiment with different lighting configurations. “A student can say, ‘It’s all wrong. Let’s stand on a chair and change the lights,’” points out Cox, an award-winning lighting designer. “Students can get their hands up there and muck around with it.” Music practice rooms and studios have recording and playback systems, so students can better hear their work and make adjustments. Spaces have been set aside for collaboration, interdisciplinary projects, and multimedia presentations. 

In short, the new space offers “lots of opportunity to dream big,” Cadden says — “and dream differently.”  

Jennifer Altmann is a writer and editor.