Theatre at Harvard Not Just the Loeb

"We hear that the really talented people at Harvard spend their time at public activities, such as drama (which is extremely popular at Harvard). So don't worry too much about clubs." --Yale Daily News   Insiders' Guide to the Colleges>

Theatre is one of the most exciting, frustrating, and amorphous institutions at Harvard. And that description of it has been apt for an awfully long time.

When drama at Harvard is mentioned, the gargantuan Loeb Drama Center and the Loeb Experimental Theatre immediately come to mind. Both are intended primarily for student use. And any Harvard-Radcliffe chartered organization may utilize Agassiz Theatre (in Radcliffe Yard). But it is theatre in the Houses which has long been the important source of student exposure to drama and is more integrated into the college community than the other theatres.

House drama sprang up because there was no other organized theatre at Harvard. Sanders Theatre and Agassiz were built before the turn of the century, but-they were used for any play which needed a stage--they did not generate any theatrical activity of their own.

George Pierce Baker '88, conductor of the famous 47 Workshop (of which Eugene O'Neill and Thomas Wolfe are alumni), fought in the teens and twenties to increase Harvard's concern and expenditure for drama. Baker wanted to expand his workshop in play writing and dramatic technique into a comprehensive drama school: Harvard would not have him, so he went to Yale where he inaugurated what is now considered the finest drama school in the country.

Drama at Harvard wandered rather aimlessly after Baker left, and by the fifties the Houses were centers for the production of a great many skits musical reviews and Christmas plays. Vestiges of these remain, but the scatological depths were really plumbed in those days before girls had invaded the all-male sancta.

Finally, a drama center was made possible for Harvard by a huge gift from John Langeloth Loeb '24. The Loeb Drama Center opened in 1960 as the most elaborate theatre on any campus in the United States. With the Loeb came a burst of interest in theatre. The sixties saw extravagant productions in the Houses: Agassiz also began to be used more heavily as a less intimidating alternative to the Loeb.

But artistic trends change, and so does political consciousness. By the end of the sixties, the social sciences instead of the humanities were the largest area of concentration. Much more energy began to be poured into politics and discussion of social change. Free theatre, "living theatre", theatre as a group experience flourished over more conventional forms of drama at Harvard during the strike years.

Now interest seems to be swinging back to humanism: 100 more people are majoring in English this year than last; the legions of Social Relations concentrators are diminishing. People suddenly swarm to De Broca's King of Hearts--a movie of social comment, to be sure, but artful and delightfully done. (When King of Hearts first came out in 1967, it was dismissed as fluff.)

The heritage of the late sixties is not being forgotten, however. And House dramatic productions especially are a bit more politicized now, a bit more informal.

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Drama in the Houses more often emanates from a loose meeting of minds than from systematic planning--an individual interested in doing a specific play must usually take the initiative of getting it under way. The most important tasks of the drama societies are ordinarily those of approving ideas for plays and then scrounging up the money. Raising money takes ingenuity, and while some House drama societies are self-supporting, others find funds in ways which range from selling coffee to the more secure practice of tapping the House Discretionary Fund.

Excitement about the theatre is often all that the people involved in House drama have in common. Their attitudes reflect anything from dilettantism to professionalism. Many are members of the House, almost as many are not: two B.U. girls were once made honorary members of Dunster House after several years of faithful work on costumes and staging.

Some people come with acting, directing or technical experience, but House drama is as important for the opportunities it provides many students for taking a first plunge into the theatre as it is for the chance to flex already developing dramatic muscle.

Lack of facilities is a very basic problem for drama in the Houses. The headaches of putting on a play in improvised surroundings add up quickly: Dunster House must pay Buildings and Grounds $175 to take down a chandelier each time they use the dining room for a production: Currier House's theatre also happens to be a thoroughfare to the dining room and rerouting traffic presents major difficulty.

Attracting people to work on a production and keep it going once it has started pose additional problems for many of the Houses. General disorganization and the suspicion that other people consider House drama second-rate contribute to any incipient malaise.

But exploring an interest in drama (especially the directing and producing aspects) is often easier through the Houses than through the Loeb. The Executive Board of the Harvard Dramatic Club chooses what is to be presented in the Loeb Ex as well as on the main stage and has the reputation of being clannish when making decisions. Also, the extravagant technical resources and conveniences of the Loeb tend to overpower students and-or their productions.

House drama, on the other hand, is more relaxed and thus for many, more enjoyable. Though faculty interest varies greatly from House to House, personalized help is often offered by tutors. "The minute I showed the slightest interest in directing something. I was grabbed and encouraged," said Bill Martin '72 of Kirkland House.

Another advantage of drama in the Houses is that it is "more independent and challenging"; imagination and innovation must be substituted for facilities and money.

"Now the Houses are doing a lot of experimenting and new plays," commented Paul Harrison '72. "If people are interested in seeing things which are not so elaborate, but generally of better quality, they should go to the Houses."

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There are more plays being launched this fall than in most recent years. House drama may have to compete with the Loeb (and to be fair, it must be mentioned that quite a bit of cooperation between the Houses and the Loeb goes on as well--the sets of people working in each intersect and the Loeb loans costumes and props on occasion), yet almost every House is managing to produce something. What follows is a cursory catalogue of what's coming up and what's going on:

Adams House--A contingent of the Adams House Drama Society believes that amateur theatre shouldn't try to be pre-professional and shouldn't be worried about entertaining and box office receipts, but about saying something. Charging for admission is antithetical to these ideas.

The first show in Adams House this fall will be the satirical fantasy Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward. It is being done by Black CAST (Black Community and Student Theatre) and will be free on the weekend of November 18-20.

The first and second weekends in December bring another experiment in theatre at Adams House, tentatively entitled Coming and Going. Based on Beckett's Come and Go. Pinter's Landscape, Brown's The Brig and excerpts from the trial of the Chicago 8, the production will evolve through what the initiator calls "communal collage." It is intended very much as a group experience in theatre and will also be free.

Currier House--On this end of Garden Street there is some talk of performing scenes of works in progress--primarily for the benefit of actors and playwrights. The drama society also hopes to do Sam Shepherd's Melodrama play sometime this fall, but is having trouble getting it off the ground.

Dudley House--Lehman Hall is the main asset of the Dudley House Drama Society and so far this year they are just co-sponsoring productions which need a place to perform. Last week the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel Society staged a reading of Ten Best Martyrs of the Year; and You're a Good Man Charlie Brown may move to Lehman Hall after its run at the Loeb Ex.

Dunster House--Erich Segal founded the Dunster House Drama Society in the fifties. Ever since then, Dunster House has been a center for "drama-types", who have managed to stay quite healthy, and have put on at least one production per term since 1967. This fall's project, the original comical satire "Nixon" by House member Al Franken '73, will open December 2.

Eliot House--Master Alan Heimert '49 is notoriously keen on culture, and this fall the New Harvard Players are working in conjunction with the Eliot House Drama Society on an adaptation of five of Shakespeare's comedies. The director, Larry Bergreen '72, feels that plot is over-emphasized in drama, so he has put together excerpt containing certain themes, characterizations and songs for a unique view of the comedies. Billy Bauman '72 composed original music for the production. It will play in Eliot House December 1-4, and 9-12.

Kirkland House--Bill Martin '72 thinks that interest in drama has waned at Kirkland House in recent years, but he will nevertheless direct The Taming of the Shrew there. After playing at Kirkland House December 2-4, the production is moving to the Loeb Ex.

Leverett House--The Leverett House Arts Society was created last spring. Its inaugural production. The Roar of the Greasepaint--The Smell of the Crowd, has just closed after playing to consistently sold out houses. Leverett House is the only one at Harvard which has its own stage: it was constructed in the Old Library as a project of the Leverett House Spring Arts Festival of 1971.

There is enough support from the House as a whole to have little trouble in staging plays, and the newly revamped facilities should encourage the already vigorous state of the performing arts at Leverett House. Another musical is projected for the spring.

Lowell House--A more relaxed manifestation of House drama appears in Lowell House. Chris Conte '73 approached the drama society with an idea and now is directing a staged reading of Dylan Thomas's radio play Under Milk wood. Most of the cast was found among friends who haven't done anything in drama since high school. They hope to have an intensive weekend of rehearsal in New Hampshire right before their opening in the first week in December.

Mather House--Guy Rochman '73, terms the Mather House dining hall,"...the most exciting room in the University. It presents almost limitless possibilities." Starting December 9, a huge box will be suspended from the ceiling of the dining hall, stopping about four feet short of the floor. Inside this box Waiting for Godot will be performed. The director, Rochman, hopes to use an all-female cast; the play as written calls for five men.

"The people who come to see a Beckett play will already be aware of his 'message'," Rochman explained. "But a female cast will make them see the characters less as types, more as people. The woman is a kind of obstacle; the audience will have to project through the women to the meaning of the play. They have to realize that a female instead of male cast doesn't matter."

The Mather House Drama Society hopes to stage the musical Jacques Brel in the spring, also to be directed by Rochman.

North House--The King, the Grand Vizier and the Chancellor of the Exchequer oversee the year-old North House Drama Society. On the second weekend in December they will present a new play by George Herman. A Company of Wayward Saints in the Holmes Hall Living Room. "Our main problem," said the King, Paul Harrison, "is getting people to come up to Radcliffe for a play." But they also have to use flashlights for spotlights.

Quincy House--One of the few self-supporting drama societies is in Quincy House. It owes its solvency to a number of quite successful productions in the past two years. During the first two weekends in December, the Quincy House Drama Society is renting the Leverett House Theatre for a production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night directed by David Richmond '72.

Winthrop House--A medieval mystery play straight off the "English 100" reading list, the Second Shepherd's Play along with a reading from The Stuffed Doll will be staged in Winthrop House just before Christmas. The Winthrop House Drama Society is a strictly ad hoc group in this not strongly arts-oriented House.

One cannot abandon Winthrop House to the jocks too hastily, however, for it is the only House to offer a course in drama: "Hum 96v"--Society and Politics in Western Drama. Given by four tutors in the House, Hum 96v will work on a play (yet to be selected by the members of the course) as a class exercise and will eventually present it in the Loeb Ex in the spring. Hum 96v is one of the only courses for credit at Harvard which includes some practical work in the theatre. (The others are: George Hamlin's freshman seminar in acting, William Alfred's course in writing plays, and a Vis Stud seminar-workshop in design for the stage given by Franco Colavecchia.)

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In spite of all this student commitment to drama, the question of the place of theatre at Harvard keeps recurring. The old aristocratic view that applied arts are servile has left no place at Harvard for preprofessional training. The ostensible faculty position is that a play is a thing which is written down, and that theatre is a trade.

Almost 50 years ago, George Pierce Baker spoke of what he felt the university's role in theatre should be:

"What we need, and need very badly, is a teaching of the Fine Arts in our colleges and universities with a view to creation...Ask artists where they got their first stimulation for their work. I think they will tell you in college. Ask them how they have gained their special equipment for their work and I feel sure they will say 'with difficulty and as best we could'...They probably will make very clear their belief that education should help the man and woman of strong, instinctive, artistic desire to attain their ends."

More official commitment to drama is evident at Harvard now than there has ever been in the past: there is actually a faculty Theatre Committee (with two voting students); and there are funds for bringing professionals to the College occasionally to work and teach in the Loeb. Harold Scott '57, currently acting in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, has been hired for the Spring term to do a Loeb production of Pinter's The Birthday Party, and will also probably conduct a seminar in directing.

Many students at Harvard enjoy just what they're doing in drama. And an undergraduate theatre concentration here could definitely take some of the joie de vivre out of dramatic activity and could result in a gradual restriction of drama to those majoring in it.

Still, the regrettable notion that talent will irrepressibly manifest itself prevails among the faculty. Harvard offers opportunities for experience in the theatre, but not nearly enough for learning about it: imagination cannot take the place of discipline and guidance. Roger Sorkin, faculty advisor to the Currier House Drama Society, commented, "I don't think many people with dramatic talent have actually been squashed here, but it takes tremendous drive not to be discouraged."

Ideally, drama resources at Harvard should be as readily available to every student as Widener and the IAB. Drama in the Houses is part of the solution, but more and better ways of channeling theatrical energy need to be found