Campus & Community

Alan Symonds, mainstay of College theater,dies at 59

3 min read
Alan Symonds

Alan Symonds, technical director for Harvard College Theatre Programs under the Office for the Arts at Harvard, died of heart failure on June 20 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 59.

Throughout his life, Symonds manifested an extraordinary dedication to the vitality of undergraduate theater at Harvard, a passion developed during his years as a Harvard student. A native of Rhode Island, he arrived at Harvard as a freshman in 1965, where the historic Agassiz Theatre and Loeb Drama Center became his homes.

Later, after working in the private sector, mainly with theatrical lighting, Symonds again became a mainstay of Harvard theater. His activities ranged from Agassiz production oversight and systems updating to work on student productions in the undergraduate residence halls and the Hasty Pudding Theatre, where he designed lighting for many of the Pudding’s musicals. No matter the quality or content of a student show – be it avant-garde, Shakespearean, or an operetta composed by his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan – Symonds was on the front lines of production, ready to teach, mentor, and keep safe a new generation of eager young producers, directors, and designers.

Perhaps nothing else in his expansive area of responsibilities pleased and excited Symonds more than the Freshman Arts Program, which he founded and oversaw. This initiative provides incoming Harvard students with an early hands-on introduction and orientation to all of the arts at the University.

“Alan Symonds was an institution in Harvard theater and was loved by students, alumni, and colleagues,” said Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard. “His life touched thousands of people in a very meaningful way over the years.”

Noted Kate Greenhalgh ’05, “Alan’s passing is a tremendous loss to the Harvard community and to each of the many students who thrived under his guidance and leadership. I learned as much from Alan as I did in my curricular courses; beyond the ropes of theater production, he inspired us to be responsible, productive, and communicative members of a community.”

Symonds’ wizardry with electrical and engineering work and knack for problem-solving also characterized earlier facets of his career, including positions with Capron Lighting, Ripman Lighting Consultants, and fire protection underwriter Factory Mutual, as well as his own lighting consultancy and a stint in the technical director’s office at the Loeb Drama Center. He helped create and sold an industry standard-setting patent for digital light-dimming. Among his wide-ranging projects were the lighting arrangements for the 1969 Woodstock Festival and lighting designs for the Computer Museum and the penguin habitat at the New England Aquarium.

At the Office for the Arts, Symonds was instrumental in planning the technical installation for the new Harvard Dance Center, which opened last fall. Yet his greatest legacy may be what is currently a new theater-in-process: the New College Theatre on Holyoke Street, formerly the Hasty Pudding Theatre, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2007. This venue – designed by Leers Weinzapel Associates and Fisher Dachs Associates with Symonds as ongoing consultant – will embody his standards of excellence, creativity, and innovation.

Son of the late Paul and Ilese Symonds of Providence, Rhode Island, Symonds leaves his brother, Robin Symonds, and sister-in-law, Cecilia Symonds, of Dijon, France. Funeral services will be private. A memorial service at Harvard is planned for the fall.