By Robert Abare
The Davidson College Theater Department will celebrate its 50th anniversary season with an admired Shakespearean play, zany comedy, gripping drama and a quirky Appalachian-inspired musical.
The season begins with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” on Oct. 25-27 and Nov. 1-2 in the Duke Family Performance Hall. Other performances include “Reckless (Nov. 13-17),” “Mr. Marmalade (Feb. 19-23, 2014),” “IRL: In Real Life (Feb. 27-28, 2014)” and “Providence Gap (March 26-30, 2014).”
“I think the theater faculty and staff are particularly ambitious this year,” said Sharon Green, associate professor and theater chair. “We’ve compiled a season that’s going to challenge the students who work on these shows and the audiences who attend them.”
Davidson’s theater offerings have blossomed since their earliest days, when students in the 1800s were forced to perform Shakespeare plays off campus because the college’s charter did not condone drama. English professor Edward Erwin offered one of the college’s first formal theater outlets for students with the creation of the Dramatic Club in 1920. English professors John Sneden and Charles Goodykoontz cultivated drama in Davidson’s curriculum and community during the early 1960s.
The hiring of the late Rupert T. Barber in 1963 as the college’s first theater professor inaugurated theater as an academic department in the curriculum. The department now includes seven faculty and two state-of-the-art performance venues.
Barber recruited his wife, Carol, to design and build costumes for the early productions. She remembers it as a challenging assignment.
“I had no training in costume design, though I was taught to sew as a child,” she recalled. “It was especially difficult to master men’s 17th and 18th century coats. They were so elaborate!”
Carol said Rupert was passionate about his work, though it was often difficult to manage.
“Building the theater department was stressful at times, but he loved working with students and believed that experiences in theater could equip a person for life, even if they weren’t going into the theater profession,” Carol said.
1969 Davidson alumnus Joe Gardner was Barber’s student before returning to Davidson in 1975 to teach alongside him.
“Barber instilled in me and other students an excitement and wonder in theater,” said Gardner, who has now taught in the department for more than 35 years,
Barber and Gardner made use of a meager production budget and limited performance space to produce three to six student plays per year. The facilities have been tremendously improved since that time.
The opening of the 650-seat Duke Family Performance Hall in 2001, and renovation of the Cunningham Theater Center in 2008 have provided state-of-the-art venues for theater faculty and students to present their works to the public.
“We offer shows in the Duke Family Performance Hall and Rupert T. Barber Theatre that we couldn’t have imagined when I first started teaching here,” Gardner said.
Green, who joined the faculty in 1999, also applauded the evolution of the productions.
“Increasing the capabilities of our facilities made possible a tremendous leap in the quality of our productions,” she explained. “New facilities have shifted how the directors imagine their productions. The creativity involved in these productions has skyrocketed.”
The Barber Theatre features fly space, lighting grids, and a flexible seating arrangement that allow for a wide variety of theater productions.
“Rupert would be thrilled with that space,” Carol Barber said. “He had always envisioned a renovated performance venue with those capabilities.”
Despite the many improvements in facilities and increase in personnel, Green believes the guiding principle of theater at Davidson has remained constant.
“We – the theater department staff and faculty –see ourselves as educators, artists and scholars,” Green said. “We choose to produce shows that offer creative challenges for everyone involved, and at the same time pose challenging questions to the campus and surrounding communities.”
Robert Abare works in Davidson College’s communications department.