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Greenberg, Katzen Gave Students Space to Dream

Photos of Harold and Sylvia Greenberg and Myrtle and Cyrus Katzen

Harold and Sylvia Greenberg, left, at the opening of the Greenberg Theatre, and Myrtle and Cyrus Katzen, right, at the opening of the Katzen Arts Center (Photo: Jeff Watts)

At AU, the arts matter. That’s what Harold Greenberg and Cyrus Katzen always knew, even in the days, not long ago, when theatre students performed in a cramped experimental theatre and artists exhibited their work in the out-of-the-way room called the Watkins Gallery.

Students always dream large. Katzen and Greenberg helped to give them space for their dreams.

Greenberg passed away in April at the age of 92; Katzen in July, at 91. They each leave behind a lasting legacy: the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre, which opened in 2003, and the Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center, which opened in 2005.

The state-of-the-art spaces have, as AU museum director Jack Rasmussen puts it, “changed AU, its face and its substance.”

Statistics alone are impressive: thousands of square feet of space for classrooms, studios, and performance and exhibition space. Harder to quantify is the impact the Greenberg Theatre and Katzen Arts Center have had on AU and its students.

Bethany Corey, CAS/BA ’07, was a student during the years of change and experienced both settings. “The facilities were so much more conducive to what we needed,” she recalls. “To move into a facility that’s nice and clean and has good acoustics and is built for what we’re doing made it so much easier to take that next step and be that much better.”

Faculty felt the magic, too. “I’d get off the elevator and walk into that building and feel I was Alice in Wonderland,” recalls performing arts professor Gail Humphries Mardirosian of the opening days of the Katzen, which followed so closely on the opening of the Greenberg. “To see that the arts had come to that level of importance at AU was just incredible.”

The excitement goes far beyond campus. The existence of the Greenberg enabled AU to forge a connection with Russia’s legendary Volkov Theatre, the oldest professional theatre in the country. A performance by the acting troupe at the newly opened Greenberg Theatre led to a memorable trip to Russia by AU students to perform at the International Theatre Festival and learn with Russian actors at the theatre’s prestigious drama academy.

The Katzen’s AU Museum is the largest university art exhibition space in Washington, D.C., and one of the largest in the nation. “The museum has become an important center for contemporary art of the United States as well as international art shown in Washington,” notes art department chair Helen Langa. Critics make a point of reviewing the shows; world-famous artists come to speak.

That in itself is inspiring to students. But for the students of the past few years, there’s also a personal side to what are known casually as “the Greenberg” and “the Katzen.”

They’ve had the privilege to know a bit more about the Katzen than its three stories of art-filled galleries, its ample studio and classroom space, and its halls echoing with music and vitality. Their memories of the Greenberg go beyond performing in a professional theatre where music soars from the orchestra pit and the ample backstage enables them to mount top-quality shows.

They also have memories of Harold Greenberg enjoying the plays his gift helped make possible and Cy Katzen strolling the halls and asking students about their plans for the future.

“These were more than men who just gave money. Our students know these men,” says performing arts professor Caleen Sinnette Jennings. “They enjoyed the buildings and the people in them. They were so accessible and radiated how much they cared to the students. They wanted to see students living out their dreams. That made it extra special.”

Katzen had become involved with AU through his wife Myrtle, a painter, whose experience with art classes on campus was so positive that she formed a lifelong bond with the school a short drive from their art-filled home. Sylvia Greenberg’s family has a long tradition of supporting AU, and the Kay Spiritual Life Center bears the name of Sylvia’s father, Abraham Kay.

Cy Katzen and Harold Greenberg will be missed as members of the community, but their affection for AU will be felt for years to come. “If there is a legacy we hope to live up to,” says Jennings, “we want to keep that sense that these are places for human beings to come and celebrate what it means to be a human being–what it means to create and dream.”