Big changes for UD theatre, onstage and offDec 01, 2023 11:56AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
A cost-conscious, commercially savvy season for the Resident Ensemble Players, new undergraduate majors and a merger with the dance department highlight the changes under way or being considered for theatre at the University of Delaware.
Steve Tague, the interim producing artistic director for the REP and interim chair of the merged department, also promises a crowd-pleasing musical in 2024-25 – a first for UD’s resident professional acting company, which debuted in 2008.
The changes are part of massive thinking about the roles of theatre at UD, following the 2021 retirement of Sandy Robbins, announced after the theatre budget was cut from $5 million to $2 million.
“The atmosphere is scary,” Tague said, referring to how major theatres across the country are restructuring or closing. “Can’t you do plays with not very much money?” he asked, rhetorically. “And the answer is ‘yes.’ And lots of places are going to have to start thinking like that, including us.”
The 2023-24 season includes two plays that have hopefully familiar titles – “John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night” and “Deathtrap” – and two that probably don’t – “Vita and Virginia” and “Pass Over.”
“All four of them are being produced as excellently as we know how, but two of them have reduced budgets,” he said. “They won’t look like some of the other visual extravaganzas that we’ve had. They will rely more on the storytelling, more on the acting.”
4 REP plays this season
The season opened with “Vita & Virginia,” a play about love and friendship by Eileen Atkins, adapted from letters and diaries written by “aristocratic novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West and aloof literary icon Virginia Woolf,” according to www.rep.udel.edu.
“In the Heat of the Night” runs in November. Matt Pelfrey adapted the play from Ball’s 1965 novel about injustice, which also inspired a 1967 movie that won five Oscars and a 1988-1995 TV series.
“Pass Over” runs in February. Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “mashup of Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ and the Biblical Exodus story … asks ‘What is the value of a young black man’s life?’ ”
“Deathtrap” in April closes the season. The 1978 Ira Levin mystery with touches of black comedy was made into a movie in 1982.
“We have to choose plays very intelligently that don’t feel underproduced and don’t feel cheap,” Tague said. He’s also chosen to financially favor “In the Heat of Night” and “Deathtrap” with bigger budgets and longer runs in the hopes that they will draw larger audiences. For instance, the set budget for “In the Heat of the Night” is $12,000, compared to $1,000 for “Vita & Virginia.”
“I want to move – and I say this delicately – in a more commercial direction,” he said. “If we want to do art, we have to do some other stuff that’s more commercial.”
What draws in crowds?
“Commercial” is loaded language in the theatre world. theatres face conflicting factors in picking productions: drawing crowds with popular works, exposing people to something new, staying within budgets, developing new works and offering variety during their seasons. University theatre programs have another challenge: training students on stage and off with a variety of work.
Pre-pandemic, the REP was selling about 72% of the seats in the 450-seat Thompson Theatre in the Roselle Center for the Arts on the main Newark campus. An adjacent black-box theatre seats 120.
The REP’s greatest commercial success was “Murder on the Orient Express” in 2019. “People went gaga,” Tague said. Did people pour in because they knew the title? It’s Agatha Christie’s “most successful and well-known property,” critic Gail Obenreder wrote in the Broad Street Review. Was it the newness? The play was only 2 years old. The quality of the production? Obenreder’s rave used “perfect” once and “perfectly” twice and called the scenic design “a cunning piece of stagecraft.” Did word-of-mouth praise for the production or publicity lure people? Publicity, particularly for people who aren’t regular theatre patrons, is a problem, he said. “How can we get to people who don’t know us?”
And the best question of all: how does any post-mortem help the REP find similar successes?
Tague is temporarily running the show while he said the university decides on whether to conduct a wide search for department chair or offer him the traditional five-year appointment.
The REP once produced seven shows each season and may never return to that. “It was really stressful for all involved,” he said. But he’s committed to producing the REP’s first musical in the 2024-25 season. “They sell well. I love them, and I teach musical theatre. Even if it kills us.”
Peering into the future
UD’s theatre training has evolved over the last few decades.
The undergraduate theatre performance major was abolished in 1987 with the creation of the Professional Theatre Training Program, a graduate conservatory training program in acting, stage management and technical production. The introduction of the REP in 2008 allowed UD to add three minors in theatre, the university announced then. That master’s degree lasted only until 2010, with Tague believing that Robbins chose to allocate limited resources to the REP instead of the training.
Tague wants to create a bachelor of arts in theatre studies, starting in the fall of 2024. He’s also thinking of a developing a dance major in the fall of 2025 and, “now moving into fantasy,” thinking about a bachelor’s degree in musical theatre and the return of a master’s program.
About 60 undergraduates are minoring in theatre in three tracks: performance (the most popular), production and theatre studies. Surprisingly, many are majoring in engineering or health sciences. About 60 students are minoring in dance.
And a minor in musical theatre started this fall, said Suzanne L. Burton, associate dean for the arts, noting that it combines courses in theatre, music and dance. There’s also a minor in healthcare theatre that “helps healthcare professionals develop communication skills through interactive scenarios presented by theatre students.”
Tague hopes that if the majors are approved, they will “generate an income stream of tuition dollars.” The majors would spur doubling the number of theatre courses, from about 20, he said, and increasing interaction with other departments by cross-listing courses already offered elsewhere, such as classes in playwriting, fashion history, communication, art and design. “We didn’t interact with other departments, and truthfully we didn’t have much of a department,” he said. “The department was junior to the REP, which the was big dog. My hope is to make them more equal dogs.”
Effect on the REP
One example of that new interaction is the production of “Vita and Virginia,” timed to coordinate with the 50th anniversary of the department of women and gender studies, Burton said, and the inaugural national conference of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Gender-Based Violence. “There’s great collaboration across the university,” she said.
The new majors would have a ripple effect on the selection of REP productions.
UD lists 11 people in the REP company, with Tague at the top and Robbins at the bottom. In between are associate producing artistic director Sandy Ernst, production stage manager Matthew G. Marholin and seven actors (Hassan El-Amin, Lee E. Ernst, Michael Gotch, Elizabeth Heflin, Mic Matarrese, Stephen Pelinski and Kathleen Pirkl Tague), some directing and playwriting.
The acting troupe lacks much diversity on today’s most talked-about demographics – Black, indigenous and people of color – and it also skews older, which limits the play selection. “We just have to choose to choose plays intelligently until the company composition changes a little bit, which is the next step we slowly but surely change as the older actors move a little bit more toward teaching, that will unburden the casting choices,” Tague said. “As we move in more people in their 30s, and we probably will only offer a one- or two-year contract, rather than a lifetime contract.”
He hopes that his plans will be accepted by the administration since they don’t demand much more in space (operations are now in four buildings) and faculty. “In that regard, it’s a big win-win, I think, for UD and the state of Delaware, the students, the residents, the people.”
“There’s a lot to be excited about,” Burton said. “The future is really bright.”