Theatre has a long, rich—and somewhat obscure—history at the University. A new initiative aims to help Penn’s professional, academic, and student performing arts entities do more to work together and raise their collective visibility on campus and beyond.
BY MOLLY PETRILLA
The spring of 1886 was an exciting time for Penn thespians and theatregoers. A group of students had decided to perform Aristophanes’ 425 BCE play The Acharnians, and they didn’t take it lightly. They created detailed costume plans and appointed a special committee to oversee production of the play. They memorized their lines in the original ancient Greek, and had music composed by a professor in the music department. They spent $4,000—about $94,000 in today’s money—constructing sets and having spears and swords specially cast and authentic leather and metal armor made. Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering photographer of motion, took rehearsal pictures that were later published in Harper’s Magazine. The New York Times ran an article about the production the day before it opened, and more than 3,000 people—many of them prominent academics—came to see the students perform. It was a big deal.
Exactly 125 years later, theatre at Penn is still a serious undertaking, and it’s now taking center stage. The University’s three theatrical entities—its theatre-arts program, its student performance groups (under the auspices of University Life Arts Initiatives), and the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts—have joined forces to strengthen the impact and visibility of theatre at Penn, and to provide “an all-around richer experience,” in the words of Ty Furman GrEd’08, director of University Life Arts Initiatives. “We want people to know that theatre is alive and well at Penn,” he says, “and we want to raise its profile and visibility.”
Calling it simply “the Penn Theatre Initiative,” the three groups are hoping to raise $420,000 in three years—funding that they will begin to use this coming fall. “We’ve been working together informally for a long time,” says Michael Rose, managing director of the Annenberg Center, “but this is the first time we’ve gotten together to raise funds for a project. It’s a great opportunity to show that collaboratively we can provide even more opportunities for students and faculty to work together and offer even better productions and related programming.”
A preview of what the future holds for Penn theatre came this past fall when the Annenberg Center hosted performances of The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Knowing the importance of the plays’ subject matter—the first chronicles life in the town of Laramie, Wyoming, just after openly gay college student Matthew Shepard’s brutal 1998 murder and the second explores a return there 10 years later—Penn’s theatre entities put together a full six weeks of programming centered around them. In addition to two performances of each play, those offerings included a talk on “Theatre for a New Millennium” by Moisés Kaufman, the Tony- and Emmy-nominated director and playwright who directed The Laramie Project; a “queer art” alumni panel discussion at the Platt Student Performing Arts House; and technique workshops and post-show talks with the Laramie theatre company, Tectonic Theater Project.
“We wanted to use Laramie as a model for what we can do when we all work together,” Furman says. “We want to do a better job looking at what the Annenberg Center is [presenting] and then figuring out all the ways we can engage students to make the experience last past the performance. We also want to let the rest of the community—faculty, staff, and the average Joe Student—know that theatre’s cool.”
The new initiative will help fund theatre residencies and master classes, workshops and lectures, community-engagement endeavors, and various other projects. It will also allocate what Furman calls “a small pot of money” to each strand of Penn’s theatre community—its academic program, its performance center, and its student performers—to use however they see fit; the rest of the funds will go toward joint efforts.
Here’s a closer look at the entities who’ve banded together to bolster theatre at Penn—a trifecta that many say is more vibrant than ever. (Even without the Greek armor reproductions and Harper’s photo shoots.)
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FEATURE: Penn Theatre: A Work in Three Acts by Molly Petrilla
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette