In varying degrees, theatre has been a part of the Virginia Tech tradition almost since the University’s founding in 1872 as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC).
The Early Years - Extracurricular Theatre
1876 - 1891 - The earliest recorded theatre event occurred in 1876 when a student drama group calling itself The Old Virginia Minstrel Troupe presented performances on the nights of April 28 and 29 of that year. They evidently were well received, for the school yearbook comments: "We hope they will amuse us again." Informal theatre activity appears to have been pursuedt throughout the 1870s and 1880's
1892 - 1929 - In the 1892-1893 school year the first formal theatre group was organized and recognized as an extra-curricular student organization–the VAMC Thespian Club. When the school adopted a new name in 1897 (Virginia Polytechnic Institute), the theatre group became the VPI Thespian Club. During the early years of the twentieth century, the Thespian Club was a strong component of the extra-curricular life of the University, presenting two or three scripted productions each academic year. However, in the ‘teens and twenties, enthusiasm declined, and the VPI Thespian Club was abandoned in the late twenties, to be replaced by the VPI Dramatic Society–an organization that established no more permanent tradition than its predecessor.
Growth of Theatre Activity
1930 - 1937 - It was not until the early 1930s, when Selden Heath (a Blacksburg innkeeper with no official ties to the University) organized a student dramatic society, that theatre was once again recognized as an integral component of school life. However, it was really with Heath’s six immediate successors that the Virginia Tech theatre tradition was firmly established. In the academic year 1936-1937, Heath’s dramatic society was officially named the Tech Players, with Prof. Homer J. Cleary as its director, and theatre once again became an official part of the University.
1938 - 1941 - Following Cleary’s one-year organizing effort, Prof. W. D. D. Smith of the English Department assumed the directorship. Smith had some theatre training and successfully developed a large following among students, faculty, and townspeople devoted to the two or three productions he directed each academic year. Before Smith left the University in 1941, he had re-established theatre as animportant part of the extra-curricular fabric of student life. As well, he instituted two theatre organizations that still exist today–the undergraduate student theatre club, the Maroon Mask (successor to the Tech Players) and a chapter of the National Theatre Honor Society, Alpha Psi Omega.
1940s-1965 - Following a one-year directorship of the Maroon Mask by Prof. Wilbur Stout, the man who guided the theatre fortunes of the University for next twenty years–Prof. J. Philip Milhouse–was hired as a part-time English professor and part-time Director of Dramatics after achieving his MFA in Theatre from UNC–Chapel Hill. Working with his wife, Anne (an unofficial and unpaid scenic/costume designer and technical director), Phil Milhouse staged three shows per year in Burruss Auditorium (3,000 seats on a single floor) and so developed theatre at the University that, by the late 1940s, student membership in the Maroon Mask had reached to some 175. Milhouse also introduced basic theatre courses into the English curriculum. However, with no prospects for achieving appropriate funding for theatre productions and a proper theatre production facility, Phil Milhouse regretfully resigned in 1961. His successor in Milhouse’s same part-time roles, Prof. Bob Mardis, led the theatre program at the University until 1965, enhancing the Tech theatre tradition by staging productions from the Classics to the Avant-Garde and recruiting a strong patron base. For two years following Mardis’ departure, E. Don Alldredge (also serving in the dual academic capacities as had Milhouse and Mardis) gave new direction to Tech theatre by forming University Theatre as the producing agent for the Maroon Mask. And, for the first time, a true theatre budget was allocated for the production of plays–three per academic year.
1965-69 - 1965 and 1967 were watershed years for theatre at Virginia Tech. In 1965, the University underwent its usual ten-year re-accreditation review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). In its 1967 accreditation evaluation report, SACS recommended twice that if the Tech wished to achieve major university status, it must establish strong academic and public performance programs in the arts. In 1967, the University responded to these recommendations by conducting national searches for qualified individuals to inaugurate and develop academic and production/performance programs in music and theatre (a visual arts program was already established in the College of Architecture). An Assistant Professor at Tulane University, Dr. Tony Distler was offered the position of Associate Professor of Theatre Arts and Director of Theatre to build an academic theatre department. Distler requested that a scene designer/technical director also be hired. Another national search was conducted, and Distler and Alldredge agreed on the hiring of Don Drapeau for the position. Don was Director of the Theatre Program at High Point College.. New course proposals were approved and became the basis for the BA in Theatre Arts. Thus, the academic theatre program at Virginia Tech was inaugurated in September, 1967 with two (Distler and Drapeau) and one-half (Alldredge) theatre faculty members, along with one half-time secretary and one part-time staff costumer. All were housed in the Department of English. For the theatre and music faculty members, their being housed in the Department of English was not an productive arrangement. As a result, both the fledgling arts programs were removed from English and designated as the Fine Arts Program (a non departmental status, but reporting directly to the Dean of Arts & Sciences–A&S), with Distler as its Director, in July, 1968.From 1968 through 1970, the theatre component of the Fine Arts Program thrived. As well, speech communication courses from English were gradually being shifted to Theatre Arts as its faculty grew during these years.
The Performing Arts and Communications (PAC) Years
1970-80 In the Spring, 1970, the BA in Theatre Arts was approved by the University and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). A department had to be created to serve as the academic home for the new degree, and a Department of Theatre Arts seemed the obvious choice. However, three other circumstances necessitated a different type of departmental designation and configuration: (a) the music program was not yet strong; (b) the University desired to move all speech communication courses from English (as did the department itself); and (c) the University had to locate an academic department in which to situate its staff photographers and videographers. As a result, on July 1, 1970, the Department of Performing Arts and Communications (PAC) was established, with the three programs of theatre arts, music, and communications (speech and photography/videography) in A&S. Distler was appointed Head of the new department, and Don Drapeau accepted the position of Director of Theatre Arts.
The first two Theatre Arts majors received their diplomas in June, 1971, and the theatre program was off and running. But, so were the music and communications components of the PAC. In June, 1974, SCHEV approved the introduction of a BA in Music, effective in the Fall, 1974, and SCHEV also approved a BA Communications degree for the Fall, 1975. To say the least, the arts and communications at Virginia Tech were humming.
Graduate work in theatre was approved by SCHEV in June, 1976, for inauguration in the Fall, 1978. The "terminal" MFA degree program offered by Tech would have several tracks: (a) design (scenic, costume, and lighting); (b) technical theatre; (c) children’s theatre/child drama; (d) directing; and (e) arts administration/stage management. Actor training was purposefully omitted from the MFA so that the total focus of actor training would remain in the BA. Enrollments for both the BA and MFA in Theatre Arts were very robust for the 1978-1979 academic year–a pattern that continues up until today.
From PAC to the School of the Arts
1980-2002 - The next major evolution in Theatre Arts occurred in July, 1980. With the Department of Performing Arts and Communications now having some 55 faculty members, 11 staff members, and separate degree programs in music, theatre, and communications, PAC had outgrown its status as a single department. The result was that separate Departments of Communication Studies, Music, and Theatre Arts were created as non-allied departments in A&S. The Department of Theatre Arts was Headed by Tony Distler on an interim basis.
By the 1982-1983 academic year, it was clear that both the theatre and music programs were needlessly spending down their budgets by separately publicizing music and theatre concerts/performances that had previously been jointly or sequentially publicized through the unified Public Relations Office of the PAC. The then Dean of A&S determined that the Departments of Music and Theatre Arts should be reunited, and he created the Division of Performing Arts in July, 1983. Tony Distler was appointed Director of the Division, with Don Drapeau, Head of Theatre Arts and John Husser, Head of Music. This administrative configuration continued into the late 1980s, when major budget cuts demanded by the State caused the University to consider administrative consolidations, one of which was the creation of a School of the Arts (SOTA) that would amalgamate the visual arts, music, and theatre. The process of creating SOTA extended through the late 1980s and the early 1990s, with its eventual establishment on July 1, 1996, at which time the Division of Performing Arts ceased to exist. Distler was appointed Director of SOTA, with Drapeau continuing as Heads of Theatre Arts.
The late 1980s and early to mid 1990s also saw some major changes within the theatre department–changes that were occasioned both by the budget squeeze and by some long range planning. The child drama/children’s theatre option in the MFA Program was dropped, leaving the design/tech, stage management, directing, and arts administration emphases as the focus of the MFA.Equally sweeping changes occurred in the undergraduate degree program in the mid 1990s. After two to three years of study and debate by the faculty and staff, the BA was overhauled and reshaped to become more practically oriented, with the inclusion of many studio courses in the design/tech and the performance training areas. Most of these specialized studios were (and are still) team-taught.
Moving to the Future 2002 - present
With the retirement of Don Drapeau in 2002, long-time faculty member, Patricia Raun was appointed a Head of the Department of Theatre Arts. In the following year when Tony Distler retired, Raun also was appointed Interim Director of the School of the Arts. This administrative situation lasted from 2003 - 2008 when the School of the Arts was divided across colleges becoming the School of Performing Arts and Cinema (with Raun named as Director) in the recently formed College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences); and the School of Visual Arts (in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies).
The university underwent sweeping structural changes in 2004 and 2005. More attention and support was focused on educating the whole person. Increased support was given to all of the creative disciplines on campus. Four faculty with expertise in cinema studies and production from other departments across campus were relocated into the Department of Theatre Arts making it a department of 21 faculty and 5 staff. The theatre faculty unanimously voted to welcome their new colleagues and rename the department the Department of Theatre and Cinema.
Facilities Through the Years
Productions from 1967-1969 were staged in a 300 seat proscenium theatre that was rented from one of the campus ministries, just off campus. In February, 1970, the theatre program inaugurated a state-of-the-art 500 seat proscenium theatre (now called the Haymarket Theatre) on campus with a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The following year, the program moved into the Performing Arts Building that contained a 70-100 seat flexible black box theatre. And, in the Fall, 1990, the theatre program inaugurated yet another state-of-the-art theatre–a 220 seat thrust theatre–with rotating productions of The Sea Gull and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Squires Studio Theatre and the Haymarket Theatre are still utilized to mount many of each season’s 18 productions. In the fall of 2010 the Department of Theatre and Cinema moved its operations into the newly renovated Henderson Hall and the newly constructed Theatre 101. Theatre 101 replaced the former black box theatre and was the first LEED certified building on the campus.
From its inception in the Fall, 1967, the modern-day theatre program at Tech has been heavily and philosophically committed to the notion that theatre productions serve as the laboratories for what is taught in the classroom and the studios. And quality is the sine qua non of these productions–whether main stage, studio, or workshop. A measure of this quality is affirmed by the following achievement. During the 24 academic years in which Virginia Tech entered productions into the nationwide American College Theatre Festival, 16 of those 24 productions were chosen for presentation at the Regional Festival, and three of those 16 were chosen for presentation at the National Festival in the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
Another aspect of the Department of Theatre Arts that is vital to its character is that all faculty and staff come from professional theatre and/or entertainment backgrounds, and many still continue to pursue and practice professional opportunities around the country. This characteristic of the faculty and staff is important because it means that what occurs in classrooms, studios, and productions is directly influenced by the professional world.From humble beginnings in 1876, theatre at Virginia Tech has emerged into the vital and creative Department of Theatre & Cinema of today, where the program’s previous motto sums up its essence: "Virginia Tech–Where Theatre is Working."