Tremendous support and dedication from NC State students, faculty and staff and the Triangle community have transformed University Theatre from a small community theater to a theater that sells over 12000 tickets most years. Through these combined efforts, audiences enjoy mesmerizing plays, such as the recent attractions of Rent and Alice in Wonderland.
In the beginning
University Theatre evolved from small workshops conducted by novelist and playwright Romulus Linney in Pullen Hall in the early 1960s. The Erdahl-Cloyd Union decided that the cultural offerings on the campus needed improvement and hired Linney to instruct and serve as writer-in-residence. When the Union decided that Pullen Hall wasnt adequate for the theatre, they contacted Phillip Eck of the University of Pittsburghs speech department to scout the campus for a better location. He and Linney discovered the old Thompson Gymnasium Building, which had been vacant since the opening of Carmichael Gym in 1961. Eck developed a design and architect Raymond Sawyer completed the transformation of the building from gym to theatre.
In 1963, Linney left and Ira Allen came in as theatre director. Thompson Theatres first season opened in 1964, with "Antigone," directed by Charles Stillwell, the theatres assistant director. He also directed "The Ladys Not for Burning," and Allen directed "The Zoo Story," "The American Dream" and "The Firebugs." Small but enthusiastic audiences attended the shows produced by local actors and students.
(Photos from Antigone, 1964)
Initially Thompson Theatre was to develop a professional repertory troupe of actors, adding four professionals each year until reaching twenty-four. The successful 1965-66 season included "The Glass Menagerie,"produced with only professionals, and "The Private Life of the Master Race" and "Hedda Gabler," which mixed students and local actors. This continued until 1967, when then-Governor Terry Sanford declared that the program would be self-sustaining as a non-academic function of the university, funded through receipts and paying costs from those funds. The professional troupe was abandoned and students and local actors produced the 1967-68 season.
Turmoil of sixties and seventies
In the summer of 1968, the Design School collaborated with Thompson Theatre to produce a successful intermedia show called "Orange Driver," using various types of visual presentations and complex sound effects mixed with actors and dancers. "Orange Driver" used five film projectors, thirteen slide projectors and over two thousand slides, coordinated by a converted telephone switchboard. The show packed houses for over thirty performances, and the entire 1968-69 season was devoted to intermedia. Gene Messick came on as assistant director and intermedia specialist, directing five shows, three original: "Ohm is Where the Art Is," "Conflict and Hope" and "Clickstop!"; and two adapted: "The Lesson," by Enesco, and Thurbers "The Last Flower." At the end of that season, concerned with the lack of student involvement the union hired John Andrews from Purdue University, Peter MacManus, and Hugh Naylor.
During the 1968-69 season, a volunteer student group called University Players performed several productions of traditional theatre, including "You Cant Take It With You," performed in the Erdahl-Cloyd Union and a show they performed in the dormitories, "Thurbers Carnival." University Playersand the new staff moved into Thompson Theatre at the same time in 1969, and presented "Black Comedy" and "Blood Wedding." Messick produced one intermedia show that year, then left the theatre after some conflicts with administration. The next year artistic director Jack Chandler joined the staff, and produced "Viet Rock," a rock musical about protesting the war that was entered into the American College Theatre Festival. The professional staff grew in the years that followed, and presented creative shows such as "Alice Construction Co.," where actors swung from trapezes, and the audience sat on scaffolding or wherever they could get a decent view.
In 1972, the new Student Center opened and the Student Center administration decided it was time for a more stable student theatre program. Jim Chestnutt joined as scenic and lighting designer, Shirley Owen Mannon as costume designer, and Greg Shriver as technical director. The talented group presented the well-received musical "The Me Nobody Knows" and the less-successful "!Heimskringla!"about the travels of Leif Erikson. In 1973, they hired Charles Martin, who came to Thompson with more educational theatre experience. Martin directed "Rhinoceros" and "The Lion in Winter" that season, both on a thrust stage arrangement. Martin, a Pennsylvania native, taught several theater classes at Appalachian State University. “I liked the idea of coming to a true theater where I was given the ability to do the necessary things to get it off on the right foot. It was an exciting time,” recalled Martin. He was surprised to discover that the university administration strongly supported the theater. “The university was growing very fast, and student fees were coming in fast,” said Martin. “They gave us a rather satisfying budget and we made sure that we used it to our advantage.”
The following year, Martin convinced the administration to set up two special courses, English 298 and 498 for the students to get academic credit for theatre work. Students had to write a paper to complete the course. The next year, the courses moved to the communications department, and the written paper abandoned. Under Martin’s guidance, participation in theater and enrollment in theater classes soared. In 1976 Terri L. Janney joined the staff as lighting and scenic designer and technical director. Dr. Burton Russell was hired by the communication department as a a director and professor in theatre arts. Dr. Patricia Caple came to Thompson Theatre as a communication professor in 1986.
The program continued to grow and produce successful shows through the 80s. Martin served as Thompson Theatre director until his retirement in 1990.
Nineties Bring More Changes
In 1990, the university administration hired John McIlwee, who had worked as a fashion designer in New York City, to succeed Martin. “Here in theater, students, like faculty, learn to be part of a team with obligations to fulfill. Other team members are helped or hindered because of each individual’s participation,” said McIlwee. “With a university that is science-based and research oriented, you wouldn’t expect to have a theater of our magnitude whose purpose is to provide a general education that coincides with students’ specific curriculums.”
(Photos from Bus Stop, the first production in Stewart Theatre)
In 1998, the staffs at Thompson Theatre and Stewart Theatre were combined to create University Theatre, and the theatre opened its first season that included presentations in Stewart Theatre. Although there was some uncertainty that the program could handle the 816-seat theatre, those doubts were quickly dispelled with the success of presentations such as "Bus Stop," "The Heiress, " "Once in a Lifetime," and this season’s "Dracula." University Theatre has evolved into one of the Triangle’s finest theaters. The News & Observer wrote in December 2000, “University Theatre had an especially strong year, pulling in the most bids from our critics for year-end bests” and Spectator Magazine named University Theatre “Best Collegiate Theatre in the Triangle.”
In 2007, the Thompson Theatre building closed for a major renovation. The building was gutted and rebuilt, preserving many of the historic structural architecture. It reopened in 2009 as Frank Thompson Hall, with two beautiful theatre spaces and other updated and well-equipped shops, classrooms, dressing rooms and rehearsal hall. The Crafts Center in the lower level was also renovated into a lovely and lively creative space.
Today the program is open to all NCSU students and over 300 students in varied majors are involved in productions. Through the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, students can receive a theater minor. Although the sky is the limit and the future is promising, our transition from a community theater to one of the Triangle’s most popular theaters has been years in the making. We like to think of it as our best production yet.
Sources for this section include a report by Alice Jeter, 1977.