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The Whethermen For Some Students, All the University's A Stage

Students Enrich the University of Virginia by Giving Voice to the Community

May 9, 2001-- Two performance groups, founded by three graduating students, have enriched the arts at the University of Virginia and given students alternative theatrical voices on Grounds.

Steven Shepard is the common thread for the Spectrum Theater and the Whethermen, which he created with Kevin Neher and Patrick Gantz respectively.

Spectrum Theater co-founders, Shepard (Government and Foreign Affairs) and Neher (Government and Economics) joined their talents to produce a multi-racial production of "Romeo and Juliet" to address issues of racial divide they saw as first-year students.

Drawing on his acting and directing experience at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Great Falls, Va., Shepard was the group's artistic director. Neher, a Richmond native, contributed his organizational and fundraising skills.

To bring the racial groups together and make the project a success, they enlisted the help of another University group, the Paul Robeson Players. "We saw the project as a venue for the diverse student body to interact," said Shepard.

The project was an overwhelming success. More than 2,400 students attended the performances followed by panel discussions on race issues.

Following "Romeo and Juliet," the student company, adopting the name Spectrum Theater, continued to produce issue-oriented programs.

In 1999 they looked to the incoming class for inspiration and produced "Voices of the Class." Through readings, monologues, skits and musical numbers based on admission essays, they painted a portrait of the class that answered the question "Who are we?" The production was so successful, it is now a regular feature of the new-student Orientation Program.

To highlight questions about cultural stereotypes, the group then staged an adaptation of Aristophanes' Greek classic, "Lysistrata," set in the Vietnam War era.

Although Shepard and Neher have passed on their leadership roles to others, the group carries on the legacy. Spectrum Theater recently produced "Wrights of Spring," a collection of one-act plays written by students.

Recognizing a different theatrical voice needed to be heard, Shepard and classmate, Patrick Gantz (Fine Arts and Economics) co-founded the popular improvisational comedy group, the Whethermen. "We wanted to create a different venue for entertainment at U.Va.," said Gantz, Fairfax, Va. native who acted in an improv group at James W. Robinson High School. "Our goal was to get the audience to feel they were part of the evening."

The Whethermen have given comedic voice to suggestions from sold-out audiences since the first show at a coffeehouse on the Corner in the spring of 1998 and have presented more than 70 shows. A highlight was a five-act musical at the end of 2000. Taking concepts and suggestions for sketches from the audience, the actors improvised a 45-minute performance.

After graduation, Gantz will travel to Chicago with five U.Va. graduates to work day jobs and study part-time with Second City, the famed comedy improv group that has served as an apprenticeship for dozens of Saturday Night Live cast members.

Shepard will spend two years with the Peace Corps as an economic adviser in South America.

Following an October wedding, Neher plans to settle in the Washington, D.C. area.

Contact: Jane Ford, (804) 924-4298

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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