Drama at the University of Virginia began as an amateur activity in the 1920s. Before long the Virginia Players was formed as a student club dedicated to producing plays. The productions were staged in various locations on Grounds and in the community. The Jefferson Theater on Main Street in Charlottesville was used occasionally, but more popular venues were Old Cabell Hall and Madison Hall. Since the University was an all male institution at that time, men sometimes played women’s roles, but this practice ceased when nurses, faculty wives, and other female citizens of the community began to participate.
For many years there was a negative attitude toward the teaching of the arts at the University. Tradition declared that since Thomas Jefferson was an amateur musician and artists and since major institutions such as Harvard and Yale did not offer drama as a separate discipline, why should the University of Virginia? However, with the arrival of Harry Rogers Pratt in the early 1930s, a course in playwriting was added to the curriculum. Pratt had been a Shakespearean actor who decided that Charlottesville would be a pleasant place to settle and legend has it that he persuaded the administration to offer both music and dram a courses and he would teach them. These courses were offered initially in the new Department of Music which was seen to be a general department of the arts.
Before long a second teacher was added, E. Roger Boyle, who was offered a part-time position to teach drama courses and the seed of a department were planted. In a few years a curriculum was developed and the concept of something resembling a program was accepted. Around 1935 the Law School moved out of Minor Hall into new quarters in Clark Hall, leaving behind a building with several unassigned classrooms and one large lecture hall. Concerns over the crowded performance schedule in Old Cabell Hall (used as a general purpose hall for concerts and all manner of assembly) coupled with an unfortunate soaking of the Old Cabell Hall stage during a performance of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, caused the administration to offer Minor Hall to the Virginia Players and the handful of drama courses then being offered. A relatively permanent home for performances and most classes was now established.
Roger Boyle, who now was elevated to full-time status, raised the sum of $600 for the purchase of lumber to build a stage, a proscenium wall and a raked floor that converted the large lecture hall in Minor Hall into a theatre. Students and volunteers who saw the need for a proper home for the Virginia Players undertook this work. Seats were obtained from an old theatre in Norfolk (rumor had it that it had been a burlesque house) that was being demolished. The basement below the theatre, where a coal furnace was supposed to have been installed, became the scene shop. A former classroom adjacent to the stage was divided into spaces that provided dressing rooms and a green room. Another large room became an acting and directing studio while a former classroom with fixed seats became the principle lecture room for the dram classes. This building, with its 214-seat theatre and a stage offering 11’4” from floor to ceiling and eight feet of offstage space on each side, became home to drama at the University of Virginia from 1935 to 1974. One single width door gave access to the stage forcing entry through a window on the other side of the stage when productions required excessive amounts of scenery.
Following World War II, the Department of Speech and Drama was established, a department which included public speaking and rhetorical studies, speech correction, radio (and television as it came along) and drama. By this time Harry Rogers Pratt had retired, but a new full-time position in Drama was created and filled by John Walker. A Master of Arts program was established and offered along with the Bachelor of Arts in Speech and Drama. Drama became a much more active part of the curriculum and student life during those years as World War II veterans returned to give a new vitality to the production program as well as the educational offerings. Five plays were doing done during the academic year and three during the summer, often with guest artists of some renown. But this was not enough for some of the older students returning from the war. They broke off to create a second producing group, The Rotunda Players, directing and mounting plays without any assistance from the faculty.
The Rotunda Players produced their work in the Rotunda which no longer was required as a library and had become, as one employee of the University so aptly put it, “Just a rotunda.” (It should be noted that in those days the rotunda had a large central space three stories high as a result of the modifications wrought by Stanford White following the disastrous fire at the end of the last century.) Since the Rotunda was a tourist attraction and was used as a study hall during the day, sets and lights had to be removed following each rehearsal and performance and then installed anew the next day. As might be expected, this eventually became tiresome for all concerned and that, together with a lack of revenue equal to expenses, caused the Rotunda Players to disband. They did this, however, only after making an agreement with Roger Boyle and Johnny Walker; they would quit if it was understood that students, particularly those in the M.A. program, would have opportunities to direct in workshop as well as main stage productions. One of the principal insurrectionists who proposed this policy was James S. Helms, for whom the Helms Theatre is named. Boyle and Walker accepted this idea with alacrity. Indeed, Roger Boyle had already been working toward such a practice as his classes in play direction began to emerge.
In 1954 David Weiss joined the faculty as scene designer and technical director. Roger Boyle taught classes in acting, directing, and playwriting and Weiss taught design and technology courses and theatre history. Fifteen-hour semesters were common in the department as were five major productions each year and many one-act plays.
In the mid-1950s the study of Speech Correction moved into the School of Education and the study of Radio and Television was discontinued as an academic program to become strictly a service operation. The name of the department now took on a more realistic meaning, but all majors were expected to take speech and drama courses regardless of their primary interest in one or the other. The academic program slowly solidified into a viable drama major and enrollments grew. Improvements to the theatre continued through this period of time; manufacturing a home-built lighting control system and installing new seating.
Student enrollments in drama courses had increased sufficiently by 1963 to make it possible to begin faculty expansion. The first addition was a technical director who could also teach other courses, easing the loads for Boyle and Weiss. Lee Devin filled the position initially, but left after four years to pursue interests in acting and directing. Frank Silberstein followed, teaching and designing for several years before moving on to Indiana. LaVahn Hoh succeeded him in 1969 and has remained to this day. The department remained a three-person department until 1971 when George Black was added to the faculty thereby expanding the opportunities in performance related courses.
During those years the department gained a strong reputation, especially in playwriting. This was one of the first schools to be affiliated with the Schubert Playwriting Fellowship program and, from its inception to its ultimate decline, there was a Schubert Fellow in the program every year. The production program remained strong often presenting innovative performances, such as the first amateur performance of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, and nearly every season included the presentation of a new script, usually written by the Schubert Fellow. Despite the limitations of the facilities, every effort was made to offer productions of high quality. Once a year a play was offered in Cabell Hall auditorium, usually a Shakespearean or classic offering, to give students a different experience.
With George Black’s arrival it was possible to develop and expand the workshop offerings of one-act plays directed by students. These plays began to create a serious intrusion on the regular season, but relief came what a large room in Cocke Hall was turned into a black box theatre. All of this growth activity had not gone unnoticed. As early as 1961 the president of the University directed the speech and drama faculty to begin planning a new home, to be built on the north side of Carr’s Hill as part of a complex devoted to the arts. Planning began in 1962 and went on for ten years because of various circumstances regarding the financing of the project. The current Drama Building would have been much longer in coming had it not been for the gift that created the Culbreth Theatre as well as an additional anonymous gift that appeared just in time when the bids were opened. It was apparent by 1972 that Speech and Drama would not fit in the new building. The faculty now numbered seven with the likelihood of further additions before long. Drama classes were large as the number of majors reached a new peak of eighty-plus and a dozen graduate students. A plan was presented to the dean for a separation from speech and the separation was granted immediately. One wall was removed from the plans for the new building changing two small classrooms into one large one which first became the drafting room and eventually was transformed into the present costume shop. No other modifications were required to make the Drama Building an exclusive home to the single discipline.
By the end of 1972 construction was under way and the building was nearly completed when the department abandoned its Minor Hall location in January 1974. Most of the remaining work on the building as the move took place had to do with the Culbreth Theatre. The first production in the building, Dames At Sea, was offered in the Helms Theatre to eight sold-out houses. It was followed by another Helms production, Of Mice and Men. The Helms also became the home of the Workshop Series of plays directed by students. After moving into the Drama Building an historian, lighting designer, dance instructor, and a voice teacher were added to the faculty to meet the growing demand.
In April 1974 the department saw the inauguration of the Heritage Repertory Theatre as well as the Master of Fine Arts program. A grant in the amount of $25,000 from the Virginia Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, and matched by an additional grant from an anonymous foundation, helped launch the first season of the Heritage Repertory Theatre. The Heritage Theatre began as a company of local faculty directing and designing using local and outside students of high qualifications putting on four plays in rotating repertory. Over the years Heritage became the Heritage Theatre Festival with the addition of some Actors Equity performers and it continues to be an important cultural asset to the University and to the Central Virginia area. Today the Heritage Theatre Festival budget has grown to over $400,000 per summer and attendance has grown to 18,000.
Since 1988, the University of Virginia has hosted the Virginia Film Festival, a four-day film retreat. From 1988 to 1995, it was the Virginia Festival of American Film and was based in the University’s Department of Continuing Education. In 1996, the festival moved from Continuing Education into the Department of Drama, and changed its name to the Virginia Film Festival. One of the primary benefits of hosting this annual event was the opportunity to have students meet with film professionals.
What was a very spacious building in 1974 has become a very crowded building with no room to accommodate the growing program. In 2000 a plan was drawn up as part of the 2020 commission to build a fine arts complex and a 38,000 square-foot addition to the Drama building. This addition would include office space, a small theatre, expanded costume shop, dance studio, addition to the scene shop, and numerous workspaces.
The department continues to grow achieving national recognition among state and private schools. In a short 30 years, the department has grown from three faculty and one staff in small cramped facilities to 13 faculty and 6 staff and another facility which we have outgrown. In 1993 the graduate program changed to a “company” format admitting seventeen students for a three-year period. Graduate student admissions are strictly limited to nineteen (2002) in each three-year cycle (2008, 2011, and so on). Currently, the M.F.A. program consists of eight actors, two directors, three costume designers, two lighting designers, two scene designers, and two technical directors.
In 2001, the department became nationally accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre and the University Resident Theatre Association. Other areas that the department will continue to work on in the future are: interdisciplinary programs in musical theatre and opera, interdisciplinary graduate programs, projects with music and studio art, and initiate an International Exchange Program.