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The University Theatre: Past, Present, and Future

The first record of dramatic entertainment at the University of Oregon was an extract from “The Lady from Lyons” which was part of the “Programme of Literary Entertainment of the Laurean and Eutaxian Society” on December 21, 1877, just more than a year after the founding of the University. It was some time before theatrical entertainment on its own was allowed any kind of official sanction. In the early days of the University, theatre was regarded as a dangerous temptation and the staging of plays was definitely discouraged. The Faculty Minutes of May 9, 1882, show a student petition asking permission to offer amateur theatricals was denied, “… inasmuch as our past experience does not prove that busy, hardworking students make good play actors.” The faculty continued to frown on theatricals, and dramatics, like tennis and dancing, could be indulged in but not under the auspices of the University.

The first full production at the University of Oregon of which we have any record was ”The Henrietta”, presented at the Parker Opera House on March 30, 1901, and directed by I. M. Glen. The proceeds from this play were donated to meet the deficit in the treasury of the UO football team. This appeared to be a common practice in the early part of the century, with plays given to finance various university publications, to provide support for campus building funds, to help send the football team on tour, or to buy watch fobs for the team members.

Interest in theatre at the university did not come into focus until 1909 when the Dramatic Club was formed with 100 members. The appointment of A. F. (Fergus) Reddie as instructor in drama in 1912 supplied a rallying point for students interested in drama. Under the leadership of Reddie and Dr. George Rebec “The League for the Study of the Drama” was launched in 1913, with students, faculty, and townspeople in membership. This organization was the financial and moral backer of all plays presented under Reddie’s direction by the classes of dramatic interpretation.

As Johnson Hall was being built in 1914- 15, drama was such an important activity on campus that the faculty demanded a theatre be included in the facility. The building was already under construction when the blueprints were altered and the Guild Theatre was included on the main floor. This theatre opened with a faculty presentation of Jerome’s “The Passing of the Third Floor Back” on October 8 and 9. Although small, a “miniature theatre” it was once termed, it was considered adequately equipped though distinctly limited in seating capacity. The Guild theatre is reported to have been the first “purpose built” theatre on a college campus in America.

Through this period plays were presented by many different production organizations and classes, but by 1920, Mr. Reddie had narrowed the most active student group down to an organization known as the University Company which was made up of “students of the most capacity as actors”.

By 1922, the University of Oregon Department of Drama and Speech Arts was considered the largest and best equipped school on the west coast, with a play producing schedule of about one play a month. A local newspaper of November 26, 1921 reported that the Guild Theatre was a unique institution of its kind and said that Oregon was the first University in the United States, if not the world, to place the acted drama in its curriculum. Granville Barker, a leading member of the theatre at that time, and a British actor/manager still studied in Theatre History classes today, declared on a visit here in 1925, “The work of this department is the most hopeful thing I have seen in America”.

In 1928 Mrs. Ottilie Seybolt became the head of all drama work at the University. Mrs. Seybolt started several new ideas that still influence the University Theatre today. Under her direction a system of general tryouts was inaugurated with roles given to students outside the department. Up to that time only drama majors and members of classes in acting were allowed to participate in plays.

The idea of presenting classical plays from different periods in the history of drama was started with the presentation of “THE TROJAN WOMEN” in the 1931-32 season. The idea was later expanded to become the Greater Drama Series which covered twelve time periods or nationalities in drama presented to give each college generation of playgoers and performers an historical resume of drama.

In 1933 Horace W. Robinson joined the University faculty as technical director and scene designer for University Theatre. Mr. Robinson became the director of University Theatre in 1946, a position he held until 1970. Under his leadership the production schedule was increased to give students experience of longer runs of each play and to accommodate the rapidly increasing group of theatre patrons.

By the late 1940’s it was obvious that the needs of the Theatre at the university had outgrown the facilities of the Guild theatre in Johnson Hall- to say nothing of the patience of the President and other administrative officials coexisting in that space. Among the favorite alternative spaces for presenting plays were the third floor of Gerlinger (above the Lounge) and outdoors between Fenton and Deady Halls with the audience sitting on a tennis court at the bottom of a slope at that site.

When plans went forward to renovate Villard Hall in 1949 a brand new, state of the art theatre was attached to the west side of the building. Cost of the new theatre was $265,000 and it opened as The University Theatre in December of 1949 with a production of WINTERSET directed by Horace Robinson. This represented the 301st production at the University since the beginning of the 20th century.

The Department continued to expand in size and scope through the 50’s and 60’s. By the time of Horace Robinson’s retirement in 1975 he had seen the department grow from two faculty members and a small theatre in Johnson Hall to six faculty and a theatre building which was renovated and re-named for him on his retirement.

In May of 2003 the University Theatre celebrated its 1,000th production on campus with performances of This Ship of Fools, a student devised play under the direction of John Schmor.