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Newark Life

The shared experience of being one, together

Oct 06, 2015 05:12PM ● By Steven Hoffman

Let the tired and exhausted sentiment go forth, once more: The American theater is dead, yet again.

It's taking its final curtain call for the millionth time, so you'd better applaud now.

It's money, mostly. General audiences have been completely priced out. At last check, tickets to see “Hamilton,” the new Broadway musical about one of our nation's forefathers that's set to a rap beat, now top $300, and that's through legitimate avenues, such as going to the theater box office. Attempting to score a seat or two from shifty dudes on the corner of 48th and Ninth could set you back a few more Benjamins.

And what about those who can still afford to see shows? Wow. Apparently, they're unable to shut off the outside world, or at least that's what the actress Patti LuPone said. In a recent Broadway musical she was performing called “Shows for Days," there was a moment when her character enters the audience. One evening, LuPone grabbed the cell phone of a woman in the audience who kept tweeting and texting during the performance, and gave it to an usher to hold. In the following days, LuPone went absolutely ballistic in the press, pointing at any and all owners of LED-lit devices who fire them up during performances as if they were culprits in a conspiracy.

The incident is certainly not isolated. It is not uncommon at any theatre -- from community theatre to Broadway -- to witness the incessant humbuzz. At yet another Broadway show recently, a young fellow attempted to stoke up his cell phone at an outlet that was actually on the performance stage itself.

So with that, we may as well toll the bell and let the pulsing heart of the American theater take its final beat.

Apparently, the audiences who have attended the performances by The Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware since it began in 2008 never got the memo.

Since it shifted gears from the Professional Theatre Training Program seven seasons ago in order to become a truly professional theater company, the Resident Ensemble Players -- commonly known as "The REP" -- have given audiences a diversity of shows and a bevy of talent to match any regional company, while offering it at a reasonable cost to audience members. To illustrate the affordability of The REP, ticket prices for the general public range from $23 to $29, with a wide array of flexible subscription prices available that lower the cost of an individual ticket.

Housed in the beautiful 435-seat Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts, the REP began its eighth season on Sept. 23 with "The Patsy," a new version of the classic French farce by Georges Feydeau. True to its mission, the 2015-16 season will be dotted with a unique blend of dramas, comedies, classics and emerging new plays, including "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw (Nov 11 - Dec. 6); the ingenious thriller "Wait Until Dark" (Jan. 20 - Feb. 6); the play version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (March 2-20); the Tony-award-winning "Red" (April 13 - May 8); and Alan Ayckbourn's romantic comedy "Things We Do For Love" (April 20 - May 8).

Built entirely on the premise to engage theater audiences with a wide variety of classic, modern, and contemporary plays performed in a wide variety of styles, the mission of the REP is simple: Choose plays based on the quality of the script and power of the play; make the productions affordable so that they are accessible to everyone, regardless of income; showcase the range of its resident players; and link the REP with the University by affording undergraduates the opportunity to see quality productions of the major plays and playwrights, often in conjunction with a college course they are currently taking.

"Because of our relationship with the University, we select plays that are or can be in the curriculum of the average undergraduate," said Sandy Robbins, founder and producing artistic director of The REP. "For instance, because the work of George Bernard Shaw is included in the syllabus of several English courses, we've incorporated 'Heartbreak House' into our season. We selected 'Red,' because the play's subject, the artist Mark Rothko, is studied in our art and history departments."

There's yet another connection to the University: The REP and the UD Department of Theatre provide undergraduates with a variety of general education courses designed to expand appreciation for -- and future participation in -- theatre. These courses are regularly taught by members of the nationally respected faculty of the Department of Theatre and by the professional actors in the REP.

The REP has also gleefully opened its doors to some of America's most well-known playwrights to try out their new works. Most recently, the REP welcomed award-winning playwright Theresa Rebeck to workshop her play, "O Beautiful" and "Fever."

"The reputation of The REP is based on its distinct offerings -- six diverse plays every year," Robbins said. "The combination of higher-caliber performances, taking place in a user friendly facility, six times every year, enables us to ensure that audiences have six exciting experiences, each different from the others."

The resumes of the ten-member ensemble of actors and directors -- all but one are P.T.T.P. graduates -- are dotted with roles in some of the most important plays in the lexicon of theatre, both contemporary and classic. In addition to their work with The REP, the actors have performed at some of the most prestigious regional theatres in the United States.

"The primary focus during the early years of the P.T.T.P. was to develop people who would have satisfying careers in live theatre, and with a particular bend toward the classics," Robbins said. "We felt if you could do those, you could do anything. We can now capitalize on those years by giving several of our P.T.T.P. graduates the chance to come back as professionals.

"Theatre is considered a team sport that rarely accommodates divas," he added. "There are a lot of people who enjoy the life of doing ten weeks in Seattle, followed by a movie in New York City, just as there is a minority of actors in the industry who, for whatever reason, say no to fame, but instead choose a life and a family and a stability that comes with being in great plays, one after another. There is a wonderful connectivity of our players to the Newark community. They send their children to local schools. They shop at the same grocery stores. They get to spend their lives performing in the service of the community they live in."

And as for Patti LuPone's rage?

Over the years, The REP has developed some very creative methods of informing its audiences that the use of technology during performances is prohibited, and much like any theatre at any level, these directives are intended as a courtesy to the actors...partly.

The rest of it has to do with telling the audience that something magical is happening right now, in front of them.

“Everyone likes everything nowadays," said the playwright John Logan, whose play "Red" will be performed this season at The REP. "They like the television and the phonograph and the shampoo and the soda pop and the Cracker Jack. Everything becomes everything else and it's all nice and pretty and likable. Everything is fun in the sun! Where's the discernment? Where's the arbitration that separates what I like from what I respect, what I deem worthy, what has... listen to me now... significance.”
Robbins has walked into theatres -- whether for rehearsal or to see a live performance -- in much the same way most of us walk through our homes. To him, there is a familiarity to the theatre, a comfort. It may be the clearest path to whatever definition of Home there may be. Even before he brought the P.T.T.P. to the University of Delaware campus in 1989 -- and helped re-shape it as The REP in 2008 -- Robbins had spent most of his life in theatre. He has directed Shakespearean productions at festivals from Illinois to Indiana to Oregon to Los Angeles. He directed the international premieres of Sam Shepard plays in Moscow, Cyprus and Finland.

There is a moment that he gets to witness from the back of Thompson Theatre, that crystallizes the very reason why Robbins loves what he does. The REP partners with several middle and high schools in the Newark community by inviting students to see live performances of plays that they are studying in school. For many, these are the first plays they will have ever seen; for others, the mere mention of "theatre" conjures up dry recitations of Shakespeare in dreadfully dull readings in high school English classes. They arrive at the theatre merely to fulfill an assignment, jaded and aloof.

Then the play begins, and from the back of the theatre, Robbins sees a transformation begin to happen. He sees teenagers who, three minutes before had sat slouched in the seats, suddenly snap up in rapt attention.

He then begins to hear the most beautiful sound you can possibly imagine in the theatre: Engaged silence.

"Theatre requires you to become a part of something larger, to be truly human and present, and get to experience that which is eternal," he said. "It's the reality that 435 people of all races and lifestyles and differences can walk into Thompson Theatre, and none of our differences really matter. We're laughing and crying, as one. Those are the moments we live for...what this is all about.

"Theatre is the shared experience of being one, together."

To learn more about The Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware and to obtain tickets to the 2015-16 season online, visit

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