Act Three: Long Hours, Late Nights

When Harold Wolpert C’88 unpacked his bags as a Penn freshman, he’d already decided to take an unofficial leave from all things theatre. He’d been active in it throughout high school, but wanted a chance to find his footing at college before diving back into the stress of putting on a show. “That lasted about two days,” he says. His speedy change of heart came when a friend from high school—Seth Rozin C’86, who now works as producing artistic director for InterAct Theatre Company [“Alumni Profiles,” Jan|Feb 2004]—called Wolpert in desperate need of an assistant stage manager for his student group’s fall musical. Rozin cajoled, Wolpert relented, “and the rest is history,” Wolpert says now.

As luck would have it, he’d stumbled into one of the oldest and most celebrated student performance groups at Penn—one that boasts 19-time Tony Award-winner Harold Prince C’48 Hon’71 among its alumni: Penn Players. Founded in 1936 as the first coed performance group on campus, Penn Players is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year—a milestone that takes Wolpert back to his own Penn days, during which the group turned 50 and, as chairman, he produced the musical, Company (the original Broadway production of which was directed by Prince, as it happens). He still has the poster from that performance; it hangs in his office at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, where Wolpert serves as managing director.

While the theatre program divides its curriculum between practice and theory, its student theatre groups are all about hands-on learning and performance. In student theatre, there are no class credits and no experienced professors to help in a crisis; there are just other students, often equally unprepared or inexperienced or overwhelmed. Still, the University’s student theatre groups remain the school’s oldest theatrical breeding ground, and have produced a host of successful alumni who still work in the industry.

Penn Players is just one of 10 theatrical student groups at Penn, all of which fall under University Life Arts Initiatives. From classic musical theatre to Shakespearean classics to cutting-edge experimental performances, “you name it, they’re producing it,” Furman says. Each group has its own constitution and executive board, and—save for the occasional professional director—they do it all themselves, from submitting a budget to ordering lumber for the set to selling tickets on Locust Walk.

“I’ve often said that many of the skills I developed in Penn Players are the ones I use today, only now I have a bigger budget,” Wolpert says. “Working with Penn Players, I learned about management skills, personnel management, problem solving, critical thinking—many of the things that happened then, I experienced in some way years down the road. It was very good training.”

It’s also a lot of work. Rehearsals can require anywhere from 10 hours a week and up—closer to 30 when a performance date nears—and almost always occur at night. Wolpert still remembers saying a quick hello to his non-theatrical roommates when he got home at 11 p.m. after rehearsals; they were headed to bed, he was about to start studying. And yet he kept doing it, as have thousands of students both before and after him. (In fact, Wolpert says the semester he took off from theatre was actually his worst academically. Go figure.)

Rachel George, a junior majoring in cognitive science and the current Penn Players chair, says the experience is as much about friendship as it is about theatre. “We spend so many hours together, and after the show, you miss these people, so you get involved in another show,” she says. “That’s what happened to me. It’s like we’re all part of a family.”

That sense of kinship extends beyond individual groups, she says, since many students are involved in several groups’ productions, often simultaneously. George, for instance, was making paper flowers for Quadramics’ upcoming Little Shop of Horrors production while producing Penn Players’ spring play; another student, the head of the Quadramics board, was playing the lead in the Players show. “Lines aren’t really drawn between groups,” George adds. “Penn theatre is a community, and we all try to support each other. Putting on a show is a very stressful experience, and you need people to give and take. We’ll often say stuff to each other like, ‘You used a really nice bed last semester, where can we get that for our show?’”

And while there’s plenty of stress to go around—popular culprits include lack of funds, lack of time, and lack of sleep—students say any strife is worth it in the end. “Ultimately, the project and the product are theirs,” Furman adds, “and they wouldn’t have it any other way.”

But it’s not only the students who are proud of what they do. There’s Marcia Ferguson, sitting in her Annenberg office, glowing like a new mother after her Good Times production’s sold-out final performance. There’s Rachel George, proudly reciting that age-old mantra that “the show must go on,” no matter how many obstacles arise. And there’s Mike Rose, ticking off the miles-long list of world-class performance troupes who’ve graced the Annenberg stages over the years—and those who are coming soon.

They’re all eager to see how the new Penn Theatre Initiative could revolutionize their shared passion. “As far as I know, this is a very unique model for Penn, which makes it even more exciting,” Furman says. “If it works, we’ll talk about continuing it for theatre, and possibly extending it to other areas of the arts, too.”

“For now,” he adds, “all eyes are on us.”


Frequent Gazette contributor Molly Petrilla C’06 also writes the magazine’s arts&culture blog.

 


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FEATURE: Penn Theatre: A Work in Three Acts by Molly Petrilla
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

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