An outdoor music and performance venue opens this weekend in San Diego, nestled near a new entrance to UC San Diego and just steps from the expanded Blue Line streetcar.
Epstein’s new family amphitheater galvanizes a vision set in motion years ago, when plans for a tram extension and wider campus access began to take shape.
As the university envisions the amphitheater as a regional hub for the performing arts, students are at the center of their programming. Colleen Kollar Smith is the executive director of the new campus performances and events office, and she said they hope its accessibility will help young people find a connection to the arts.
Kollar Smith said the space will be open like a park during the day, with nooks for classes or options for campus bands to rehearse on stage.
Despite its intimate atmosphere, the venue accommodates nearly 2,500 people, with two “bowl” sections and a large, steeply sloping lawn. Lawn seating makes up more than half of the venue’s capacity and is a big part of the theater’s approach to accessibility and affordability.
Students get deep discounts on tickets – in many cases blocks of tickets will be reserved for students free of charge on a case-by-case basis.
Death Cab, Blacktronika, Steven Schick and giant puppets
Seven performances take place in the hall throughout the month of October.
After Thursday’s student-focused event Niki concert, the official opening night is Friday, with a performance hosted by Steven Schick of UC San Diego.
Alongside a few traditional pieces (including Stravinsky’s small but chaotic “Fanfare for a New Theater” for two trumpets), several composers linked to UC San Diego will be featured. A Rand Steiger commission, “Triton’s Rise”, is a work for 17 percussionists, with Schick on stage and the other 16 dotted around the amphitheater. “Metacosmos” by UC San Diego alumnus Anna Thorvaldsdottir and “Bamboo Lights” by UC San Diego faculty Lei Liang will also be performed.
On Saturday, indie band Death Cab for Cutie will perform with Yo La Tengo in a sold-out show.
A free multidisciplinary community party takes place on Sunday afternoon. Expect giant puppets from La Jolla Playhouse and Animal Cracker Conspiracy; the music of the Young Lions Jazz Ensemble and Kahlil Nash; salsa dance lessons; and a screening of “Purple Rain,” the 1984 film starring Prince.
Next weekend there is a celebration of Latinx History Month; a college-wide drag show; and Professor King Britt’s Black Electronic Music Festival, or Blacktronika.
Schick said the variety of artwork displayed on stage hints at the importance of space on campus.
“And when you connect that to the cart, which is right next to it, it will – almost immediately – become a center of performance in San Diego and the county and the city at large. I think it will become a center of gravity for music and art in the area,” Schick said.
Indoor performance spaces on campus are optimized for a specific type of music, Schick said. But on the outside, there’s an inevitable sense of belonging and connection – even in the form of wooshes and beeps of a passing trolley.
“You see very clearly where we are on the planet. And that contextualizes artistic creation. We sometimes forget that it’s not an anonymous thing that we do anywhere. Art takes place in an environment. And the people who share that environment are the community you play for,” Schick said.
For some students, the response so far is mixed, but optimistic.
“I hadn’t recorded that it was a project that was happening on our campus, actually,” said Hannaford Bush, a graduate student in climate science and policy. She said students in her cohort of masters who had heard of the amphitheater were “moderately excited”.
“There were things that were interesting for (the cohort), like the Death Cab for Cutie concert, but I also heard from some of them that it looks like they’ll just be jazz musicians, and that’s not really interesting to me,” Bush said.
“I think that’s a missed opportunity. I don’t know if that’s what the student body was asking for,” Bush said. “But I also recognize how difficult it is for the university to bring in things that are going to attract the money that is going to be able to provide for your students.”
Marnie Aagard, a fourth-year biochemistry student, is excited about what the new location will bring. Aagard is a big fan of live music and said COVID-19 overshadowed performances for much of her undergraduate experience.
“I think the events will be a super fun way to build community. The shows are fun for so many people, so I think it will help students bond with the San Diego community,” Aagard said.
“As long as the amphitheater hosts events that appeal to a diverse audience, people will be happy to come back. I know the campus is a comfortable place for many UC San Diego students, and so many people have looking forward to participating now that events are happening again.”
Visual art too
Artistic bonus: When visitors approach the amphitheater, they walk directly on the latest piece of UCSD’s Stuart art collection: “Ann Hamilton’s”Kahnop — Telling a story. “Thousands of words are carved in relief in an 800-foot-long sculptural stone path. Hamilton has compiled a form of found poetry from university-related scholarly texts alongside Kumeyaay’s translated account.
For performance details, visit the amphitheater ticketing site here.