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Theater Studies

On July 1, 2001, the Drama Program officially became the Department of Theater Studies at Duke.

With this development our curriculum, major and minor requirements, and faculty changed and expanded in exciting ways. These changes marked the culmination of literally decades of effort.

Note: The following articles were published in the Spring and Fall 2000 issues of the Program in Drama newsletter and tell the story of the department.

Drama Program Celebrates 25 Years

In July, 1999, the Drama faculty submitted a proposal to convert the Program in Drama to a Department of Theater Studies. As this proposal is reviewed, the Program in Drama turns 25 years old. According to John Clum, currently the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the program, the past quarter century has seen enormous changes in the study of theater at Duke:  "In 1975 we were essentially a three-man operation.  I served as Director, Scott Parker was Technical Director, and Professor Kenneth Reardon of the English Department also taught courses.  Since then, the Program has grown to seven full-time, regular rank faculty, plus a number of part-time professional artists and instructors."

Clum has a unique perspective on the Program in Drama, being the only current faculty member present at its creation.  In the fall of 1972, Clum, then Associate Professor of English, was appointed chair of the Drama Planning Committee, formed in response to student interest in a drama department.  The committee's first proposal, submitted in the spring of 1973, called for the creation of a drama department which would include a chair, a director of undergraduate studies, one assistant professor, an actor-in-residence, and other visiting artists.  This initial proposal was turned down because it was too expensive. 

This was not the first time a drama department had been proposed at Duke.  Back in the 1950s, Kenneth Reardon, at the time faculty Director of Duke Players, had initiated plans for a Department of Speech and Drama.  During the same decade, Duke's Long Range Planning Committee was exploring the possibility of constructing an arts center; unfortunately, several events occurred which all but eliminated the possibility of constructing such a center. The Art Department acquired two art collections which needed to be housed immediately, so they were placed in the newly renovated Old Science Building on East Campus. Then the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building was constructed to house the Music Department, replacing the badly deteriorating Asbury Building. Thus, plans for a consolidated arts center evaporated, along with Reardon's hope for a department.

Clum recalls being disappointed by the 1973 decision against a drama department, but he was determined that the desire of Duke students to study drama and theater in depth would somehow be met. "At that time there were a number of serious theater students at Duke. These students wanted something that would better prepare them for a career in the professional theater."

The Drama Planning Committee went back to work and submitted a simpler and less costly proposal the following year for an Interdisciplinary Program in Drama. This second proposal called for the creation of a "Committee on Drama" to oversee the Drama Program. No additional personnel would need to be hired. Clum would serve as chair of the committee and Director of the Program, and Scott Parker would remain as Technical Director and General Manager of Duke Players. Kenneth Reardon would teach other drama courses, and artists-in-residence would round out the faculty. This proposal was accepted in 1974, and courses listed as "Drama" rather than "English" were first offered in 1975. 

Student response to the new Drama Program was overwhelming.  The first offering of Drama 101, Acting, attracted more than 40 students. Four more drama courses were offered in the summer and fall in response to student demand.  The Program was far more popular than even Clum would have predicted. "In light of the enormous numbers we saw enrolled in our first classes, our follow-up proposal for a drama major was quickly approved [in December, 1975]."  The first Duke undergraduates majoring in Drama were Charles Randolph-Wright '78, Deb Jung '78, and Jack Coleman '80.

The Program soon outgrew what the existing faculty could handle. In 1977, the Program got three artists-in-residence: a managing director (Richard Aumiller), a designer/technical director (Ron Regier), and a costumer (Doreen Wetzel).  Aumiller, Regier, and Clum shared the teaching and directing responsibilities for several years, but Clum describes the workload as heavy. "In the early 80s, I was directing four mainstage shows a year plus carrying a 3-3 teaching load. Dick Aumiller was doing the same. And, frankly, we were burning out. It was all we could do to keep up with the teaching and the production schedule. We had no time to plan for the future or think much about our mission as a program."

In 1985, David Ball was hired as Director of the Drama Program, bringing to a close the first chapter in its history under John Clum's leadership. Clum recalls that first decade as exhausting, but satisfying.

"For a number of years we had a thriving summer theater, an excellent production program, and a good academic program. I am especially proud of the high quality of the productions we staged in the late 70s and early 80s, with very limited resources. We did the best we could with what we had, and 'the best we could' was usually pretty good."

-- Dave Worster

1990s Bring New Growth to Drama Program

The year is 1985, and the Drama Program is in transition. According to Professor John Clum, Director of the Program from 1975 to 1985, "with the new Bryan Center open, the administration at the time wanted a greater number of connections between the Program and professional theater, links like Broadway Previews." So the University hired David Ball from Carnegie-Mellon in 1985. Ball in turn hired Robert Hobbs, who had a national reputation teaching graduate level acting at the University of Washington. Together, these two men oversaw the implementation of an "actor training sequence" for undergraduates at Duke. "Actor training became the absolute heart and soul of the Program," says Clum.

This conservatory-style approach was, by definition, exclusive; in fact, according to Dale Randall, Professor Emeritus of English and Drama, "we had students essentially auditioning to get into classes." Current Program Director Richard Riddell notes that Duke Players ended shortly after Ball arrived, possibly because the Duke Drama productions evolved into pre-professional experiences primarily for those who had been admitted into acting classes. Duke's academic structure also struggled to accommodate the rigorous acting schedule (classes, workshops, movement drills, rehearsals, often seven days a week). Under Ball's direction, the Program evolved (the New Works Festival began during his tenure) and strengthened its ties to the professional theater community. In 1991, Ball stepped down, and Dale Randall was appointed Interim Director.

Richard Riddell was hired in 1992. "The search committee was looking for a person with solid academic credentials, extensive practical theater experience, and demonstrable administrative ability," says Randall. "Richard, with his Ph.D. from Stanford and his Tony Award for Lighting Design, was a very strong candidate. I remember the day I took him on the campus tour. When we finished, he turned to me and said, 'I want to buy you some ice cream.' He was the only candidate who offered me ice cream."

Riddell recalls that he was charged essentially to correct the overemphasis on pre-professional actor training. "I was asked to integrate the program more fully into the larger liberal arts environment at Duke, to make the program more inclusive, to provide stability by building up the faculty, and to continue moving the Program toward departmental status," he says. "I give a lot of credit to Dale. He was a calming presence at a time when faculty and staff did not know what was going to happen next, and he kept the departmental process moving forward." He adds with a smile, "Also, then, as now, Dale as an English scholar promoted a deeper understanding of the need for proper punctuation."

During his first term (1992-99), Riddell made great strides in fulfilling his charge as Director. The number of full-time, regular-rank faculty grew from four to nine, and the curriculum was revised, particularly strengthening the areas of dramatic literature and playwriting. Theater Previews at Duke (formerly Broadway Previews) has produced four professional shows since 1993: Laughter on the 23rd Floor ,Kudzu, Eleanor: An American Love Story , and Birdy . "In February 2001, Theater Previews at Duke will co-produce A Thousand Clowns , starring Tom Selleck," explains Zannie Voss, a drama professor whom Riddell hired in 1996 as managing director of the professional arm of the Drama program. "Our student interns will have great opportunities to work alongside the professionals on every aspect of the production."

Having recently accepted an invitation to serve a second term as Director, Riddell articulates specific goals in the areas of faculty, curriculum, facilities, and programs. "We're moving toward departmental status, which, for us, means adding tenure-track positions. These appointments will begin in dramatic literature and theater history, then, we hope, move into other areas of theatrical art. On more of a personal level, I'm a designer, so I'd like to see us clarify and strengthen our approach to design." Riddell is also excited about the construction of a new drama center which would consolidate various facilities (performance and rehearsal spaces, classrooms, and offices) which are presently spread across both East and West campuses. Finally, he hopes to continue strengthening the Theater Preview series "both financially, by increasing outside support, and artistically, by building stronger links with artists and producers around the country."

Riddell sees all these goals as consistent with the mission of the Drama Program in the 21st century. "The research mission of the faculty is to be theatrical professionals and scholars, with their work making an impact in national and international arenas. The teaching mission is to focus on undergraduate education in a liberal arts context. At Duke, the study of theater attempts to bring together the scholarly investigation of history and literature with the theatrical production of works past and present."

"Attempts to bring together" could be the keynote phrase of Riddell's accomplishments to date. Dale Randall credits Riddell for his "democratic style of leadership," which gives everyone at the table a voice. "Richard is very positive, very inclusive," he says. "There's an extraordinary feeling of camaraderie in the Program now, of everybody pulling together."

John Clum agrees. "With Richard, the Drama Program has grown and earned a great deal of credibility with the administration. He has reached out to the larger Duke community. He has helped foster a healthy faculty culture as well as an excellent faculty. He has moved the Program forward with the proposal for departmental status."

That proposal takes center stage this year. After considering the proposal last year, the Academic Priorities Committee (which advises the Provost) urged the creation of a task force charged to explore the possibility of re-organizing and integrating the Drama, Dance, and Film and Video programs at Duke. "I welcome the integration question, because the creation of stronger ties between Drama and other Duke programs and departments has always been a long-term goal of the Drama Program," says Riddell. He cites the collaboration between Drama and the Classical Studies Department on the Duke Players' production of Helen last fall and between Drama, Dance, and Music on Carousel several years ago as examples of how successful such collaborative efforts can be. "Collaboration is good for the students and provides intellectual and artistic challenges for faculty across the board to re-examine and re-invigorate their own work. When scholars and artists work together, share knowledge, and create new knowledge together, everybody wins."

--Dave Worster

    • Duke Playbill: The Glass Menagerie, October 27-28, 1949
    • Photo Credit: Duke University Archives

The Glass Menagerie, October 27-28, 1949