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The Old College Try

Campus theaters put on class acts


Published September 10, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Where this season can theatergoers catch a 24-hour playwriting festival, Ovid in a swimming pool, the work of an acclaimed Canadian playwright and Eugene O'Neill's only comedy? If you answered the Flynn -- or New York City -- you're wrong. These are all upcoming offerings from local colleges.

Student productions tend to get a bad rap. "Oh, I'm sure the kids are nice and eager and all," says the theater snob, "but I prefer performers with a little more experience." The snob doesn't know what he's missing. College theater programs can be sheer serendipity, promising plays you won't see anywhere else, top production values, talent on the rise and something else indefinable: an aura of shared adventure.

Here's a glimpse of the discoveries in store this season at four area campuses.

Pool of Talent: University of Vermont

"It's fresh," explains University of Vermont sophomore Jessica Pescosolido. "There's a youthful exuberance… a certain energy on stage and you can feel it."

Pescosolido is one of 13 students in Remember the Children: Terezin, the first show in UVM's 2003-04 season. She and the rest of the cast are about to go into a Sunday afternoon rehearsal at the Royall Tyler, but first they've been asked to talk about what makes a UVM show distinctive. Her answer gets to the heart of what's appealing about almost any student show: the students. Guest director Veronica Lopez cherishes their spirit. "I love young actors. They're not already fixed in their ways," she says.

Their open-hearted attitude should go a long way toward conquering the challenge before them: the collaborative creation of a theater piece based on poems written by children who were held in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II; only 100 of them survived. Lopez is incorporating American Sign Language into the production with the help of interpreters and cast member Laura Siegel, who is hearing-impaired.

Of all the college theaters in the area, UVM's is the most familiar to local audiences. The school makes a concerted effort to promote its productions to an off-campus audience, with a full-time marketing director, subscription packages and an annual student-organized holiday show, The Toys Take Over Christmas.

"The offerings invite a broad cross-section," says Associate Professor Peter Jack Tkatch, "usually things that are for a wide spectrum of interests or tastes."

But the lineup of shows is hardly unsophisticated. In fact, the November production represents a bit of a coup. Mary Zimmerman's recent Tony winner Metamorphoses, a retelling of the myths of Ovid, will receive one of its first productions since New York at UVM, under Tkatch's direction. "It speaks to the spirit," he says. "I think we need things like that now."

Metamorphoses is a demanding piece -- not least because it requires an on-stage swimming pool. UVM can handle it. The 295-seat Royall Tyler, a gymnasium before it was transformed into a theater in 1969, is a versatile, well-equipped space. And the faculty and staff have strong technical credentials; for instance, department chair Jeffrey Modereger worked with legendary Broadway designer Jo Mielziner and has designed sets for theaters throughout the country.

Such expertise should come in handy for the university's spring production, Tina Howe's The Art of Dining. It requires the construction of a working restaurant.

Remember the Children: Terezin, October 1-12; Metamorphoses, November 12-23; The Toys Take Over Christmas, December 6-7; The Art of Dining, February 27-March 7; One-Act Play Festival, April 20-25. Royall Tyler Theatre, University of Vermont, Burlington. Single tickets $5-$14. Subscriptions $30-$50. Info, 656-2094.

It's Not A Job…: Champlain College

Considering that Champlain College is known for its career-oriented curriculum, the fact that its students would spend any time trafficking in a field not known for job security is impressive. But Champlain also stresses the importance of extracurricular activities -- the school famously cancelled its varsity sports programs last year in order to place more emphasis on intramurals. And, except for a few acting courses, all the theater activity at Champlain is extracurricular.

That can be a plus, suggests Dr. Joanne Farrell, artistic director of the Champlain Theatre Company: It means the kids who do take part have to be very dedicated. "They're taking time away from their major to do this."

Farrell assumed the mantle of artistic director in the spring of this year. The job title is new; so, in a way, is her program. For many years, faculty member Donald Rowe led what was called the Champlain Players, a student/community group that presented a mix of classics and popular fare (including, during one season, a pair of stage adaptations of James Dean movies). Rowe often directed and occasionally starred, playing such roles as King Lear, and Salieri in Amadeus. When he retired in May, Farrell, who has a background in directing and playwriting and also heads the college's Professional Writing Pro-gram, was asked to take over.

Her choice of a new name, Champlain Theatre Company, reflects her hopes for future expansion, including an eventual move into more eclectic fare. But for now she's carrying on the tradition of mainstream favorites with a production of Eugene O'Neill's nostalgic family comedy, Ah, Wilderness! The cast is a mix of students and more mature actors, including a respected name in Burlington's theater scene: John D. Alexander, who also happens to be Farrell's son-in-law.

"One thing I will never do is cast a 17-year-old in the role of a 30-year-old," says Farrell.

But she has to settle for less than the ideal when it comes to her facilities. Champlain's Alumni Auditorium space has no wings and no backstage, just green drapes hanging against the walls at the back and the sides. So Farrell's going for simplicity: period costumes and furnishings, but she'll leave the rest to the audience's imagination and the actors' skill.

Ah, Wilderness! October 1-5. Alumni Auditorium, Champlain College, Burlington. General $12, students $5. Also coming up at Champlain: I Never Saw Another Butterfly, November 13-15, 21 & 22. This 1980 play, like the UVM project mentioned above, was inspired by the writings of the children of Terezin and is being produced in conjunction with the school's Community Reading Program. Tickets, 865-5468.

Think: Middlebury College

Are you getting a been-there/done-that feeling from the play selections at local professional and community theaters? Here a Proof, there a Proof, everywhere a Sylvia? Then Middlebury College might be just the pick-me-up you need.

"We're a thinking theater," says longtime Theater Department Chair Douglas Sprigg. Last season's lineup included a parody of government bureaucracy by former Czech president Vaclav Havel. This year's roster offers more food for thought: Perfect Pie by Judith Thompson, a playwright acclaimed in her native Canada but unfamiliar to most U.S. audiences; Chekhov's Cherry Orchard; and Midwives by Vermont playwright Dana Yeaton, a visiting lecturer at Middlebury.

All three shows are directed by faculty -- Cheryl Faraone, Richard Romagnoli and Sprigg, respectively. Faraone and Romagnoli also run a theater company in Maryland, the Potomac Theatre Project, which regularly provides Middlebury students with the chance to get hands-on professional experience.

Middlebury's artistic staff is interested in "contemporary design approaches," says Sprigg; in other words, the visual and aural landscape is as important as the text. And the college has the facilities to make vision a reality. There are two theaters -- the 200-seat Seeler Studio Theater (in the decade-old, multi-million-dollar Center for the Arts), and the 350-seat proscenium Wright Memorial Theater, each with its own scene shop. Plus there's a student-run black-box theater, three tech directors, a tenured set/lighting designer and a full-time costume designer.

Middlebury rarely casts from off campus; age-appropriateness is less important than giving the kids a chance to stretch: "We have 20-year-olds playing all our roles," Sprigg says. But even though he's careful to make the distinction that Middlebury's is a liberal arts program, not a pre-professional conservatory, he also points out that his students have had considerable post-college success. Alums of the program include movie and TV actor Jake Weber (Mind of the Married Man, Meet Joe Black) and TV producer Shawn Ryan, who created the Emmy-winning "The Shield."

"We're fortunate," says Sprigg, "in that Middlebury does attract bright, motivated students." He quickly qualifies, "That doesn't always translate into acting talent."

But smarts help -- especially in an environment in which, as Sprigg explains, "We think of theater as a tool for education, not strictly entertainment… The issue of what theater is and what theater can be gets discussed a lot."

Perfect Pie, October 23-25, Seeler Studio Theatre, Center for the Arts; The Cherry Orchard, November 20-22, Wright Theatre; Midwives, April 29-May 1, Wright Theatre. Middlebury College, $3-5. Tickets, 443-6433.

Like Mike: St. Michael's College

For more than 50 years, St. Michael's College has meant "theater" to Vermonters -- summer theater, that is. The college has owned and operated St. Michael's Playhouse, a professional summer stock theater, which has been attracting audiences upwards of 13,000 to seasons of light comedy, musicals and the occasional contemporary drama since 1947.

But theater doesn't stop at St. Mike's when the days get shorter. An undergraduate theater program generates two faculty-directed main-stage productions during the school year and scores of student-directed shows around campus. And you can't beat the price: free.

"Free" is a good word to describe the mood of the school, too. At least that's the impression you get listening to theater majors Sarah Payson and Kevin Miller as they chat about the program in the 366-seat auditorium of the McCarthy Arts Center, home to both the summer and academic theaters. "It's one of the most open programs I've ever encountered," says Payson, a junior planning for a career in tech or design.

Students are welcome to apply to the Playhouse for summer internships which let them work with professional actors and crew. Playhouse co-artistic directors Cathy Hurst and Peter Harrigan are part of the St. Mike's faculty, and general manager Chuck Tobin is a regular presence, too. Hurst points to one concrete example of this relationship's mutual benefits: In summer 2002 the Playhouse premiered a one-man show by Peter Sampieri ('99), The Georgy, that he'd originally worked on as her student.

Both Payson and Miller were interns this past summer. Miller, a sophomore, says it was the best theater experience he's ever had, but an intense one. The pace of the academic year is comparatively leisurely. For instance, a seven-month rehearsal period for the spring 2004 production, Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit -- it takes time to learn those British dialects! The class of 2005 began planning for their senior project, Sondheim's Into the Woods, when they were sophomores -- and Payson already has the set designed.

Such solid preparation bodes well for audiences. While the acting may show a little "unevenness" because of the mix of majors and non-majors, Hurst says, there will always be "a fundamental level of honesty" in the work. And, because there's no pressure to sell tickets, she says, the play choices can be "riskier." The Novem-ber production, Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, is a case in point. It's not likely you'll see a Playhouse season anytime soon with dramatis personae like "a deformed god" or "a human woman transformed by Zeus into a heifer," character descriptions from an audition flyer for the Greek tragedy.

And if Greek gods don't appeal, there's always the 24-hour playwriting festival (details below). Or maybe you should get tickets now for Into the Woods -- it already feels like a hit.

Prometheus Bound, November 12-15; Blithe Spirit, March 3-6, McCarthy Arts Center. Admission free. 24-Hour Play Festival: Anyone wishing to be a playwright for this project should arrive at McCarthy at 9 p.m., Friday, Sept. 12. Writers will write all night long, to be joined by directors and actors the next morning. Scripts will be rehearsed all day and performed Saturday, September 13, at 8 p.m. Free as usual. Info, 654-2536; no reservations.

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