Eric Baratta’s first theatrical role, back in his high school days, was in Shakespeare’s classic play, “Macbeth.”
Not a bad first experience on the stage.
But Baratta didn’t play the Scottish king. His debut was much more modest.
“I think I was a curtain-puller,” he says. “At some point, they needed an extra spear-carrier and there was a spoken line attached. I actually wrote my line on the spear.”
Despite the small-scale beginnings, Baratta developed a love for the theater. He went on to star in more significant roles, and studied theater as an undergraduate and also in graduate school at Villanova University.
From 1995 to 2002, Baratta worked in Penn’s Theatre Arts Program while pursuing graduate studies at PennDesign. When he graduated from Penn with two more degrees—a Master’s of Landscape Architecture and a Master’s of Science in historic preservation—Baratta left the University to work at the City Planning Commission, a county parks program and landscape architecture and design firms.
Then in 2007, Baratta got a call from Theatre Arts Faculty Director Rose Malague, who asked him to come back to Penn. This time, the job was to include teaching duties—which Baratta says was the impetus for him to take the position.
Earlier this year, Baratta was honored with a Models of Excellence Award, given annually to staffers who make significant contributions to the University. While Malague and the Models Award committee call him a “one-man band,” Baratta insists that the nature of his work is collaborative. “I rely on so many different people to do my position,” he says. “I may fill in a number of roles, but the roles I fill are not possible without the collaboration with many other people, both in our program and with excellent people on the staff of the Annenberg Center.”
The Current recently caught up with Baratta to talk about the connection between theater and landscape architecture, his role during student productions and the risks associated with live theater.
Q. What’s the connection between theater and landscape architecture/historic preservation? How did you move from one subject to another and back again?
A. As I progressed through the studies [in PennDesign], the connection to me was immediate. Both include designing for cultural space, both include designing within a context. One is the living world outside of buildings, and that’s also a very natural context, and the other is a very artificial context that’s equally alive, equally temporal, but usually inside of a building. My studies in landscape architecture and historic preservation infused what I teach in the ‘Introduction to Design’ class here at Penn. Understanding the relationship of objects to culture, understanding how people inhabit space, the opportunities that space and object afford to performance.
Q. You said the idea of teaching appealed to you. Had you taught before?
A. No, actually, I was a [teaching assistant] for John Dixon Hunt in the landscape architecture program. He was really my mentor over there, a terrific person, great teacher, inspiring. I’m sort of an advisor to all the students who come through here and all the students have to perform some backstage role with us during their time here to graduate, so I’m always teaching, but the opportunity to enter into a more formal teaching role was very appealing.
It is the ‘Introduction to Design’ course that we offer. My goal is to develop people as theater design critics, to develop them as historians through projects and it is also, obviously, to develop them as functioning practitioners or artists. All in one course—that’s a lot of work. Those are usually the reviews I get.
Q. What is your role during student productions?
A. Most of our productions are directed by faculty members and these are professionals with Ph.D.s who are accomplished both as actors and directors and they often have other talents. I work with the student body as well. The nature of the role I play is that I pretty much cover everything that isn’t done by someone else. What I enjoy most is having someone come in as a freshman and stay with us for a while and develop a relationship with them, and they gain confidence, they gain skills and they’re able to take on a significant role as a designer in one of the productions. ...
All areas of design, whether it’s scenic design, lighting design, costume design, have their own planning arcs that start well before the first rehearsal takes place. That often includes working with the director, script analysis and coming up with design concepts, and all of that is independent or separate from the rehearsal process with actors. My job as production manager is to coordinate those processes and to make sure they happen to culminate at a time and format that’s useful.
Q. What do you enjoy about theater?
A. There’s something very powerful and temporal about theatrical moments that don’t exist in other visual arts. They’re visual in a way that they don’t exist in music and they’re also very different from video and film because there’s the issue of living presence and the implicit risk and danger that’s involved with the nature of performance. Something can happen. Fire could start in the theater at any time, someone could forget a line, accidents could happen. There’s a certain thrill of seeing things happen on stage that are both very personal and very collaborative, because theater is also very collaborative in nature.
Q. What makes theater at Penn unique?
A. Penn’s theater environment is different than most theater environments. Our academic program is, in some way, in the context of a much larger context of student performing arts groups. In some ways, we sort of compete for the same resources, which can be very challenging at times. In any given semester, it just may happen that people will choose one production over another.
Traditionally, we perform in the Montgomery Theatre, a space that was designed as a small movie screening facility. One of the big challenges with working and designing here is that we are working within a context that was not designed for our use of it, which practically means there’s not a lot of offstage space. Translation: no offstage space. ... In some ways, our familiarity with the theater allows us to take chances.
This year we picked two plays that should not have fit in the Montgomery Theater, but they did. We made them fit.
There’s something very powerful and temporal about theatrical moments that don’t exist in other visual arts."
Q. Which plays were those?
A. In the fall, we did ‘Urinetown,’ which is a musical with about 20 people, and the spring production was ‘The Good Times are Killing Me,’ which also has about 20 people. These are not insignificant productions in terms of the amount of people on stage at any one time. We know the space and we know what we can do with it and I think we did a pretty nice job creating these worlds.
Q. I know it’s hard to pick favorites, but do you have especially meaningful productions that you’ve been involved in?
A. That’s a very tough question. Our recent production of ‘Urinetown,’ in many ways, was snake-bit from its inception. At a certain point, we lost the first director, the one who chose the production, for personal reasons, and during the first couple of weeks of the time we should’ve been rehearsing, we were looking for a new director. Someone from the program who was not accustomed to or experienced in directing musical theater stepped up to the plate and directed this play. We had a number of students who we thought would audition for this play who did not turn out to audition.
And even later on,[during] what we call our ‘tech weekend,’ we had a significant member of the cast have a heart attack. He was fine, he recovered completely, but he was not available to do the role, which involved climbing ladders and physical activity. We replaced him with an assistant stage manager and she did a great job. It was a production that was characterized by people facing adversity, people performing in roles that they were not necessarily comfortable with the day that they stepped into the role, but they brought those roles to life with aplomb, with a sense of purpose and with a big heart. In many ways, that is my favorite production given the arc of difficulty that characterized it.
Every production has its own little arc, has its own story, its own drama. Because you’re always moving onto the next one, you have to let go, too.
Q. Let’s talk about your Models of Excellence Award. It’s quite an honor. Was it unexpected?
A. I was very surprised. Honestly, a lot of people do excellent work on this campus and I have a job that I love doing. It’s not hard for me to do it—the work is hard, the time [commitment]can be long, but it’s a job that I love. ... In many ways, I create my position, so I don’t really feel like I am going beyond the call. I’m doing what I think needs to be done at any particular moment.
I’m very grateful to have the position, to be working with the students we have and with the close-knit group of people I work with on an ongoing basis. I feel quite blessed about having what I have.
Originally published on May 5, 2011