WORKSHOP IS MOST CREATIVE ACTIVITY ON NU CAMPUS
(D.NW's Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of three articles devoted to the Northwestern speech school’s workshop theatre. We chose to publish such an extensive series on workshop because we feel it is probably the most creative and at the same time least known activity on campus. This first article deals with the organization and development of workshop. the second article will discuss the problems workshop faces. And the third article will be a close look at an original scene by Gary Vitale, now in rehearsal.)
by Norman Mack
The room is dingy . . . there are a few wooden chairs around . . . cracks in the ceiling . . . dust generally and a wooden creaking floor. In the center of the room is a girl, who is ordinarily beautiful, but is now dressed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt with little make-up and unruly hair. She is shouting angry words at a boy while her director encourages her. This is workshop theatre.
The scene shifts. The same girl, in the same working outfit, is in Centennial hall. The same director is encouraging her, only her performance is considerably subdued -- the walls in Centennial hall are hard and echoes result. This, too, is workshop.
Now the applause has died down, most of the non-theatre majors have left the speech auditorium. Miss Alvina Krause, faculty sponsor of workshop theatre, stands on the audience’s level and praises the girl’s performance. This workshop bill for the director and the girl has come to a happy conclusion.
Workshop is the first arena where the hopes of novice directors, actors, and actresses get tested at Northwestern. It adds more students to the to school education than any other activity on campus and it gives the new blood of the theater a chance to present themselves to an audience.
And yet this activity, so important to speech majors that as soon as new tryouts are announced every book containing the new plays disappears from Deering, is nearly unknown to the rest of the school. What is workshop? What is it for? When? Who and why?
According to Dr. Mitchell, head of the theatre department, workshop started out under the name of Studio Theatre on May 4, 1932, charging 50c admission, paying royalties, running two nights and having publicity.
“However, this allowed less freedom in choice of material because recent plays could not be used. We then stopped charging admissions but limited ourselves to plays in the public domain,” he said. “Eventually we drifted into the present way of doing things -- with one performance, little publicity and no admission charge.
“This is the most successful method we’ve had with better performances, larger audiences and a wider choice of material than ten years ago.”
Miss Krause states that workshop was instituted “primarily to give opportunities for acting and directing, under liberal supervision. A greater number of of people are studying theatre than are in university theatre productions and workshop keeps them acting and working.”
It originally was planned to be a practical application for the techniques learned in directing class.
Through the year as many as 18 plays or scenes or cuttings from plays are presented. Two bills, containing three plays of forty-five minutes or less are given each quarter.
In the past workshop has presented scenes from “Lysistrata,” “Merchant of Venice,” “Peer Gynt,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Taming of the Shrew.”
Directors are chosen by Miss Krause, usually have attended a directing class, and have had experience in earlier productions.
In turn, the directors choose the play they want to do (ranging from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to originals) and their actors and actresses. While the talent be anyone enrolled at Northwestern speech majors make up the bulk of the people on the state.
The rehearsal schedule is three or four hours a night, five days a week for three to four weeks. This would be an exhausting timetable in any other activity, with accusations of slave-labor being mumbled in the ranks.
The people in these productions are a dedicated lot and it is not usual to hear of Saturday morning, Thanksgiving vacation, and “let’s get together and run through that once more” rehearsals.
The practice sessions take place at 1831 Chicago, Centennial hall and, because of its tight schedule, only twice on the speech school stage.
Currently in rehearsal (to be presented this Wednesday, Feb.10, at 7:30) are an original student written and directed play, “The Love of One Captain” by Gary Vitale and two other scenes directed by Mary Gottlieb and Dan Roth.
In the past workshop has produced such stage stars as Gerald Freedman, who is directing “Taming of the Shrew” in New York and who also directed several workshop production here; Charlton Heston; Jim Olson, once actor-director in workshop, now appearing in “The World of Susie Wong”; Inga Swenson, who has played “Juliet” in Stratford, Conn.
That is the basic outline of workshop theatre -- an activity that’s extra-curricular. A great amount of time is spent on it with near professional productions being the result. It is a trainer, a trial by fire and another step on a theatrical ladder.
INADEQUATE PROPS, SPACE HARASS WORKSHOP THEATRE
Workshop theatre can be compared to the proverbial statue with the feet of clay.
The audience sees a well-acted, near professionally directed play. But if they would look closely at the feet of this statue, the technical end, they would note a paucity of good lighting, little or no scenery, and props that sometimes seem out of place.
As Gary Vitale, present director of a workshop production, said, “Workshop is a proving ground for actors and especially for student directors, and, in the same way, it should give experience to the technicians in theatre -- the lighting, set, and costume designers.”
One of the chief reasons for the above mentioned technical problems seems to be the philosophy that workshop is strictly a classroom exercise in directing and that if anything were added to it, it would tend to become a production.
It is for this reason that directors are allowed no budget for their plays, and, also, why they often provide costumes such as $25 silk pajamas out of their own pockets.
Workshop seems to hold the unenviable position of being just out of the classroom but not quite in the theatre. It is not allowed to make any props nor to have a budget and yet it is expected to entertain an audience.
But the problem gets more complicated when one realizes that even if money were given for costumes, etc., there would be no room to make them. The existing costume shop, about the size of a large guest closet, is just too busy making UT apparel to work on workshop.
A suggested solution to this congestion is to expand and consolidate the far-flung speech school.
This new theatre plant would have to include new shops and a replacement for the ancient stage now used. But this utopia has been planned for the last 15 years.
Some say the reason for the delay is lack of endowments, or the fact that the present stage is too old to remodel while a new building is too expensive to build, or that all the money taken in by UT productions does not go back to the speech school.
The lack of proper facilities is felt in many areas. Because of the cramped schedule for the speech auditorium, lighting can only be worked on two days before curtain time. The scene shop, a damp, coldly inadequate place near the lake, is too small to handle any scenery needed for productions. The same holds for props.
A certain amount of the crowded condition could be alleviated if UT moved into Cahn and workshop into speech building. But because of maintenance the the fact that a fireman has to be on duty if the full stage is used, it costs $75 ro rent Cahn per evening. This, and the fact that it is difficult to take flats from scene shop to Cahn eliminates this as a possible solution.
Another complaint stems from the fact that most of the props used in workshop come from the university theatre bins under Kresge. Only technical assistants can go down there and, because of this, directors are required to give them a list of what they need.
Problems raise their ugly little heads because the bin won’t have exactly what the director calls for and the assistant has to play mind reader for what’s closest to his wishes.
Some of the scarcity of props could be alleviated if basic units, such as windows and doors, were made especially for workshop.
Still, from a technical angle, the technical assistant and not the people in lighting classes design the lighting for the productions. This lessens the possibility of practical experience for people interested in stage lighting.
To move from behind the scenes, the acting and directing situation seems to be better than the technical end.
Occasionally one hears grumbling about the “star system,” meaning that certain people tend to get more roles than others. Opinion seems to be divided on this matter, with some students saying that “some people are just better than others,” while some claim that directors “don’t take enough chances on inexperienced people.” Most students can justify the latter complaint when they realize that the director himself is usually inexperienced.
Favoritism in casting of directors casting their friends is universally denied. Theatre majors all say that a director would be a fool to jeopardize a production just to cast a friend and that casting is done “amazingly on the basis of merit.”
After looking into workshop theatre from both the technical and directorial angles, one is struck by the multitude of unanswered questions.
Will there ever be a new speech building? Why is it that Northwestern, with such a good speech faculty, is stuck with a theatre plant that is disgraceful?
Why is it that while NU has the foremost teacher of lighting in the midwest, Mr. Theodore Fuchs, students graduate with less practical designing experience in this field than can be had in other schools?
Why doesn’t workshop have some basic props? When scenery is so scarce for workshop productions, why are old flats stored in Dyche stadium, two miles from campus?
Why can’t directors go into the bins under Kresge?
In short, what is workshop, merely an extension of directing classes or a test of the abilities of everything connected with theatre?
WORKSHOP WILL PRESENT ORIGINAL, IMPROMPTU DRAMA
“You see there’s a beautiful day, a lovely day, with sun and flowers and there’s a path, a winding path, going right through the middle of this beautiful day.”
“You want me to marry a twelve year old? Who do you think I am? Bing Crosby?”
The above lines were spoken, completely extemporaneously, at a rehearsal of “The Love of One Captain,” done in the Comedia de L’Arte manner, directed by Gary Vitale, to be given Wednesday, Feb. 10.
This play serves to illustrate what a usual workshop production is like and also, the way workshop can portray unusual ideas.
Drawn from the 15th century plays in which townfolk sought to portray stereotyped characters in impromptu situations, this play presents seven personalities going through a plot outline given to them by Gary. The characters, themselves, have to supply the dialogue.
The cast is representative of every grade level on campus from freshman to grad school. It ranges in experience from appearances in seven school productions to Northwestern audiences and is split 50-50 between independent and affiliated.
The director in addition to appearing in several workshop dramas has been seen as Hamm in “Endgame,” as Henry IV in “Henry IV, Part I,” and in the “Legend of Lovers,” “Sandhog,” and “School for Wives.” He took a directing class from Dr. Schneideman this summer and, last quarter, applied to Miss Krause to direct this play and was accepted.
Joy Hawkins, playing Isabella, a typical sweet young thing, is a direct contrast to Mr. Vitale. A freshman, with some experience in musical comedy in high school, this is her first appearance at this school.
For her the most impressive thing about workshop is trying out which is an experience in itself, whether you make it or not. It helps you to get your own interpretation of a part instead of trying to mimic others.”
Gary tried to make most of the character types relevant to our own society. for instance Isabella was modeled after a southern belle while Columbine, Isabella’s worldly friend played by Marsha Rodd, is modeled after a New Jersey gun chewing waitress.
On the other hand some of the characters have a long history in theatre. There is Arlecchino, portrayed by Richard Kovara, who is a basic servant type. In the beginning of this character’s existence he was a stupid lout, like the Dromios of “Comedy of Errors.”
Through the ages he was transformed into a witty, fast talker, although sometimes given a black mask on stage, Eddie Cantor. Al Jolson and Emmet Kelly are modern examples of this character.
Along the same line is Pedrolino played by Bud Beyer, who is a deaf mute in this play but whose ancestors and grandchildren can be seen in Pero in “Don Juan.” Felix Adler and other white faced clowns, and Charlie Chaplin.
Bud, a radio-TV major, claims that this part “develops comedy timing and forces quick thinking.”
Other characters include Dr. Gratiano, played by William Mumms, a learned, philosophical mind who can ponder for hours the proposition that “if a ship is on the high seas it cannot be said to be in port.” One gets the impression that he is a caricature of a college professor even though he was formulated in the early 15th century in Bologna.
There is also Pantalone, played by Tom Foral, a miserly octogenarian who is always ready to enter into “marriage type situations.”
And finally Captain Spavento, played by Doug Dudley, the bragging coward mentioned in the title.
Universally the actors praise the improvisational play as an excellent vehicle, one which every theatre major should participate in at one time or another.
On the other hand the particular part of the workshop theatre that they would pick out as worthy of note raises a multitude of opinions. “The experimental angle is best”; “you see every rehearsal is a performance”; “the close relationship with actor and director -- the freedom to criticize without fear of hurting someone”; or that it “gives a lot of people a chance to do different roles than they are used to. It’s a good training ground.”
While there were several comments about the fact that the audience for these productions is probably one of the more difficult to please. Richard Kovara claimed, perhaps rightly, that this is a good thing.
“I usually enjoy going to workshop more than UT because the plays are more for a college audience. The three presentations are on the same wave length with people who come to see and discuss theatre. The specialized audience is a good thing.”
Summing up, “The Love of One Captain” will, according to Gary Vitale, be “completely spontaneous the night of performance.” For the director, that night will culminate a successful college career, while for the younger members of the cast it may very well start one.