By Dawn Goodlove
Holli Gipson couldn't have scripted a better comeback. A theatre and English major from Fort Worth, Texas, Gipson was anticipating her junior year under new basketball coach Brent Brase ’90. But she injured her knee in practice, ending her season before it started. Surgery followed, and she spent the January term recuperating at home, doing a little writing on a project born from a playwriting class with an award-winning guest artist.
Nearly a year later, Gipson’s play, Peach Blood, premiered at Cornell, the first student-written work chosen for the theatre department’s mainstage season.
“It is most unusual for a first playwriting effort by an undergraduate student to receive this level of production at any institution. Holli will likely be making playwriting waves in years to come,” says Mark Hunter, chair of the theatre department and director of Peach Blood. Gipson intends to pursue graduate studies in playwriting after a two-year Peace Corps stint in Africa.
Presenting new work is a hallmark of Cornell’s theatre department, which has witnessed a growth spurt—from eight declared theatre majors in spring 2002 to 42 today. Among first-year students last fall, one in five expressed an interest in theatre, one in 10 an interest in a theatre major.
Hunter credits the department’s popularity to several factors, namely the faculty, the facilities, and the friends of the program.
Cornell theatre faculty are working professionals whose networks provide opportunities for students. Hunter has directed more than 70 professional productions, including performances for the summer Shakespeare Festival staged by Riverside Theatre, the professional company in Iowa City. He entered theatre as an actor, with a brief childhood career in Broadway productions such as Gypsy, Camelot, and Stop the World I Want to Get Off. He left the stage, went to law school, and practiced briefly in Florida, but theatre “made my pulse race,” he says. He founded Playmakers Theatre in Tampa and served as its artistic director for nine years. He earned an M.F.A. in directing at the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in theatre history and criticism from the University of Texas at Austin.
Associate Professor Scott Olinger oversees production for the department. He is the scenic designer for Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre and a lighting designer for summer productions of Pennsylvania Centre Stage at Penn State University, where he earned an M.F.A. in design. He fell in love with theatre as an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa, and ended up in the scene shop because he had a knack for building sets.
The department also includes artists-in-residence Ron Clark and Jody Hovland, Riverside’s founders and coartistic directors; Jenny Nutting Kelchen, costume designer; Ben Alexander, technical director/sound designer; and visiting faculty Kaia Monroe, musical theatre director. All have numerous regional and national credits. In the fall, the department will add a third tenure-track position to focus on acting instruction.
Kimmel Theatre in Youngker Hall, completed in 2003, boasts a 265-seat auditorium and the most current technology in theatre production, including a full rigging system and computerized lighting and sound capabilities. Renovations to Armstrong Hall created an intimate black box performance space, the Plumb-Fleming Studio Theatre, along with a spacious scene shop.
“Cornell has the best facilities available among small colleges in the country,” says artist-in-residence Clark.
Collaborations with Riverside Theatre have put student and professional actors together since the inaugural joint production in 1996, The Cherry Orchard. Further collaborations have included Big Love, Tartuffe, and The Laramie Project. Students have participated in Riverside’s Shakespeare Festival since its inception in 2000. Another collaboration is developing with Creede Repertory Theatre in Colorado, one of the nation’s top 10 regional theatres, which has tapped students for fellowships and summer season work. Creede will host students and faculty during an “acting retreat” next fall. Numerous guest professionals have acted in, directed, or otherwise lent their talents to Cornell productions and courses.
Productions are open to majors and non-majors, “although the serious majors generally see a good amount of stage time and lead the major backstage crews,” Olinger says. Aside from mainstage productions, which include the annual musical theatre revue, a Student Theatre Council supports numerous outlets for student-performed and often student-written material—such as the semiannual Student Performance Festival (formerly known as the Gumbo Project), an improv group known as Phase 5, A Charlie Brown Christmas in December, and an end-of-year production in May.
“We thrive on students who discover a love of theatre, but we also look for students who know what they want to focus on,” Olinger says. Cornell offers fine arts scholarships of $2,000 to $20,000, renewable annually, for theatre majors and minors.
Olinger and Hunter attend national and state thespian festivals to audition prospective students and judge events. When theatre recruits visit the campus, they can sit in on a rehearsal or a production class.
“We’re a tiny liberal arts college competing with large conservatories, and increasingly we are competing quite well,” Hunter says.
Clark concurs. “The majors we are getting are, to a great extent, committed pre-professionals. They want a life in the theatre as educators or working artists.”
Juniors Charlie Thurston and Ellen Kirk were high school classmates who have shared similar experiences at Cornell: Creede Repertory’s summer season, coproductions with Riverside Theatre, and numerous Cornell mainstage shows, primarily as cast members. They both spent last fall with the Chicago Arts Program offered by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. Thurston interned at Chicago’s Redmoon Theater; after graduation he plans to pursue acting and playwriting in Chicago or Minneapolis. Kirk did an internship with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and independent costume designer Janice Pytel; she wants to pursue postgraduate work in performance or costume design.
“The Cornell theatre department chooses exciting material and has a talented, dedicated faculty ensemble. I’ve had the opportunity to perform in a huge variety of roles at the college and Riverside Theatre,” Thurston says.
Ambition and stamina are characteristics that come in handy in this department.
“We try to adhere to very high standards in the classroom and on stage, and we’re insistent that students conduct themselves professionally,” Hunter says. “But we’re sensitive to the reason why most people find their way into theatre in the first place—it’s really fun.”