On a quiet city block on Evansville’s East Side, 750 miles from the bright lights of Broadway, lies a renowned training ground for actors, stage managers, set and lighting designers, and other ingénues hoping to break into the theater business. Despite its unassuming Midwestern locale, the University of Evansville’s theater department has earned high praise: Its students have been invited to perform at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts more often than any other school in the nation, and the department has participated in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival program since its inception in 1968.
UE’s 2010-11 theater season opens Sept. 24 with Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, a musical glimpse into the minds and motives of history’s most notorious killers. For tickets, call 812-488-2031; for more information, visit theatre.evansville.edu or see our Guide.
Every year, theater faculty members interview more than 1,700 prospective students with a goal of inviting 40 to join the freshman class. This year’s theater department includes 154 students from 29 states and South Korea. Nearly one in four students hail from Texas.
In a traditional proscenium theater, the audience directly faces the stage. The 482-seat Shanklin Theatre at UE features a thrust stage design, which extends into the audience on three sides to “create a more intimate connection with the performer,” says John David Lutz, director of UE’s theater department and a professor of acting and directing. Before Shanklin Theatre opened in 1966, UE used thrust staging in the East Classroom Building: a wartime, prefabricated venue used for performances in the early 1960s.
In live theater, there are no second takes. Errors aren’t encouraged, but the most notorious blunders go down in good-natured infamy among students and faculty. “In recent memory, I guess the one mistake that stands out is during our 2003 production of Othello,” Lutz says. “The actor playing Othello couldn’t reach his knife to stab himself, so he broke his own neck. The problem was that he had more lines to say after that choice was made.”
Countless UE alumni work on stage or behind the scenes in theater, TV, and film. They include Crista Flanagan, who plays Lois on the Emmy-nominated Mad Men; Jack McBrayer, a cheerful studio page on NBC’s hit sitcom 30 Rock; and Rutina Wesley, a spirited bartender on HBO’s True Blood.
After Assassins closes on Oct. 3, the 2010-11 season continues with William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore, and Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention. The Shakespeare play holds special significance as the university’s 70th play directed by Lutz, a UE alum who turned 70 earlier this year.