Last week's seismic political events changed for all times election paradigms: how to reach voters, raise money, organize supporters, manage the media, track and mold public opinion. Many in Delaware, the U.S. and the world joyously welcome Barack Obama and hometown hero Joe Biden. At home, Delaware native Jack Markell bucked the entrenched Democratic monolith and beat a popular and well-respected insider.
Now, a visionary for change in theatre is quietly altering similar archaic models for professional theatre at the University of Delaware.
Last Friday evening the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) debuted their first production, Irish playwright Brendan Behan's "The Hostage" at the stunning Roselle Center for the Arts.
UD now joins the exclusive and elite fraternity of universities with their own professional acting companies. This prestigious list includes Harvard, UNC, Yale and Brown, among others.
Sandy Robbins, 58, Artistic Director of the REP and Director of Training for the MFA Program - the heralded Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) - explains: “The economy has made us re-think how professional theatre can be nurtured. Universities, with their libraries for dramatic research, their museums and their theatres are perfect laboratories for theatre's growth. We will work to engender professional companies in similar settings as we are substantiating our own.”
Robbins was recruited by then UD President Trabant in 1988 to bring his entire 12-member masters staff here from Wisconsin and set up shop in a former girls' gym on campus, now the Hartshorn Theatre. It was entitled the PTTP.
The model he created admitted an MFA class every four years. The students would choose one of three paths: acting, stage management or technical production. Admission to this graduate conservatory is quite competitive and most have gone on to professional careers.
“While The Hartshorn is a wonderful theatrical space,” says Robbins, ”there is no doubt that without the acclaim accorded the PTTP through the years, the Roselle Center would be only a dream. Our program led to major contributions for the destination center that we enjoy presently.”
Robbins' long-term strategic plan was for a professional company comprised of PTTP graduates. It was a merry coincidence his vision and that of incoming President Harker's creation of a global "Path to Prominence" for UD dovetailed. Delaware has long been considered one of America's best public universities. Harker wants more, as does Robbins.
“Operating like two sides of a single coin, the PTTP and the REP are each distinctive aspects of one artistic mission that manifests itself in a theatre organization that is greater than the sum of its parts,” Robbins says.
The REP has a salutatory influence on UD's undergrad programs. Three new classes in performance, theatre studies (literature) and theatre production will be taught by the pros of the REP.
Robbins' intense work over the past two decades will establish UD as a nationally important force in the performing arts and ensure that the Roselle Center becomes a vital regional cultural asset.
Robbins explains that The Hostage was selected to open this "brave new world," for it had “the appropriate celebratory spirit to launch our enterprise.” Behan, the author, writes that it is a play full of music and dancing and songs and, once in a while, a serious thought to take home.
It is also full of great possibilities for ensemble acting.
The major theme of The Hostage, set in the 1960 Border Campaigns of the I.R.A., tells of Irish youth caught up in and threatened by the conflicts of an older generation. Hmmm... sounds strangely similar to my senior year at UD, 1969, when another wartime acronym (SDS) Students for a Democratic Society, took over the Perkins Center for a weekend!