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A Big Idea Opens at WPI

By Michael W. Dorsey
Photos by Dan Vaillancourt

In 1981, when she joined WPI as professor of drama/theatre, Susan Vick realized her first challenge would be finding a suitable venue for staging theatrical works. With its cavernous main hall and traditional proscenium-arch stage, Alden Memorial seemed ill-suited to the intimate theatre experience she hoped to offer the university community.

The solution was to design and construct, for each production, a theatre within a theatre, building not just sets, but platforms and seating areas engineered to bring the audience and the players into close proximity. The idea worked remarkably well, but took time and energy away from the real work of staging plays.

In November, theatre at WPI entered a new era as the university’s first dedicated theatre facility, the Little Theatre, opened with a production of two new plays: In Bad Taste by Dean O’Donnell, instructor in WPI’s Interactive Media and Game Development program (formerly administrator and instructor of drama/theatre), and Prime Time Crime: Teal Version by Catherine Darensbourg ’02, who has written 15 plays for the WPI stage, two of which have gone on to Off-Off-Broadway productions (see A Dramatic Comeback).

The Little Theatre began as a notion that struck Vick one day as she peeked into vacant space in the rear of Sanford Riley Hall. Looking beyond the falling ceiling tiles and general decay, she imagined a simple, yet flexible theatrical workshop. With a $400,000 grant from the George I. Alden Trust, the vision became real as the space was transformed into a 99-seat black box theatre with a permanent lighting grid and sound system, a control booth, and a greenroom.

“It is my hope that the Little Theatre will be a valuable resource for the greater Worcester community, as well as for the WPI family, to enjoy,“ says President Dennis Berkey

Above: the casts from both plays take their bows on opening night.

With a place to call its own, WPI’s theatre program will continue to evolve and innovate, as it has since 1911. Today, Masque, M.W. Repertory Company, Sunburns Theatre (summer theatre), and Student Comedy Productions (improvisational comedy troupes) bring to the WPI community about eight productions a year. Since 1996, when Vick and O’Donnell founded WP’s Theatre and Technology Program, a number of those shows have included virtual reality and other cutting-edge technologies on stage.

While theatre has long been a presence in student life, it wasn’t until Vick’ arrival that it blossomed into a cultural phenomenon on campus. An accomplished playwright, actress, and director, Vick has been a pied piper of the boards, engaging students through her courses in drama and stagecraft, leading many deeper into the world of the dramatic arts as an advisor to student projects, working closely with students who choose to major or double major in theatre (the most popular concentration area in Humanities and Arts), and providing frequent opportunities for students to put theatrical theory into practice and showcase their talents and work. Her efforts were recognized in 1997 with the WPI Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Teaching.

The biggest annual WPI theatre presentation is New Voices, a festival of new plays written by members of the WPI community that Vick launched in 1982. Defying the skeptics who said science and engineering students couldn’t write great plays, the festival brings more than 20 productions to the stage each spring, involving more than 200 students as cast, crew, and staff.

Many students who get turned on to theatre on campus remain active in WPI theatre as alumni. Some use their theatre experience as a stepping stone to graduate study and careers in the field. Among them is Jessica Sands ’98, a computer science major who recently joined the WPI faculty as an adjunct instructor of drama.

One day in September, Sands, Vick, and theatre major Amanda Jean Nowack ’06 stood in the nearly finished Little Theatre, looking around and laughing like kids who had just received the best birthday present ever. “Three women of different generations stood in the middle of our own, hard won, dedicated space, and we all said, ‘We can work with this,’” Vick says. “And then, we rolled up our sleeves and got back to work.”

Left: a scene from In Bad Taste. Above: the casts from both plays take their bows on opening night.

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