The Best of Carson

By Keenan, John | Stage Directions, April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Best of Carson


Keenan, John, Stage Directions


A hefty donation from a late TV legend keeps a theater program's aspirations running high.

The late Johnny Carson didn't graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's theater department; he majored in radio and speech, with a minor in physics. But that didn't stop Carson, a 1949 graduate, from helping out the theater department last year when he donated $5.3 million to the university's Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, which includes the university's theater department, as well as its art, art history, music, dance, film and new media departments. Of the donation, $4.3 million is to be set aside to renovate the 98-year-old Temple building, which houses the theater department's class spaces, 317-seat mainstage and 160-seat studio theater, while $1 million will be used to create an endowment that will be a source of funds for updating technical equipment in the future.

"That's supposed to be only for technology," says Heath Lane, technical director and assistant professor of theater technology. "So if the theater department needs to update lighting equipment, or if the film department needs a new camera, or if we need new software and things to use for productions, there's going to be a good chunk of money each year with that endowment to keep the theater department up with the current technology."

The department has already added a brand new Yamaha digital soundboard, which is used in both mainstage and studio theater productions. Lane points out. "But now, with this new money, we can carry it to the next level."

The theater department is located on the university's main campus in the heart of downtown Lincoln, Nebraska's capital city, within walking distance from a nationally recognized children's museum and a professional venue, the Lied Center for the Performing Arts, which brings in classical musicians, ballet, opera and the occasional touring show.

The founder of the department was H. Alice Howell, who taught at UNL from 1900 to 1940. Just 26 years old when she arrived at UNL to teach "elocution," Howell quickly established a drama club, which performed in a variety of locations. In 1915, she organized a school of drama, which staged plays under the name "University Players." The Players incorporated in 1919, giving them a professional status that allowed them to produce recently closed Broadway plays. The Howell Theatre, the school's mainstage, is named in commemoration of her.

Dallas S. Williams took the reins of the department in 1944 and led it through 1971. Williams also created the Nebraska Repertory Theatre in 1968, a group that employs actors and technicians. The Repertory Theatre, which runs a three-show summer slate, offers opportunities for UNL's students and faculty members to work with professional artists-in-residence.

Currently, the department has roughly 200 students, with about a 16-to-1 student-teacher ratio (closer to 10-to-1 for the design classes). There is a five-show season, not including the summer season at the Nebraska Rep or productions by Theatrix, a student-run production group that stages its own shows.

Nonrenewable departmental scholarships range from $ 1,000 to $4,000 annually. Undergraduate majors in theater and music may also elect to minor in musical theater. …

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