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Theatre at Davidson Has Traversed Many Stages in Its 50 Years

by Robert Abare '13
1960s Theatre Production
Scene from a 1960s theatre production.

The Davidson College Theatre 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, Oct. 25-27 and Nov. 1-2, in the Duke Family Performance Hall. The gender-bending comedy follows a convoluted romance during a boisterous holiday.

  • Reckless, a play by Craig Lucas, will be shown in the Barber Theatre from Nov. 13-17. Rachel, the main character, flees for her life to begin a journey of whimsical fortunes and nightmarish tragedies.
  • Mr. Marmalade heralds springtime in the Barber Theatre from Feb. 19-23. Written by Noah Haidle, this zany comedy featuring emotionally disturbed children focuses on four-year-old Lucy, whose only real friend is also New Jersey's youngest suicide case.
  • IRL: In Real Life will be produced in the Barber Theatre Feb. 27-28. This R.N. Sandberg play focuses on a group of four school friends who become embroiled in a case of cyber bullying.
  • Providence Gap, conceived and written by Preston Lane and North Carolina singer-songwriter Laurelyn Dossett, will be performed in the Duke Family Performance Hall March 26-30. Dossett will make a guest appearance to perform original bluegrass music for the production, which celebrates Appalachia through myriad characters in brothels, traveling bands, struggling farms and the trenches of World War I.

"I think the theatre faculty and staff are particularly ambitious this year," said Associate Professor and Chair of Theatre Sharon Green. "We've compiled a season that's going to challenge the students who work on these shows and the audiences who attend them."

A Rich History

Davidson's theatre 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 the teaching of drama. Professor of English Edward Erwin offered one of the college's first formal theatre outlets for students with the creation of the Dramatic Club in 1920, and English professors John Sneden and Charles Goodykoontz cultivated drama in Davidson's curriculum and community during the early 1960s.

Rupert Barber
Rupert Barber joined the Davidson faculty in 1963 as the first professor in the new theatre department, and led the department until his retirement in 1998.

The hiring of the late Rupert T. Barber in 1963 as the college's first professor of theatre inaugurated theatre as an academic department. 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 that Rupert was passionate about his work, though it was often difficult to manage. "Building the theatre department was stressful at times, but he loved working with students and believed that experiences in theatre could equip a person for life, even if they weren't going into the theatre profession."

Davidson alumnus Joe Gardner '69 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 theatre," 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 Theatre Center in 2008 have allowed theatre faculty and students to present their works to the public in state-of-the-art spaces.

Theatre Production of Guys and Dolls
Construction of the Duke Family Performance Hall in connection with the Knobloch Student Center has allowed the Theatre Department to stage large-scale productions such as last year's "Guys and Dolls."

"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 theatre productions. "Rupert would be thrilled with that space," said Carol Barber. "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 theatre at Davidson has remained constant. "We-the Theatre Department staff and faculty-see ourselves as educators, artists and scholars. 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."