The Important Role of Hillside Theater at Taliesin

The theater in the Hillside School at Taliesin has been a center of creative activity since 1902 when, as a gymnasium, it was the setting for school children to move rhythmically in play and exercise. After the Taliesin Fellowship was founded in 1932, the gymnasium was soon transformed into a setting for performances of music, dance, theater, and film. After a 1952 fire, the Hillside Theater, as it became known, was transformed again, which provided the opportunity to greatly improve its function for public events. Current preservation plans are directed to stabilization, renewal of facilities, and installation of climate conditioning that will extend the future use of this historic site.

Performances at Taliesin have always contributed significantly to its life. They interrupt the routine of mundane living with focused preparation, presentation, and participation. Hillside Theater did not displace the music, talks, and dramatic readings that took place in the magical living room at the Taliesin house, but it was the place where Wright invited the world beyond Taliesin to share in its creative life.

Music always held an important place in Wright’s life stemming from his father playing Beethoven’s piano compositions at home. That early demonstration of music’s structure and unity set a model for Wright’s architecture. When his wife, Olgivanna, brought the practices of her earlier mentor, Gurdjieff, including his dance exercises, to Hillside Theater, the music and rhythmic movements took their place in a tradition.

The 100-seat Hillside Theater is a marvelous place to share music; the steeply raked seating brings everyone close to the performance, something that is particularly effective when the Third Coast Percussion plays. The “balletic” nature of four young performers from Chicago moving between their various instruments is best seen from above. In 2011, Third Coast performed a multi-movement piece by David Skidmore, one of the ensemble members, composed to celebrate Taliesin’s centennial. Groups from Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and local ensembles have taken advantage of the Hillside Theater’s inimitable configuration and have contributed to its heritage over the years. Its architectural space, its Asian ornamentation, the poetry of Walt Whitman on the walls, and its acoustical intimacy make it a unique embodiment of the goals for life that Frank Lloyd Wright sought to establish. With renewed attention, it will continue to project those goals to a wider world.