The School of Theatre originated on July 1, 2000 as a new department reorganized from the old Broadcasting/Cinema and Theatre Department, which had operated since 1995. The Theatre Department’s programs, courses, and degrees continue to have an important presence in the history and development of the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Founded in 1891 as the State Normal and Industrial School, and dedicated to the education of young women, the institution admitted its first class of students October 5, 1892. That year, Edwin A. Alderman, chair of English literature and history, offered a course which included the study of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Courses in vocal music, elocution, and physical culture were also offered. Performances of plays, tableaus, skits, and dramatic recitations soon became part of campus private and public social life under the sponsorship of the newly established Cornelian and Adelphian Literary Societies. This early combination of classes and performance experiences is where the history of theatre at UNCG begins.
The record of theatre activity during the institution’s first thirty years is surprisingly rich and varied. More than 150 different dramatic presentations were offered during that time. In accordance with College regulation, only one production was given for the general public each year. This did not inhibit students and faculty from presenting plays for their own edification and entertainment though. Not only were the Literary Societies producing plays, the senior, junior, sophomore, and freshmen classes also presented plays, and occasionally sponsored productions by professional actors and theatre companies on campus or organized chaperoned excursions to downtown Greensboro to see performances at the local opera house.
Early, notable productions include: State Country Fair (1894), a patriotic pageant and civic lesson depicting North Carolina’s chief resources and industries; The Dress Rehearsal (1897), a comic operetta; Jove’s Blessing (1897) a classically inspired, allegorical drama by a prominent Greensboro attorney that was presented as part of commencement exercises; Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1900); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1908), the first fully mounted production of one of Shakespeare’s plays; The Egyptian Princess (1910), a romantic operetta with a cast of fifty; and two massive May Day celebrations that were staged in 1912 and 1916. With rare exception, all of the roles in the productions were played by women who were forbidden,within the strict moral climate of a girl’s school,to wear trousers when playing men’s roles. Students instead wore long black skirts or athletic bloomers, a practice which persisted until 1911. Women continued to play men’s roles in campus productions until 1924.
Faculty advised, coached, and directed students in performances, and even on occasion acted in productions. Edward J. Forney, a charter member of the faculty, has the distinction of being the first man to act in a College production when he appeared as Uncle Sam in a patriotic pageant in 1899. Clarence R. Brown, a music teacher, introduced musical theatre to the College with his production of an operetta in 1897. But most importantly Mary Settle Sharpe (1863-1944), a teacher of elocution and expression provided advice and encouragement to students interested in drama and staged some of the College’s most ambitious productions, including the 1912 and 1916 May Day Fetes, which included six Elizabethan-inspired dramatic presentations that were performed at different outdoor locations before an audience estimated in the thousands. Sharpe taught from 1896 until her retirement in 1920.
Due to increasing interest in the College establishing a drama program, theatre at the North Carolina College for Women took a giant step forward in 1921, when William Raymond Taylor (1895-1976) was hired to develop this program. Taylor, who held an undergraduate degree from Chapel Hill and an M.A. from Harvard, where he had been a classmate of Eugene O’Neill, was specifically hired to provide consistent, qualified leadership and instruction in drama in the English Department. His objectives were to improve the quality of student performances and establish a theatre program based on the best professional practices of the day.
Within a year, Taylor introduced new classes in playwriting and theatre production, and consolidated the different student production efforts into a single program entitled “The Dramatic Association of the North Carolina College for Women.” In 1924 this organization was rechristened The Play-Likers. A second, somewhat older, student theatre club was renamed The Masqueraders, and became the “honorary” extension of The Play-Likers. One of The Play-Likers’ earliest triumphs occurred in 1924, when they won second place in the National College Theatre Tournament at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, with their production of student Doris Halman’s original one-act play The Will-o’-the-Wisp.
Taylor’s many accomplishments include producing a varied repertory of classic, contemporary, and original student dramas; increasing the number of performances and productions that were open to the general public; using men from the faculty and community to play male roles in campus productions; touring plays off-campus; taking students on field trips to New York City to see professional productions; helping to design the UNCG Auditorium, which became The Play-Likers’ home in 1927; and founding the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville, North Carolina in 1946. Taylor also founded the Stage Equipment Company of America (SECOA), which remains in business today. “Teach” Taylor, as he was respectfully called, directed campus theatre activities until 1953, and continued to teach in the University’s English Department until 1960. In recognition of his pioneering efforts, in 1967 the University named a new theatre building after him.
Taylor was assisted over the years by talented and dedicated colleagues who contributed to the growth and development of the program. Most significant was Kathryn England (1911-1977), who taught oral interpretation, voice and diction, and directed over 40 plays between 1942-1975. Also notable is Wayne Bowman who, in addition to assisting Taylor, added the first electronic media courses to the drama curriculum in the late 1940s. These included Speech for Drama and Radio, Radio Production, and Writing for Radio. In 1953, Taylor’s direction of the Play-Likers came to an abrupt end due to Chancellor Edward K. Graham’s controversial hiring of a one year professorial replacement author from England named Giles Playfair to direct the theatre program. Playfair had extensive experience in British theatre, radio, and film.
In 1954, Chancellor Graham, through administrative fiat, established a Drama Department at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina Greensboro. A bachelor’s degree in drama was initiated, with coursework in theatre and broadcasting. The venerable Play-Likers was renamed “The Theatre of the Woman’s College.” The Masqueraders continued as a student theatre club. The new department head was Michael Casey, who held a B.A. from Williams College, an M.A. from Chapel Hill, and a professional certificate from the Old Vic Theatre School in London. Casey had worked with Taylor at the Parkway Playhouse. One of Casey’s achievements was initiating “The Hour of Thespis,” a TV series on the arts produced at the campus PBS station. This was among the first such university-produced series in the nation. Casey served as department head for just two years, resigning when Chancellor, Graham, left in 1956.
In 1956, Herman Middleton, who was educated at Rollins College, Columbia University, and earned a PhD from the University of Florida in 1964, became department head and inaugurated a new era of growth and development. Middleton expanded the curriculum, hired new faculty, instituted innovative programs, and built a department with a strong regional reputation.
Changes and developments in the department mirrored changes in the institution and society. In 1963, African-American students were admitted to the University for the first time, and the University became coeducational and changed its name to the University of North Carolina Greensboro. In 1960-61, the department was retitled Drama and Speech when four courses in speech were added to the curriculum. Formal studies in speech communication and communication disorders were initiated and quickly grew. BFA degrees in acting and design and technical theatre, and MFA degrees in acting/directing and design were added in 1970. In 1967, David Batcheller joined the faculty as director of theatre. In 1968, Tom Behm was hired to develop a children’s theatre program, transforming the “Pixie Playhouse” into the North Carolina Theatre for Young People in 1972. And in 1971, internationally renowned designer Andreas Nomikos (1917-1999) became director of design.
Middleton’s artistic achievements include directing the first Broadway-style musical, Oklahoma! (1957), and the first children’s theatre production at the University; leading three tours of productions abroad under the auspices of the American Educational Theatre Association, the United Services Organization, and the U.S. Department of Defense in 1959, 1962, and 1966; and having his production of The Oresteia produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC as part of the 1974 American College Theatre Festival. From 1963-1967, the department hosted Eva Le Galliene’s National Repertory Theatre in extended residencies on campus. Middleton was also instrumental in founding the North Carolina Theatre Conference and the Southeastern Theatre Conference. Although he retired in 1990, Professor Emeritus Middleton remains active in state and regional professional organizations, the community, and the department.
In 1974, John Lee Jellicorse became department head. Educated at the University of Tennessee and Northwestern University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1967, Jellicorse led the department during a period of tremendous growth. Enrollments grew and new degree programs were instituted. In 1975-76 the broadcasting/cinema division was established. An MFA concentration in child drama was added in 1976, and an MEd in drama in 1977. The MFA concentration in film and video production was instituted in 1984.
In 1977 the Drama and Speech Department was renamed the Department of Communication and Theatre in recognition of its size and diversity. The faculty more than doubled in size and the number of majors quadrupled. Theatre continued to thrive and transform itself with changes in faculty and students. Jellicorse promoted and supported the development of strong, autonomous divisions within the department. Plans were developed, but ultimately rejected for the establishment of a School of Communication and Theatre. In 1988, when Jellicorse stepped down as head, the Communication and Theatre Department, with 35 faculty and over 800 majors, was one of the largest academic units in the University.
Robert C. Hansen became department head in 1988 after having served two years as director of the Theatre Division and director of design. Hansen, with degrees from the University of Minnesota (Morris), Florida State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, joined the UNCG faculty in 1986, after having served as chair of the Theatre Department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Under Hansen’s leadership, the theatre curriculum was significantly redesigned to comply with National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) standards.
In 1989, the theatre program was accredited by NAST, and reaccredited in 1994 and 1999. Accreditation resulted in the addition of new faculty positions, facility renovations, and increased graduate assistantships. The department ended its affiliation with the Parkway Playhouse and suspended its MA program. In doing so, the department committed itself to making the MFA program one of the best in the country. The addition of new faculty afforded the opportunity to give greater emphasis to professional training in all aspects of the curriculum and led to the development of new programs and initiatives, including the expansion of student scholarships.
In 1995, after over two years of study and discussion, the Communication and Theatre Department was divided into two units: a Department of Communication and a Department of Broadcasting/Cinema and Theatre. For four years, the faculty in the Broadcasting/Cinema and Theatre Department made sporadic efforts to function together as a consolidated unit. A jointly produced, student-directed film project was created and plans were developed for an MA program in dramatic writing. During fall semester 1997, the department celebrated the 75th Anniversary of UNCG Theatre with a series of special productions and events, including a homecoming banquet attended by 250 alumni, students, faculty and community supporters. At the banquet, the UNCG Theatre Hall of Fame was inaugurated. Ten individuals who had made important contributions to the development of theatre at UNCG were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and plaques honoring them were hung in the Taylor Theatre lobby.
During spring semester 1999, it was decided that the Broadcasting/Cinema and Theatre units would separate and become two independent departments effective August 1, 2000. Bob Hansen stepped down as department head after 12 years of service, and Tom Behm became interim head of the newly minted Theatre Department while a national search was conducted for new leadership. During Behm’s tenure as Head, the Theatre Department took possession of portions of the Brown Building and instituted productions in the Brown Recital Hall, which became the department’s new Studio Theatre. Tom Behm retired from the faculty in June 2002 after 34 years of outstanding leadership and service on the faculty.
The search for a new department head successfully resulted in the hiring of Tom Humphrey, who joined the faculty in January 2002, after completing his final season as producing artistic director of The Western Stage in Salinas, California. Humphrey, with degrees from Denison University in Ohio and an M.F.A. in Directing from the University of California, San Diego, brought extensive experience in both professional and educational theatre to UNCG. One of Humphrey’s first administrative accomplishments was to hire Rachel Briley, from Western Michigan University, to take on the leadership of the North Carolina Theatre for Young People program, following the long tenure of Behm as NCTYP coordinator. Humphrey served as Department Head for six years, stepping down in 2007 to return to the faculty to teach and serve as co-coordinator of the MFA in directing program.
A 2007 search for a department head led to the hiring of James Fisher, who had previously served as department chair and professor of theatre at Wabash College in Indiana. Fisher, an alumnus of the Department of Theatre at UNCG (MFA in Acting/Directing, 1976), also brought to the department a background in theatre history. The author of several books and essays on American and European theatre and drama, Fisher also had considerable experience as a director.
UNCG Theatre’s production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, adapted by Department of Theatre faculty member Jim Wren and Joe Sturgeon from Thomas Middleton’s play, was selected by the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival for presentation at the Kennedy Center for the ACTF Festival – one of four productions selected from schools across the United States.
During Fisher’s tenure as department head, the Department of Theatre merged with the School of Music and the Department of Dance to become the College of Visual and Performing Arts on July 1, 2010, but also faced unprecedented budgetary challenges resulting from the economic setbacks of 2008-2011. A faculty position in playwriting was added to the department and Janet Allard was hired to fill the position. Enrollments for the Department of Theatre neared 300 majors in the second decade of the 21st century.
From 2014-2016 David Sullivan was named the new head of the Theatre Department, Sullivan earned an MFA in Directing from Boston University, in residence at the Huntington Theater Company, and holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from Boston University, a Master of Arts in Theatre from Brown University, and a BA in Theatre from Providence College. Not long after the renaming of the College of Visual and Performing Arts (formerly the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance), the Theatre Department was renamed the School of Theatre in the summer of 2016. Additionally, John Poole was brought on as the new director of the School of Theatre in 2016. Poole was awarded a doctoral degree in theatre history from the University of Georgia in 1995 where he studied and published on African-American theatre practice and the Federal Theatre in the Deep South in the 1920s and 1930s.
In 2016, the Nursing and Instruction Building was approved for construction. Because School of Theatre courses were held in the McIver building where the new building would be constructed, two new design studios were built on Tate Street and a new scene/paint shop was built on Lilly Avenue. Then, in July of 2018, Joshua Ritter was hired as the lecturer/theatre manager for the School of Theatre. Joshua Ritter holds a BA in Theatre and Arts Administration from Fredonia State University with a minor in philosophy and an MFA in Theatre Management from Wayne State University. In the fall of 2019, John Poole and Joshua Ritter established the Scaffolding Change Committee with the help of Kelvin Dinkins, Jr., assistant dean and assistant professor adjunct in theater management for the Yale School of Drama and the general manager of Yale Repertory Theatre, to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion within the School of Theatre. After months of preparation, in August, 2020, the graduate program in acting and directing was invited to join URTA (University Resident Theatre Association).
In preparation for a change of leadership, a search began for a new director for the School of Theatre which led to the hiring of Natalie Sowell, who had previously served as dean of the School for Interdisciplinary Arts and dean of institutional diversity at Hampshire College. Sowell, an alumna of the UNCG MFA theatre for youth program, taught and served in administrative roles at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, for the previous 16 years where she founded the child drama and community program. Sowell continued the mission of the Scaffolding Change Committee and made it an important focus of her work for the School of Theatre.
After Sowell’s appointment, John Poole stepped down as the director for the School of Theatre to fill the theatre history professor role that opened up after James Fisher retired. Not long after the hiring of Natalie Sowell, the School of Theatre began a search for a lecturer in costume technology, an assistant professor in acting/directing, and a shop supervisor to replace the newly retired Jeff Gillis. Tara Webb was named lecturer of costume technology, Webb holds an MA in visual culture: costume studies from NYU and a BA in theatre studies from Swarthmore College. Mya Brown was hired as assistant professor of theatre in acting/directing, Brown holds an MFA in acting from West Virginia University and a BFA in theatre with a film
minor from Jacksonville University in Florida. Tannis Boyajian was brought on as the new scene shop supervisor, Boyajian holds a BFA in technical theatre from Salem State University and an MFA in technical design and production from Yale School of Drama. Ken White, previous lighting design, stage management, and CAD professor, was named associate dean for academic affairs for the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
In 2020, Hugh Hysell, alumni and director of marketing for Broadway Records, gifted The Hugh Hysell Scholarship Endowment to the School of Theatre. The Hugh Hysell Scholarship Endowment is meant to support rising seniors majoring in theatre and provide critical professional development opportunities before they enter the theatre world.
In 2020-2021, the School of Theatre produced a virtual season and put in place special safety protocols to protect students during the COVID-19 pandemic. On September 2, 2020, The College of Visual and Performing Arts joined more than 1,500 organizations across the country in lighting theatres and other event venues in red to raise awareness for the arts and entertainment industry which has been greatly affected by COVID-19.