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100 Years of Theatre at UAlbany

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February 4, 2010

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UAlbany Presents Picasso at the Lapine Agile

UAlbany students' performance of Picasso at the Lapine Agile in 2008.

Schedule of Performances

Scene shop supervisor John Knapp (B.A. '94) was digging through records in the Jarka and Grayce Burian Theatre Reference Library when he discovered an historical nugget: in 1910, the first student play was performed at UAlbany, then known as the New York State Normal School.  In a photo of the play, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, the female students wear puffy hats and long skirts, and the males brandish swords and sport three-cornered hats.

The University at Albany kicks off its centennial anniversary of theatrical productions with a series of performances beginning February 18 with 10 for 2010: Celebrating 100 Years of History.

UAlbany has one of the oldest theatre programs in the nation, according to Andi Lyons, chair of the Department of Theatre. "We appear to have been the second or third to offer courses in drama," said Lyons.

The department has its roots in the Dramatics course first offered by the Department of English in 1915. Agnes E. Futterer, '16, most likely took that course in her senior year, according to Geoffrey Williams of the University Libraries. She studied at Columbia and the American Academy of Dramatic Art before returning to Albany to teach in the fall of 1917. Futterer became a highly respected professor of English and drama whose influence was felt for more than 40 years.

"She really was a leader in theater education," said Lyons, who teaches lighting design and technology among other courses.

Futterer was a speech and voice teacher to generations of aspiring actors, including Harold Gould, '47. Jarka Burian, a leading expert on Czech theatre who taught at UAlbany for almost 40 years, knew Futterer as well.

The English department continued to offer courses in drama and theatre until 1963, when the Department of Speech and Dramatic Art was created. In 1969, the department was dissolved and the Department of Theatre was established.

Knapp's discovery led to the idea to bring UAlbany Theatre Department alumni back to campus to celebrate 100 years of illustrious productions.

"We need to reach out to our alumni to encourage them to support us just as we supported them when they were students," Lyons said.

The schedule gets underway with 10 for 2010 from February 18-21st. Students take center stage beginning Friday, March 12 for “Plays in Process,” This play development lab provides student playwrights the opportunity to develop their works with actors and directors, culminating in a staged reading.

The season culminates with Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which will be performed on three weekends beginning April 16th, with a special Saturday matinee exclusively for alumni on April 24. Professor Emeritus of English and alumnus Arthur Collins, B.A. '48, returns to campus to play Francis Nurse. In addition, Professor Emeritus James Leonard, who taught acting here for many years, will be appearing in the role of Judge Hathorne. Grayce Burian will play Rebecca Nurse.

UAlbany's First Theatrical Production, Sheridan's The Rivals, from 1910

UAlbany's first student production, from 1910, Sheridan's The Rivals.

A sampling of successful alumni reveals that UAlbany Theatre graduates design scenery for Broadway plays, create and help run theatres, and do everything from playwriting and lighting to stage production. Like Gould, who earned a bachelor's degree in social studies, they weren't all theatre majors. Yet they have used the skills they gained in the department on the stage of life.

A short list includes:

  • Tom Sullivan, B.A. '83, engineering manager for Hudson Scenic Studio Inc. of Yonkers, perhaps the premier provider of scenery and automation for Broadway.
  • Emile Benardot, B.A. '91, a pediatrician in Malone, N.Y., who credits his Theatre training with strengthening his public speaking skills and bedside manner.
  • Stephen Adly Guirgis, B.A. '90, John Ortiz, and John Gould Rubin, B.A. (in Spanish), '73, started the acclaimed LAByrinth Theater, which is regularly mentioned in The New York Times.

"Theatre is all about networking," said Lyons, who tells the story of how Scott Conn, B.A. '97, and production manager for the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, hired another UAlbany alum, Jennifer Cicelsky (B.A. '98) out of 150 applicants because he had worked with her at UAlbany and knew the quality of her work.

Lyons is confident the love of theater instilled in students by Agnes Futterer and Jarka Burian and their successors will draw alumni back to campus for the 100 Years of Theatre celebration and its many events.

"People really care about this department. Most theatre people are especially passionate about their work," said Lyons. "Former students come back 10 years later and tell us, 'I wouldn't have my career without UAlbany.'"

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