President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Princeton Summer Theater at its Best
September 24, 2008
While most students forsake our campus in the summer months, a small but inspired band of undergraduates helps to fill this void each year by bringing their artistic and organizational talents to the Princeton Summer Theater repertory company. The productions staged in the intimate performance space in Murray-Dodge Hall have delighted generations of theatergoers, impressed the critics, and offered our students a unique opportunity to manage every aspect of a repertory theater while giving them a springboard from which to launch theatrical careers.
This year marks two important anniversaries in the annals of summer theater on our campus. In 1948, a group of students associated with Theatre Intime, including Karl Light ’47 and Mo Kinnan ’50, founded the University Players to cultivate their theatrical aspirations and enliven the sleepy summers of that era. The University Players set a standard of excellence, as well as a pace, that would be hard to top. In their second season, to quote one member of the company, “we worked and worried and wept and somehow staged eight major productions in eight hectic weeks.”
Following its 1960 season, the University Players disbanded, but eight years later, in 1968, regular summer theater returned to Princeton with the creation of Summer Intime, thanks to the efforts of Chuck Bernstein ’67, Jon Lorrain ’69, and Geoff Peterson ’69. The inaugural season consisted of four productions, including plays by George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams, together with a concert and film series. By 1971, Summer Intime, buoyed by a warm community response, was ready to take on both Shakespeare and Chekhov. The decades that followed brought their share of challenges, but with the guidance of a Board of Trustees that is headed today by Tony Award-winning producer Geoff Rich ’78 and includes both Karl Light and Geoff Peterson, and with the support of generous sponsors and a loyal audience, what is now called Princeton Summer Theater has secured an honored place in Princeton’s cultural community.
This summer, under the artistic direction of actor, costume designer, and self-described jack-of-all-trades Heather May ’10, the vitality of Princeton Summer Theater was very much in evidence. As local theater critic Stu Duncan ’50 put it, the 14-member company, drawn from students at Princeton and neighboring schools, provided “quite the best theater we have seen in many summers” — and he should know, having helped to launch both the University Players and Summer Intime. The company staged four plays — Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, William Inge’s Bus Stop, J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit — as well as two children’s shows, The Princess and the Porcupine and Snow White. What impressed me most about the three productions I saw was their consistent quality — every actor performed superbly, the production values were uniformly strong, and the plays themselves were outstanding examples of the playwright’s art. That a season of this caliber could be mounted in the space of little more than two months and with just four days between productions is a testament to the energy, creativity, and versatility of the company, many of whom played multiple roles on stage and behind the scenes.
With the help of professional set and lighting designer Allen Grimm, the company successively transformed the Murray Theater into an English country estate that flipped back and forth between two centuries, a diner in 1950s Kansas, the home of an English industrialist on the eve of World War I, and a porch in present-day Wilmington, North Carolina, where Coward’s English drawing room was ingeniously reset. From the outset, Heather sought to create the illusion that the audience was entering a different theater from one production to the next, an ambitious goal that found its ultimate expression in An Inspector Calls, when the Murray Theater was turned into a modified theater in-the-round, with two rows of seats installed upstage. The actors, too, were asked to undergo repeated metamorphoses. For example, Aaron Strand, a student from New York University’s Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting, appeared to move seamlessly from a pedantic professor of literature to a guitar-strumming cowboy to a self-satisfied English factory owner to a beleaguered novelist who inadvertently calls his first wife back from the grave, much to the chagrin of his second! Part of the fun of a Princeton Summer Theater season is finding familiar faces in new roles, leavened with one-time appearances by various “guest artists.”
Heather was right when she wrote in her final artistic director’s program note that the “theater gods” were smiling on Murray-Dodge Hall this summer. If the last 60 years are any guide, they will continue to do so for many summers to come.