Head of the Class

By McBain, Roger | Stage Directions, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Head of the Class


McBain, Roger, Stage Directions


Nestled inside this quiet Midwest campus lies one of the country's best theater training programs.

Owing to its unfortunate timing, we can only guess at the quality of a 1924 production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, staged as an extracurricular entertainment by Evansville College's Thespian Dramatic Society. A review in the April Fool's Day edition of the Crescent, the college's student newspaper, reported that the show "played before a pitifully small audience, which booed throughout the performance."

What we do know for certain is that in 1926, Pearl LeCompte, a new English teacher, addressed theater in earnest as part of a college drama program, setting the stage for what would, by the end of the 20th century, become one of the most prestigious undergraduate theater training programs in the nation.

Today, more than 1,500 students each year audition in a dozen cities around the country for 40 freshman spots in what has become the University of Evansville Theatre. The program, which has won eight national showcases in the Kennedy Center's American College Theater Festival, graduates about 35 students per year, awarding theater degrees in five areas of concentration: theater design and technology; theater education; theater management; theater performance; and theater studies, a generalist degree with studies in acting, directing, theater management, stage management, theater history, dramatic literature, theater criticism and dramaturgy. All UE Theatre graduates must complete classes in production techniques and a hands-on theater practicum, rotating through jobs in the scene shop, costume shop and theater management office on university productions over their four years.

University of Evansville Theatre students go on to the country's leading graduate training programs and work on and off-Broadway, in regional theater, film and television as well as in academia. Some of UE's best-known alumni include "Barney Miller's" Ron Glass, "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement" creators and producers Matt Williams and David McFadzean, daytime TV drama actress Kelli Giddish and Broadway actresses Carrie Preston and Mary Catherine Garrison. Design and management alumni work on Broadway, off-Broadway and in theaters across the country.

It all began with Pearl LeCompte's program, begun in 1926. LeCompte served as Evansville College's director of theater through 1947, directing three plays each season, including Eager Heart, an annual nativity drama with a live baby Jesus. After LeCompte's departure from the theater in 1947, several interim directors took over the next 10 years. Sam Smiley is credited with rejuvenating the program in 1957, guiding theater at Evansville College from academic productions by English majors to serious work by drama students trained to act, write, design, build, costume and produce plays.

For 10 years, Smiley's students staged plays in the Administration Hall Auditorium or the Quonset Hut, a 2,400-square-foot military surplus steel building shared with the school's Air Force ROTC. In 1966, an average of 2,000 seats were sold to Quonset Hut productions. In 1967, the year Evansville College became the University of Evansville, Shanklin Theatre, a new 486-seat thrust arena stage built to Smiley's specifications, opened with a production of Hamlet. John David Lutz, a 1964 alumnus who had returned to teach at his alma mater, played the title role.

Lutz has led University of Evansville Theatre since 1983, when he took over from Dudley Thomas, who served as department head after Smiley's departure in 1969. During Lutz's tenure, Shanklin Theatre has undergone a $2.3 million remodeling, refitting and expansion. The first phase, completed in 1990, saw new seats, wall treatments, carpeting, curtains and heating and air conditioning installed as well as 100 new lighting fixtures, a new sound system, state-of-the-art computer controls, and an infrared wireless hearing aid system with four headsets for theater patrons. …

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