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Curtain Calls

February 2, 2000

Jason Eness
Michael DeMocker

It was nothing short of, well, pure drama. The year: 1967. The place: Tulane University's theater department, whose doctoral program was widely regarded as the nation's best.

The conflict: Faculty members going head-to-head with administrators over the lack of a central performance facility on campus. The resolution: The Tulane doctoral program was decimated by the exodus of six of the nine theater faculty members, who quit Tulane en masse to create a strong new department at New York University.

Quietly, over the ensuing 33 years, the Tulane theater program has been slowly but surely rebuilding; current faculty members say the program is only now coming close to restoring the grandeur of three decades ago. And the campus performance facility? A new theater is included in the plans for the second phase of Elleanora McWilliams Hall, pending adequate funding. "Our dream is to finish phase two of the building and get the performance facility," says Marty Sachs, head of the Department of Theatre and Dance. "With that, we'd be able to grow in our programs to develop the stature we think we can bring to this university."
The curtain first rose for the Tulane theater department in 1937 with the arrival of Monroe Lippman. Before his appearance, plays were produced irregularly and were completely extracurricular. According to a 1967 article in the Hullabaloo, there had been an open feud between two student groups over who was to control the unguided activity.

Lippman's presence ended the feud and marked the beginning of a monumental building process. The young Lippman came to Tulane determined to succeed, fresh from receiving a PhD from Southwest Texas State.

He sent out a campuswide announcement soon after the beginning of the fall semester that stated, "Our purpose in organizing the Tulane Theatre is to produce a better brand of drama at the University." Since no central performance facility existed on campus, Shakespeare's line from As You Like It--"All the world's a stage"--took on a quasi-literal meaning.

For a production of The Importance of Being Earnest during Lippman's first year, the cast was forced to rehearse in six different spaces, some as far from campus as a Carrollton Avenue church and a downtown hotel. Frustrations over performance space were relieved somewhat during Lippman's second year, when Tulane provided a temporary workshop that later became known as The Playhouse and was still in use when Lippman resigned 29 years later.

While Lippman and other faculty members joining the department in following years didn't succeed in securing a performance area they found satisfactory, they are given credit for spearheading the movement that, within 20 years of its crude origin as an undergraduate program, led to the development of a world-renowned doctoral program.

Lippman, joined by such faculty members as Richard Schechner and Irving Ribner, spent the 1940s, '50s and early '60s determined to continue producing "a better brand of drama."

The program received a big boost in 1957 when professor Robert Corrigan arrived from Carleton College in Minnesota, bringing with him the year-old Carleton Drama Review, whose name, appropriately, was quickly changed to the Tulane Drama Review.

This journal, published by the department, steadily gained national recognition and by the 1960s was the most widely read literary theatrical journal in the world, counting among its fans director Harold Clurman and actor/director Ingmar Bergman. "No other Theatre magazine has maintained such high standards," Bergman was quoted as saying.

With its reputation growing, most in the theater department by the mid-'60s felt the university should provide a permanent performance facility, and in early April 1967 professors Schechner and Lippman gave Tulane President Herbert Longenecker what was essentially an ultimatum: build us a theater at Tulane, or we will find one elsewhere. The ultimatum failed, and the "elsewhere" became NYU. "Most everybody left in 1967," says theater professor Buzz Podewell.

Podewell came to Tulane in 1973 after studying at NYU with some of the very professors who had left Tulane.

"I think it really came down to egos," Podewell says. "Faculty members felt they were onto something first-rate, doing important things, and they went to President Longenecker and argued, 'We have this magazine and department with a national reputation, and we need a theater or we will leave.' "And from what I understand of it, the president responded with something along the lines of, 'Who the hell are you? Oh yeah, the theater bunch.' I don't think he was that impressed."

Schechner, one of the departing members, was already widely known for being somewhat controversial. He had been arrested in 1963 for participating in a civil rights sit-in at New Orleans City Hall, and in 1966 the American Civil Liberties Union asked for an injunction against the FBI on behalf of Schechner and several others, allegedly for putting him under surveillance following a silent vigil protesting nuclear weapons.

A Hullabaloo interview shortly after the fateful meeting with the president in 1967 quoted him saying, "It is ironic that this theatre department is better known out of the University than in. We were just one or two rungs away from the top."

So Schechner and five other faculty members--two-thirds of the department--set off for greener pastures, and better facilities, at NYU, taking the Tulane Drama Review and many of the Tulane doctoral students with them. The journal is still being produced, albeit now under the name The Drama Review. With the loss of faculty and students, the Tulane doctoral program in theater was discontinued and the program began focusing on undergraduates.

Today's theater program has regained the level of excellence it enjoyed before the events of 1967, notes theater professor Hugh Lester, although the programs are very different.

"The program that left was a very interesting one in that it was very theoretically oriented," Lester says. "Today's program is much more production-oriented." Lester believes that despite the program's growth, the department has reached a plateau--again, primarily, because of the old thorn--lack of performance space.

"We were nomads for about the first decade after I came here," he says. "The department was in a building that's where the Boggs building is now. Then we moved across the quad; our offices were in Alcee Fortier and we were producing plays in the Lupin Theater. Then we moved to the women's gym when we merged with the dance department, and we were in temporary quarters in Jones Hall. "There were times when I felt that the next step was to buy a tent and pitch it on the Newcomb quad," Lester jokes.

The lack of a permanent theater hasn't hampered the students who have gone through the program. Actor/Director Paul Michael Glaser (A&S '67), who attended Tulane under Lippman and Ribner, says the opportunity was more important than the surroundings. "That was at a time, in my formative years, when I didn't care what the plant looked like," he recalls. "I was just happy for the opportunity to act."

Rebecca McFarland (N '95), another theater major who has gone on to a successful career, agrees. "When we were creating a play and the set was going up, I never really thought, 'We don't have a great space.' Because they always made it into a great space; Hugh Lester did an amazing job of designing sets for that space."

Still, the search for permanent performance space goes on. But as the accompanying profiles of just a few of Tulane's theater grads illustrate, the show goes on as well.

Jason Eness spent the fall of 1999 completing an internship in the Tulane publications office. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Tulanian magazine.


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