Revelries, Pageants, and Our Own Department
Drama and Play Production in the Normal School Curriculum
The Department Takes Control
Since its inception as the Normal School Dramatic Society in 1909, Players had functioned as the actual producer of most campus dramatic events, operating as an autonomous entity with control over its own budget. In 1932, after almost a quarter of a century of production, control of finances and production operations was removed from Players, fundamentally changing the structure and purpose of the group. With the urging of Hugh Gillis, the department assumed control of planning and executing a season of plays. The Players group continued, occasionally staging its own productions, but mostly contented itself with theatre trips, bringing in guest speakers, giving awards, and providing membership and honors to students who have shown “consistent activity of a superior quality in dramatic production.” The most important function of the group during its long history was to give a sense of continuity to the dramatic production work that stretched unbroken for the seventy years of Players existence. Players officially dissolved in 1989 when Players president Ron Goswick liquidated the treasury and presented a check for $1100 to the department scholarship portfolio. These funds were used to fund the Richard Parks Award for Outstanding Graduating Senior.
Other dramatic clubs rose and faded away. In the first half of the century, the groups included Theatron, Playreaders, the Radio Guild, and the Children's Theatre Association. Theatron, organized in 1934, carried on the honorary duties of Masque and Key, which it had replaced. Playreaders, a radio drama club, existed from 1934 until 1936. The Children's Theatre Association helped reinstate Children's Theatre productions from 1956-1958. Radio Guild was organized in 1939 under the supervision of William McCoard and Dorothy Kaucher. In 1953, the Radio Guild was reorganized as the Radio Television Guild with an avowed aim to promote professional standards in campus radio and television broadcasting. This Guild continued until at least 1962.
There were periodic attempts to organize the majors and minors into social groups. In October of 1931, Dorothy Kaucher organized Oral Interpretation students for the purpose of “becoming better acquainted with each other” and to meet on Tuesday afternoons for “refreshments and tea.” The club was dropped the following year. In the late 1940s a second attempt was made and, again, abandoned after a year. At an Awards Night, held annually from 1958 to 1961 (and then abandoned), citations were given to students for meritorious work.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, GIG (the Gallivanting Inspiration Group) produced eleven major touring productions from 1976 to 1982 under the direction of Robert Jenkins; during the early 1990s AIM (Artists in Minority) focused on diversity in theatre and the philosophy that all artists in modern America were “disadvantaged minorities;” Contravention was a small student-led group that hoped to produce alternative and radical plays during the mid-1990s; Comedy Porn was a short-lived improv group in 1997. The most consistent group in the last years of the century was STEP (School Touring Ensemble Program). Under the direction of Professor Buddy Butler, STEP produced a number of plays for both campus and touring performances. Particularly successful were productions of King: A Man and His Dream, The Odyssey, and Los Vendidos.
Revelries and Pageants
As early as 1909, extensive variety shows were being presented on Friday nights throughout October and November, each of the many campus societies presenting a series of “acts.” Through the first half of the century, these shows developed into an annual campus event called “Revelries” and later “Spartan Revelries.” These society shows included dramatic sketches along with song and dance numbers and the show material was considered the “property” of the societies. In 1930, however, recently hired Hugh Gillis in the new Speech Arts Department took over the event and wrote and directed the first integrated musical show, Jazzmania, built around college life.
By the mid-1920s, the production of pageants had become quite formalized and reached a height of polish in The Nightingale and the Rose (May 1926), which included drama, dance, and a cast of 1800 college students and children under the direction of Viola Mae Powell. It was performed outdoors in the quad as part of the civic celebration “Fiesta de las rosas.” In 1928, even this was surpassed with a gigantic presentation of Josephine Preston Peabody's The Piper, the size of which was so great that the quad could not hold both the setting and an audience, so the production was staged on the front lawns and occupied an area of “some acres.” According to Estelle Greathead, this production was staged “ablaze with color, athrob with romance, and vibrant with symbolism” by Virginia Sanderson, newly ensconced as the head of the infant Speech Arts Department. Three years later, Hugh Gillis continued the tradition (and the department take-over) of the pageants with Alice in Wonderland on the south lawn in celebration of Homecoming. The only later production that took on the size and color of these early century spectacles was Rose of the Rancho, expanded beyond even Belasco's vision and staged in 1949 in the inner quad under the direction of James Clancy. (Aside from its spectacle, the outstanding memory of this production is the insistence of two hoot-owls, inhabitants of the tower, which, from the vantage point of a nearby pine, joined in every musical solo.
Evelyn McCurdy-Sivier remembers Rose:
My part was small and did not require my attendance at every rehearsal. The fact that Dr. Clancy was to be director came as a surprise to all of us. We were used to his preference for the heavier classics. We had a very large cast and were not surprised to hear a few pencils breaking. He was in the habit of using this quiet method of venting his frustration when people did not follow direction. As usual, however, he put everything together and ended up with a magical night in a beautiful setting.
Wendell Johnson outdid himself in that corner of the quad. Colorful tapestries on the tall walls. Lovely and authentic costumes and music. I had a small part as the proverbial chaperone, which was fun. We probably had every major in the department in that show. Revelry was in the air, and both the audience and cast felt it.
Drama and Play Production in the Normal School Curriculum
Of all the course titles still offered in 1999 as regular components of the Theatre Arts curriculum, the first and oldest is Storytelling. Mention of Storytelling as a specific technique of dramatic interpretation first appeared in 1911, taught by Miss Mackenzie in the professional Education curriculum. A newspaper announcement headlines: “Storytelling Holds High Rank in America—Increasing Demand ForTeachers in this Branch—San José Normal Offers Excellent Course”. A Dramatic Arts class also was offered in Education about the same time.
Prior to 1927, the English Department offered most of the coursework in drama, with the first course noted in the Bulletin of 1918-1919 as an “optional course in repertoire and dramatics” taught by Gertrude Payne. She continued to teach this course until her resignation in 1921. Virginia Sanderson joined the English faculty in the fall of 1922 to teach a one-term Play Production and a one-term Modern Drama class.
The Department is Formed
In 1927, Dr. MacQuarrie, the sixteenth school president, expressed his immediate desire to have a Little Theatre and formed the Speech Arts Department, the ninth of the college's specialized curricula leading to the BA degree, under the leadership of two interested English Department instructors, Clara Kuck and Virginia Sanderson. Twenty-four students initially enrolled in the major.
Estelle Greathead writes:
Four new departments are to be established in September 1928 . . . Speech and Stage Craft. This department is not actually new, as voice training, public speaking, and all the multitude of details which naturally group themselves about oral expression have been a part of the training in this institution since its inception, but dramatic study and stage craft have not been greatly emphasized except in an incidental way, and with the increasing development of the dramatic art, this course opens up a field which stretches far and wide and is rich with possibilities. (p. 51)
The First Chair
Virginia Soames Sanderson was named head of the new department. One of the inaugural classes Sanderson offered was The Theatre and School, designed for the training of play directors in public schools (“After a brief study of the theatre, the choice of plays, organization, casting, and methods of rehearsal are considered.”) This class, first offered in 1927, would eventually evolve into Children's Theatre. Her major one-term course Play Production was eventually subdivided into various specialized offerings: Scene Design, Construction, and Lighting. Her major one-term course Modern Drama was retitled Theatre Backgrounds, which later evolved into Development of Drama, History of the Theatre, and Entertainment Arts.
Sanderson, a scholarly, dynamic, talented administrator and teacher, was the major influence on the early years of the department. She became president of the Drama Teachers of California and editor of Theatre and School. Winning the Henicke Taussig award in Dramatic Art, she studied at Oxford, Medgye's School of Theatre in Paris, and at the Sorbonne. She served as visiting professor at UC Berkeley and at the Berkeley School of the Theatre.
Equally important was Sanderson's personality and philosophy, which in the first period of the department left an indelible impression “which has not disappeared in thirty-five years .” A fluent and commanding speaker, she devoted much of her energy to “selling” her program. A scholarly and demanding teacher, she aroused a respect and admiration in students and colleagues alike that amounted almost to worship. A talented writer, she published plays (Long Ago in Judea, Judas Iscariot, etc.), a volume of poetry, Pot-Pourri, a novel, God Writes a Book, many scholarly articles, and, though it is not common knowledge, she sold many stories to “pulps,” including Westerns, love stories, and more, always under a penname. The training and talents of this remarkable woman were fortunately available to the department in its birth and infancy. It would never have developed in the same way without her influence, and probably never as well. Under Sanderson's leadership, the enlarging department soon added Dramatization and Creative Dramatics, Stagecraft, and Shakespeare for School Players (1928).
In the earliest years of the department, four or five faculty members carried all of the activities—most of which were more extensive than at present . For example, Virginia Sanderson served as head of the department, taught four classes (twelve hours), directed the Verse Speaking Choir, directed and produced five of the six plays of the season, supervised the direction of many one-acts, designed and supervised the construction of the scenery, supervised student teaching, and fulfilled many speaking and writing commitments.
Sanderson's co-founder, Clara Kuck, developed a clear relationship between the offerings of oral reading, voice-speech training, and acting. In 1928, Elizabeth Jenks joined the faculty, and in 1930, Dorothy Kaucher arrived. Kaucher would become one of the department's most distinguished faculty members, a masterteacher in the development of oral interpretation as an artistic, creative medium.
Dr. Sanderson resigned in 1932 and was succeeded by Elizabeth Jenks, who served for the next five years. A woman of quiet dignity, Jenks' job was to stabilize the rapidly growing program and to maintain control over the cry for specialization on the part of both faculty and students. After her predecessor’s period of harmony and common vision, Jenks had to cope with rising faculty personality differences that had been almost absent to this point. Jenks was unsuccessful in solving a variety of problems because she was out of step with a much larger faculty now clamoring for a “place in the sun”- often the center place. In 1932, voice analysis and phonetics courses were restructured into a new offering titled Voice and Diction. By 1932-33 the department listed fifteen one-quarter courses in addition to the two basic year-long courses.
Former undergraduate James Clancy, who had joined the faculty in 1936 after moving up the peninsula to get an MA degree from Stanford, was touted in the 1938 campus newspaper as “the best student ever turned out by the Drama Department.”
As preparation for a division of the department into the two areas of Speech and Drama, the department in the summer of 1936 offered a School of the Theatre, presenting eight courses and the production of a play each week. The School presented this curriculum (with instructor names as noted):
- Laboratory Theatre—Gillis, Clancy
- Motion Picture Appreciation—Gillis
- Play Production—Gillis
- Art of Makeup—Mendenhall
- Voice and Diction—Mendenhall
The following year, 1937, Hugh Gillis assumed the duties of chairman of the (temporary) Department of Drama. In June of 1937, however, Elizabeth Jenks unexpectedly resigned as head of Speech, and Hugh Gillis was appointed to succeed her, thus postponing for roughly twenty-five years any further serious consideration of departmental division. Under Gillis' administration, Dorothy Kaucher coordinated Speech and James Clancy coordinated Drama. This organizational structure proved better in theory than in practice, and two years later was abandoned. Gillis oversaw a period of tremendous growth in specialized and professionally oriented courses and activities in the years 1937-42. Specializations such as Advanced Acting, Makeup, Motion Picture, American Drama, and Directing were added. Play Production continued as a pre-requisite for all other courses. Membership in San José Players was also a pre-requisite to actual participation in production.