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The new UC San Diego outdoor amphitheater is lit up at dusk against a dark blue sky. A curved shell-like cover provides a partial roof for the concrete stage. Concrete and wooden bench seating forms a segmented semi-circle around the stage.
Erik Jepsen / The Board of Regents of the University of California
The new UC San Diego Epstein Family Amphitheater is shown in an undated photo.

A new performance and connections hub at UC San Diego

An outdoor music and performance venue opens this weekend in San Diego, nestled near a new entrance at UC San Diego and just steps from the expanded Blue Line trolley.

The new Epstein Family Amphitheater galvanizes a vision set in motion years ago, when plans for the trolley extension and broader access to the campus began to take shape.

While the university envisions the amphitheater as a region-wide hub for the performing arts, students are at the center of their programming. Colleen Kollar Smith is the executive director of the new Campus Performance and Events Office, and she said they hope its accessibility will help young people find a connection to the arts.

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Kollar Smith said the space will be open as a park during the day, with nooks for classes or options for campus groups to rehearse on stage.

Despite its intimate feel, the venue holds nearly 2,500 people, with two "bowl" sections and a large, steeply-sloped lawn. Lawn seating accounts for more than half of the venue's capacity, and is a big part of the theater's approach to accessibility and affordability.

Students receive significant discounts on tickets — in many cases, blocks of tickets will be reserved for students for free, on a case-by-case basis.

Death Cab, Blacktronika, Steven Schick and giant puppets

Seven performances take place in the venue throughout October.

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Following Thursday's student-focused Niki concert, the official opening night is Friday, with a performance curated by UC San Diego's Steven Schick.

Alongside a few traditional pieces (including Stravinsky's bite-sized but chaotic "Fanfare for a New Theatre" for two trumpets), several UC San Diego-connected composers will take the spotlight. A Rand Steiger commission, "Triton's Rise," is a work for 17 percussionists, with Schick on stage and the 16 others peppered around the amphitheater. UC San Diego alumnus Anna Thorvaldsdottir's "Metacosmos," and UC San Diego faculty Lei Liang's "Bamboo Lights" will also be performed.

On Saturday, indie band Death Cab for Cutie will perform with Yo La Tengo in a sold-out show.

The five members of the band Death Cab for Cutie are shown in a black and white photo. Each has light skin, four have beards, two have glasses and one has long hair. The band members stand in a partial V shape and all but one are looking at the camera, with neutral expressions or smirking.
Courtesy of UC San Diego
The band Death Cab for Cutie is shown in an undated photo.

A free multidisciplinary community festival takes place Sunday afternoon. Expect giant puppets from La Jolla Playhouse and Animal Cracker Conspiracy; music from Young Lions Jazz Ensemble and Kahlil Nash; salsa dancing lessons; and a screening of "Purple Rain," the 1984 film starring Prince.

Next weekend, there's a Latinx History Month celebration; a university-wide drag show; and professor King Britt's festival of Black electronic music, or Blacktronika.

Schick said the variety of art featured on stage hints at the space's significance on campus.

"And when you link that to the trolley, which is right nearby, it will become — almost immediately — a center for performance in San Diego and the broader county and city. I think it will become a center of gravity for music and artmaking in the area," Schick said.

The indoor performance spaces on campus are optimized for a specific type of music, Schick said. But outdoors, there's an unavoidable sense of place and connection — even in the form of a passing trolley's woosh and beeps.

"You see really clearly where we are on the planet. And that contextualizes artmaking. We sometimes forget that this is not an anonymous thing that we do just wherever. Art takes place in an environment. And the people who share that environment are the community for whom you are playing," Schick said.

Students weigh in

For some students, the response so far is mixed, but optimistic.

"I hadn't registered it was a project that was taking place on our campus, actually," said Hannaford Bush, a graduate student studying climate science and policy. She said the students in her masters cohort that had heard about the amphitheater were "moderately excited."

"There were some things that were interesting to (the cohort), like the Death Cab for Cutie concert, but I also heard from some of them that it seems like it's all just going to be jazz musicians, and that's not really interesting to me," Bush said.

"I think that it's a missed opportunity. I don't know if it's what the student body was asking for," Bush said. "But I also recognize how hard it is as the university to bring things that are going to attract the money that's going to be able to provide for your students."

Hundreds of seemingly disconnected words are carved on concrete in an outdoor walkway art installation. The words appear dark gray against a lighter gray backdrop. Visible are words like "BOTTOM," "PERSON" "DOOMED" "PEEPS THROUGH"' and many more. The words are in all caps and vary in direction and whether they're upside down. The concrete is divided into rectangular pavers. The walkway fills the full photo.
Julia Dixon Evans / KPBS
Ann Hamilton's "Kahnop - To Tell A Story" is shown at UC San Diego in an Oct. 18, 2022 photo.

Fourth-year biochemistry student Marnie Aagard is excited for what the new venue will bring back. Aagard is a big fan of live music, and said that COVID-19 overshadowed performances for much of her undergraduate experience.

"I think the events will be a super fun way to build community. Shows are fun for so many people, so I think it'll help students bond with the San Diego community," Aagard said.

"As long as the amphitheater has events that cater to a diverse audience, people will be happy to come back. I know campus is a comfortable place for a lot of UC San Diego students, and so many people are itching to participate now that events are happening again."

Visual art, too

Artsy bonus: as visitors approach the amphitheater, they'll walk directly on the latest piece in UCSD's Stuart Art Collection: Ann Hamilton's "Kahnop — To Tell A Story." Thousands of words are embossed in an 800-foot-long stone, sculptural path. Hamilton compiled a form of found poetry from scholarly texts connected to the university alongside translated Kumeyaay narrative.

For performance details, visit the amphitheater's ticket site here.

Julia Dixon Evans writes the KPBS Arts newsletter, produces and edits the KPBS/Arts Calendar and works with the KPBS team to cover San Diego's diverse arts scene. Previously, Julia wrote the weekly Culture Report for Voice of San Diego and has reported on arts, culture, books, music, television, dining, the outdoors and more for The A.V. Club, Literary Hub and San Diego CityBeat. She studied literature at UCSD (where she was an oboist in the La Jolla Symphony), and is a published novelist and short fiction writer. She is the founder of Last Exit, a local reading series and literary journal, and she won the 2019 National Magazine Award for Fiction. Julia lives with her family in North Park and loves trail running, vegan tacos and live music.
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