Department of Theatre & Drama celebrating 100 years
James Earl Jones, Gilda Radner and “Glee” star Darren Criss were trained at the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre & Drama, at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, which this week begins celebrating its 100th anniversary with commemorative performances.
The yearlong “Theatre 100” celebration opens with a free performance Friday and Saturday of “Sun & Shadows: A Guatemalan Tale Projected on North Campus.”
The show’s unique feature involves giant shadow puppets projected on the outside glass walls of the Arthur Miller Theatre in the Walgreen Drama Center.
“The culmination of a semester’s worth of creativity in three different classes, this spectacular display of visual storytelling celebrates the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and kicks off our centennial celebration,” says Priscilla Lindsay, associate professor of theatre and drama, and chair of the Department of Theatre & Drama.
Actresses Christine Lahti and Lucy Liu, also program alumnae, are part of the 100th anniversary honorary committee.
The centennial celebrations continue next fall, Sept. 19 –Oct. 18, with most of the festivities taking place over Homecoming Weekend (Oct. 8-11). The events will also celebrate the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth, with performances of “All My Sons” and a three-day Miller symposium.
The “Sun & Shadows” performances kick off the celebration at 8:30, 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, and 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday. In the event of rain, performances will be moved to Studio 1 in the Walgreen Drama Center.
The 20-minute shows are based on a Guatemalen folk tale about the sun falling in love with a human girl. Giant puppets will appear between the six-foot space between the Walgreen building and the green glass that wraps around the building. Student actors provide the voices for characters and manipulate the puppets.
The production is based based on Martin Prechtel’s “The Disobedience Of The Daughter Of The Sun,” adapted by Gillian Eaton, assistant professor of performing arts. The production is a collaboration among the Introduction to Puppetry, Devising Theatre, and Lighting 1 classes.
“It demonstrates that as a department we have grown so much. We have international connections and we are one of the leaders on campus in terms of interdisciplinary work and the kinds of collaborations that we create,” Lindsay says.
U-M has offered theater classes for credit for 125 years. “It’s only since 1915 that we started calling ourselves a department, and began offering credit to be in a production and also offering classes in things other than acting, including costume design and lighting and set design. We’ve got an amazing history,” Lindsay says.
One department innovation, Lindsay says, was the creation in 1923 of the student-run Basement Arts group within the department. It continues today. “They choose their own plays and present their own productions. That’s where students like Gilda Radner learned,” she says.
More historical highlights include: 1952, when James Earl Jones was the first African American to give a lead performance in a department play; 1974, when the department became the only university to present Shakespeare’s entire canon of 36 plays; 1993, when its first Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees were offered; and 2007, when the Arthur Miller Theater opened.
“That opening was huge for us. It’s spectacular. It’s one of our biggest recruitment tools. It’s so fabulous and we love it, and it’s the only theater building named after Arthur Miller in the world,” Lindsay says.
Program organizers are hoping to entice alumni, including Jones to the October celebration.
“We’re so proud of them. They haven’t forgotten their roots. They love Michigan. It’s all about seeing old pals and rekindling friendships,” Lindsay says.
The department has throughout its history offered to young people in theater a chance to build the knowledge that can prepare them to succeed.
“It’s our job to infuse them with the kind of skills they’re going to need. They have to be determined, unafraid of rejection and willing to work hard to be consistent,” Lindsay says.