Dramatic Masks

“Never meddle with play actors, for they’re a favored race.”
— Cervantes

One University in Its Time Plays Many Parts

(paraphrased from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”)

Announcer: This is the theater at Fairleigh Dickinson University. For many, it is their theatrical debut. For others, it is a way of life. But for all, the play’s the thing.

Enter Stage Right: A professional theater company on the Teaneck-Hackensack Campus dedicated both to bringing new and classic work by American playwrights to Bergen County, N.J., and to educating its audiences and the artists of tomorrow.

Enter Stage Left: A devoted visual and performing arts department producing live theater on the Florham-Madison Campus since the 1960s, involving a growing number of students and providing a cultural opportunity to students and the residents of Morris County.

(Lights go up on a chorus of student-run black-box theaters, a new experimental theater and a tri-campus theater major.)

(Waiting in the wings is a host of experiences from Broadway to the Royal Shakespeare Company.)

All the World’s an American Stage

The American Stage Company, a professional theater group, was founded 14 years ago by Ted Rawlins, Jim Singer and actor/director Paul Sorvino. Known for his roles in the 1990 film “Goodfellas” and the television series “Law and Order,” Sorvino served as American Stage’s original artistic director.

Sorvino has been involved with theater since his Broadway debut as a constable in the 1964 musical “Bajour.” The role that secured his stardom was that of Phil Ramano in “That Championship Season,” which has twice been produced as a film, starring Sorvino in 1982 and directed by Sorvino in 1999. In forming The American Stage in 1986, Sorvino felt he was filling a desperate need in Bergen County.

Fairleigh Dickinson University supported the company’s establishment with virtually free use of the 300-seat Becton Theater in Becton Hall, Teaneck-Hackensack Campus; office and classroom space; and support services.

Focusing on new and classic works by American playwrights, the company’s first production was the Pulitzer Prize-winning “All the King’s Men.” Since then, many productions world-premiered at The American Stage have gone on to become Broadway and off-Broadway hits. These include “Other People’s Money,” “Over the River and Through the Woods” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” the latter two penned by American Stage playwright-in-residence Joe DiPietro.

This season’s lineup included “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” featuring the music of Fats Waller; “Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams and starring Laura Hicks as Amanda; “The Crystal Goblet,” a family drama by Richard Levine; a revival of the pseudo-Victorian thriller “Gaslight,” which opened on Broadway in 1941 under the name “Angel Street” and became one of the longest-running shows in Broadway’s history; and “O. Henry’s Lovers,” another DiPietro composition, this one a musical version of short stories by the famous writer.

“We seek to educate and cultivate the artists of tomorrow to ensure the future of professional theater.”
— Matthew Parent

In addition to bringing an excellent cultural opportunity to the campus, American Stage offers academic benefits to FDU students. “We seek to educate and cultivate the artists of tomorrow to ensure the future of professional theater,” says Matthew Parent, the company’s producing artistic director, whose responsibilities include overseeing production as well as selecting plays to be produced. Through classroom talks, he says, “We try to impress upon students that professional theater does have career opportunities. It is a lot of hard work, but the rewards are immeasurable.”

Students interested in the theater as a career will benefit from FDU’s new intercampus theater arts major, which includes an internship with The American Stage Company in a backstage job related to their theatrical interests. These positions will be “shadow” positions, in which a student interested in lighting will work closely with a member of the lighting crew, or one interested in set design will work with that crew, and so on. “These internships will help students learn what it takes to mount a production as well as what it takes to run a professional theater,” Parent says. “The collaboration will create a real symbiosis between American Stage and FDU,” he continues. “It’s an invaluable experience to see professional artists at work. Interns will have the opportunity to observe and to ask questions of out theater professionals and will follow the creative process of ‘putting on a play’ from the beginning of production meetings through the final curtain.”

“Every Artist Was First an Amateur”— Emerson

Students get of taste of what it is like to be backstage as well as on stage at the Florham-Madison Campus. There, the visual and performing arts department has been producing live theater since the 1960s. Performances have included the musicals “Godspell,” “Pippin,” “Hair,” “Into the Woods” and “The Fantasticks” as well as nonmusicals such as Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” “Vanities,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “Welcome to the Moon” and a 1990s update of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Our students gain insight into the theater which helps them become more well-rounded as students and human beings.”
— Richard Turick

This year’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” written by Howard Ashman and directed by Elizabeth Stroppel, had the highest box office draw the department has seen in 10 years. The cast included students Mike Costello as Seymour; Melissa Gargano as Audrey; Richard Sackerman as Orin, the girlfriend-beating dentist; Michelle Fontana, Heradine LaCrete and Megan Sambataro as the musical Doo-Wop trio; and, as the man-eating plant Audrey II, puppeteer Ed Rempfer and the voice of Alex Vlahov.

Professor of Theater Richard Turick serves as producer as well as technical director, working on sets, lighting and even ticket sales. Students are involved through their classes because, Turick says, “There is a direct relationship between learning and doing.” Fine arts students in the theater concentration work on aspects of the production related to their classes, such as Theater Management (ticket sales and promotion) and Stagecraft (sets and lighting). In addition, participation is open to all Florham-Madison students, who are invited to audition as well as to volunteer their help backstage. “Our students gain insight into the theater which helps them become more well-rounded as students and human beings,” says Turick. “For many this is their first theater experience.”

“I’ve been teaching theater for 35 years,” says Turick, “and there are more students involved than ever before.” This fall, FDU’s new theater arts major will attract even more theater students to the University. The growth of the department will allow for even more high-quality productions.

White LiarsThis spring students performed two complementary productions in one night, “White Liars” and “Black Comedy.” Described by New York Newsday as “two marvels, light and dark,” “White Liars” entangles the audience in a dense web of deception following an encounter between a down-and-out fortune teller, a rock musician and his agent, who bribes the seer to discourage the musician from pursuing his girlfriend; and “Black Liars” is a comic farce with a twist — characters experiencing a blackout in the story line are illuminated on stage while the stage is dark when the lights in the plot are on.

Such cultural opportunities are not only a boon for students but for the surrounding Morris County, as audiences typically comprise half students and half theater goers from the community.

Out of the Box

FDU students are also involved in theater productions independent of department sponsorship. Two black-box theater groups, the Starshine Theater at Florham-Madison and the University Players Drama Club at Teaneck-Hackensack, regularly stage performances on campus.

The Starshine Theater is a revival of the former Florham-Madison Campus Theater Club, reactivated in 1998 with the leadership of student Laura Dowding. Its first full production was “The Heidi Chronicles,” by Wendy Wasserstein. Under the advisement of Lecturer of Theater Gwynne Safier, students direct, produce, design and act for productions as well as script plays. The group performs in the Black Box Theater in the Florence Twombly Residence Hall. This spring’s showcase brought four one-act plays to campus — “Red Carnations,” “I’m Not Stupid,” “The Philadelphia” and “The Barbarians Are Coming.” Last fall’s showcase of one-act plays featured two by student playwrights — “Why Him,” by Eric Schlig, and “The Martians Are Coming, Put Away Your Clipping Shears,” by Jeremy Lazar — along with “Appearances,” “Sure Thing” and “Impromptu.”

Sight to SeeAt Teaneck-Hackensack, the University Players are benefiting from the opening of the new Russell H. Ratsch Experimental Theatre in University Hall. Dedicated in honor of Professor of Communications Russell Ratsch, who has been teaching theater at FDU since 1973, the new performance space seats up to 114 people and is equipped with theater lighting. Ratsch has been credited with bringing a professionalism to theater at Teaneck-Hackensack and with inspiring many students. “Clearly his interest in his subject matter is ‘catching,’ and he deserves the praise that has been heaped on him for fine teaching,” said Duane Edwards, director of the School of Communication Arts, at the theater’s dedication on April 12.

Even before the formal dedication, the theater was host to a production of “Line and the Lesson,” from April 6 through April 8. Immediately following the dedication were two productions, “Dancing with Harry” and “Sight to See,” which ran from April 13 through April 16.

Provost Paula Hooper Mayhew noted at the dedication that the naming of the campus’s experimental theater after Ratsch “assures we will continue in his footsteps — that we will continue in theater.”

In addition to formal lectures about the productions, students hear the Royal Shakespeare Company’s actors, directors and designers speak about their work.

Are Your Shakespearienced?

Easy, inexpensive access to professional theater on campus and the opportunity to participate in all aspects of theater — from writing, to acting, to assisting with production — make FDU a perfect venue to explore the art of theater, whether as a student in the area or as one who appreciates of the arts. Students also benefit from the nearby cultural resources available in New York City.

In addition, the opportunity to study theater at FDU is enhanced through its program at Wroxton College in England, which is near Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Students attend productions such as “Othello,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Antony and Cleopatra” and “The Tempest.” In addition to formal lectures about the productions, students hear the company’s actors, directors and designers speak about their work.

Whether at Florham-Madison, Teaneck-Hackensack, New York City or Stratford-upon Avon, the final curtain almost never falls on Fairleigh Dickinson University’s theatrical offerings. “We hope to inspire and serve lifelong theater goers,” says Turick.

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