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The birth of the Greek Theatre

mardi, 16 février 2016   (3 Comments)
Posted by: Eoghan O'Sullivan (Alumni Office)
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Ecolint's first amphitheatre was constructed in 1934, dug out of the hillside behind the Grand Bâtiment. Twenty years later, a committee of staff, students and alumni began to build the Greek Theatre as we know it today. Over the years it became a symbol of Ecolint, particularly for those who attended La Grande Boissière.

In this AlumBlog post we look back to the birth of the Greek Theatre through the eyes of those who built it. A report contributed by Robin Penberthy (LGB '56) to Ecolint's annual journal in 1955 is reproduced below in full. He describes how the school community came together to work on this landmark project.

Further down we've republished some extracts from an article written by Virginia Langhoop (LGB '57) in October 1956, by which time the Greek Theatre had been completed and hosted its first performances.


The Greek Theatre

I first became aware of the Greek Theatre project on parents day, the 3rd July 1953. I learnt that during the spring it was decided to construct a Greek Theatre in the park, of the same design as the one at Epidaurus, Greece. The project seemed enormous but feasible.

The amphitheatre at Epidaurus, inspiration for Ecolint's Greek Theatre.

In October of the same year, a group of students gave up some of their spare time towards levelling the centre of the theatre to-be. Before they had time to do very much, winter set in and the work was discontinued until spring. When the last of the snow had melted and it became warmer that same group returned to work. By July they had formed a very impressive circle – the foundation of the Greek Theatre.

School recommenced in September and amid the excitement of receiving the new pupils, welcoming M. Pol-Simon, and becoming used to having three directors instead of one, the Greek Theatre seemed forgotten. But it was not; towards the end of the first term, a special assembly of the secondary students was called and we all agreed on the necessity of continuing with what we had started.

Six francs per truckload

The Greek Theatre committee, guided by M. Pol-Simon, told the student body that earth would be very expensive – six francs per truckload. They asked each of us to try to donate six francs. It was not long before a large amount of money had been collected. A little later the Christmas holidays came, and most of us went home wondering whether anything would be done about the project during the holidays.

When we returned to school for the spring term, we were very surprised to hear that we would be supplied with earth from some Geneva building enterprise free of charge. Soon the trucks started coming and we welcomed the noise that they made as our teachers tried vainly to speak above the bedlam. The "camions" kept coming and emptying their loads, but each load seemed to make little difference to the pile of earth.

We left school to enjoy the Easter holidays with the sound of the endless stream of trucks still in our ears. On returning to school, we found that the "pile of earth" had become a mountain, and the three-quarter circle was almost complete, but the trucks were still coming.

"The 'pile of earth' had become a mountain." A photo from the 1955 Ecolint Annual Journal.

We were told, at the beginning of the term, that it would be very helpful if we could volunteer to work on the project in activity or sports periods; early in the morning or on Thursday afternoons. Many students and teachers offered their services and soon the Greek Theatre developed a more definite form. The interns, especially, worked hard early in the morning and on Thursday afternoons. With the incessant stream of trucks and the enthusiastic help of the volunteer workers, the Greek Theatre developed into something of which to be really proud.

The drainage system will be laid on by the "Département des travaux publics" with student help, and the first tier will have to be constructed by skilled workers, but otherwise all the work will be done by students working in their spare time.

A symbol of our "esprit Ecolint"

The Greek Theatre will be a symbol of the joint work done by the students of the Secondary, Moyen, and Primary schools, the English and French sides, and of about forty-eight nationalities.

Our Greek Theatre has not been left unnoticed by the public; it has received publicity in the Journal de Genève, the Gazette de Lausanne, and L'Illustre for which M. Martin, the husband of one of the teachers, wrote an article and submitted photographs.

When the Greek Theatre is completed, it will seat people and we may rest assured that it will often be used. Summer assemblies of the Secondary school will he held there and many shows will be presented. M. Ansermet and M. Unger of the "Orchestre de la Suisse Romande " are considering the idea of giving an orchestral concert, the "Groupe du Théâtre de la Sorbonne " will probably come to act, and M. Jean Vilar of the "Théâtre National Populaire", an enthusiastic member of the "Comité d'Honneur ", may give us a performance.

It will be a wonderful day when the last stone to the Greek Theatre is laid. It will be a magnificent spectacle among the trees surrounding it and will remain a symbol of our "esprit Ecolint''.

Robin Penberthy, 16 years, South African

(Ecolint Annual Journal , June 1955)


Completion and opening

Robin Penberthy looked forward to the completion of what he said would be a magnificent spectable. In October 1956, a report in the school magazine "Alexandre" by Virginia Langhoop (LGB '57) gave an impression of what followed. She writes about the excitement that had been building among the students as the project took shape. In the early days they were reminded of it whenever they were in the Billiard Room and passed by the "miniature plastic model of a Greek theatre set on a small table in the corner".

According to her report altogether 6,000 truckloads of earth had been delivered to the school during the construction of the theatre:

"Much aid was donated with moans and groans from the interns who arose at 6am almost every morning for a few months while the weather permitted. The boys transported wheelbarrows of dirt to other needy areas and the girls raked the chunks of dirt until they were broken up.

[...] Then a new competition began between the classes in the Middle and Secondary schools to see which class would work the most hours at the theatre. The first three victorious classes would receive prizes at the end of the concours."

The theatre opens

The final row of seating was installed just weeks before the end of the summer term in 1956. There was a "mad rush" to organize the ideal entertainment for the last day of school. On Friday 29 June students performed scenes from Porgy and Bess and Much Ado About Nothing. And the following day the theatre was used for the end of year assembly, with parents, students, teachers and visitors taking their seats in an auditorium "that had not too long ago been merely an idea".

"The Greek Theatre, with a diameter of 46m, now completed, seats 2,500 persons. An expert, who examined the theatre, valued it at 300,000 francs, but it only cost 10,000 francs to build with all the help that was given by the students. [...] The number of man hours put into the building of the theatre comes to some tremendous sum if someone has the time to sit down and figure it out."

The first public concert, Virginia Langhoop reports, was given on Saturday 29 September by the Orchestra St. Pierre-Fusterie, with the mixed choir of Geneva, under the direction of Louis Duret. The poor turnout seemingly matched expectations, as this was the first such concert, but "most who did attend enjoyed it greatly"!

The cover of the programme for a performance of Philoctetes by Sophocles, circa. 1959.


And today...

The Greek Theatre lives on, considered by many to be the heart and soul of the LGB campus. It was the most common response by participants in our 90-9-90 Project when they were asked to name their favourite spot on the campus. It is used regularly for assemblies and, most notably, for the end of year graduation ceremony, when it always looks truly magnificent. When showing first-time visitors around the campus often spouses or children of alumni I always enjoy their reaction when they see the Greek Theatre for the first time.

It was filled to capacity in September 2014 when the entire campus population gathered to mark the school's 90th birthday. This video of the assembled students and staff singing Happy Birthday to Ecolint gives a good idea of the atmosphere. On the same occasion a drone flight was arranged to take the panoramic photograph below. (You can explore it by clicking and dragging with your mouse.)


 Click for a bigger version.




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Jean Poirel says...
Posted jeudi, 17 mars 2016
Bonjour! J'ai moi aussi de très vifs souvenirs de la construction du Théâtre grec, en ayant été l'un des nombreux "bâtisseurs". Je me rappelle que M. Giacoma nous guidait très précisément pour ne pas que nous fassions des efforts inutiles, et qu'il remontait le moral de ceux qui trouvaient la tâche longue et ingrate... Je ne me souviens pas des 6 francs par camion de terre amenée, dont parle Robin Penberthy. Par contre, j'ai encore en mémoire la représentation de "Porgy and Bess", où le rôle de Porgy était tenu par un Italien, Arturo RETTI, que l'on avait barbouillé de cirage pour l'occasion... Par ailleurs, il me semble qu'il avait été question, une fois les travaux terminés, d'élever une stèle (ou quelque chose d'approchant) avec les noms de tous les "bâtisseurs", élèves comme professeurs. Et que ceux-ci devaient bénéficier, en remerciement de leur travail, de l'entrée gratuite à vie pour tous les spectacles devant se tenir dans le Théâtre. Mais il se peut que je me trompe!...
George Satterthwaite II says...
Posted samedi, 5 mars 2016
Very vivid memories of the planning for the Greek theater with the models being made in the activity room of the Internat by Mr Giacoma our Italian teacher head of the Greek theater project , Theo Stump,head of upper school smoking his endless cigarette and Mr Hempelman one of our English teachers I believe. If you look in the internat yearbook, LeReflet, for 1953 there are some pictures of the models we made very close to the actual theater. Oh such super memories. George Satterthwaite, 1952-1953
Jean-Marc Dérobert says...
Posted mardi, 1 mars 2016
J'ai bien aimé lire cet article, ayant passé de nombreuses heures à poser des blocs de béton sur les gradins... À propos de théâtre d'Épidaure, j'ai fait partie de l'équipe qui s'y est rendu pendant les vacances de Pâques 1955 pour en prendre des photos et mesurer les dimensions des gradins. C'est resté un de mes plus beaux souvenirs de vacances de Pâques. J'aimerais aussi rappeler le souvenir d'un prof dont je n'ai jamais suivi un seul cours, mais qui a fait un travail remarquable d'organisation des équipes travaillant sur le chantier: M. Dalla Giacoma (si mon souvenir est exact): avec son accent italien, il interpelait l'un ou l'autre pour que tout soit correctement fait. Et il n'avait à ma connaissance aucune formation de bâtisseur! Que de beaux souvenirs!

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