Studio Theatre is in the wings

Alumni thespians salute the experimental theater experience — simple, adjustable space, performance innovation and camaraderie undiminished by the passing years
By Chris Edwards

With the move into the state-of-the-art Forbes Center for the Performing Arts set to begin shortly, a group of alumni thespians converged on Theatre II to bid farewell. This summer, all campus performances will move across Main Street to the new Forbes Center, notes William Buck, director of the School of Theatre and Dance. The Forbes Center's Studio Theatre will house future experimental endeavors.

Moving up

The move to "Studio Theatre" sounds like going from a tent to a five-star hotel — for 35 years a former turkey hatchery served as JMU's experimental theater.

Experimental Theatre alumni gathered for an impromptu, unofficial reunion, which included a quick rehearsal and reprise of No Frost 17.

Experimental Theatre alumni gathered for an impromptu, unofficial reunion, which included a quick rehearsal and reprise of No Frost 17.

Its years of productions concluded May 1 with a reprise of No Frost 17. In an impromptu, unofficial reunion, 22 cast and crew members, directed by Gina Giambattista Cesari ('88), staged that farce by Randy Parker ('88).

It was a poignant and wacky farewell as the Experimental Theatre alumni trod their old boards. Literally, they trod the theater's gradually sloped concrete floor designed for mucking out litter when Theatre II (a.k.a. "Experimental Theatre," a.k.a. "Wampler") was constructed as a turkey hatchery.

Magic in a barebones black box

"I'm thrilled the students who come here later will have such a nice new facility that will be the envy of other schools," said No Frost assistant director Brian Bolt ('88). Standing in the old hatchery-come-black box, he turned sentimental. "This little 40 by 60 cinderblock wall has made a magic space."

For their campus reprise/reunion, alumni themselves reached out to locate classmates and fellow thespians, who gathered with shrieks of joy and banter before a quick read-through. They spanned the years from 1977 (when Randy Jones, "Handiwrap" in No Frost, entered JMU) to 2010 (when stage manager Bekah Wachenfeld, '10, won this year's USITT Clearcom National Stage Management Award).

No Frost characters are foods in a refrigerator, struggling to survive forays from a backsliding dieter (voice of Kathleen Hannon, '85).

"We've only rehearsed for five hours, so it's going to be very fresh," Cesari puns to the audience of 95. Handiwrap delivers a rap. Bawdy innuendos involve Salami (Kevin Hasser, '07) and Asparagus (JMU financial aid administrator John Michael Schott, '04). The aging Miracle Whip (emeritus professor and 30-year Experimental Theatre sponsor Tom King) accepts "going home to meet my maker — Kraft."

No Frost characters are foods in a refrigerator, struggling to survive a backsliding dieter's forays..

No Frost characters are foods in a refrigerator, struggling to survive a backsliding dieter's forays.

In 1974, when Stratford Players needed space, King's colleague Tom Arthur recalls, "I was the person (then-president) Ron Carrier called and said, 'Do you want a turkey hatchery?'" Emeritus professor Allen Lyndrup remembers hatchlings' scents and gobbles before the Wampler company's departure. Remodeling provided a bare-bones "black-box" theater.

Innovative, student-run performances

"Experimental theater" signifies simple, adjustable space, plus performance innovation, notes King. JMU's experimental fare has always been more student-run than "mainstage" offerings, Cesari notes. "We voted on what play to do, and the budgets." Productions are student-directed and often student-written.

Schott adds they're also "a little edgier." Edginess characterized Wampler/Theatre II's 1975, debut offering, "Hair," although gaining administrative approval entailed omitting nudity. Tracy Camp ('89; Tomato in No Frost) would play "Wampler's" first nude scene for a classmate's script. (The night Camp's parents attended, an audience member blurted, "That chick is naked!" Her father sternly responded, "That 'chick' is my daughter.")

Professor Roger Hall, whose office of 35 years will move across Main St. with the theater, says, "The new space will have better, newer equipment, which will provide greater technical flexibility." Additionally, Hall cites better temperature control, 200 seats (against Theatre II's 140 limit), better acoustics and scene-shop access, and a balcony and height allowing more flexible staging.

"The space will challenge students and faculty to use their imaginations to think three dimensionally," says Buck.

Imaginations will get their encore.