April 23, 2020
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Kenyon's first recorded theatrical performance was of a work titled The Yankee in England, produced in 1848 by the Philomathesian Society, one of the literary societies that dominated collegiate activities in the decades preceding and during the Civil War. Over the next decade or so, Philomathesian produced several performances with titles such as Dr. Wisepate and his Patients and, a title that rings a contemporary bell, The Stagestruck Youth.
The records describe these shows as "colloquies," but they were probably vaudevilles or parodies. Following the Civil War, the literary societies or clubs did not produce plays so regularly, although they did celebrate the nation's centennial with a performance of The Spirit of '76, or the Coing of Woman. Enthusiasm for students' theatrical performances seems to have re-ignited in 1885 with a production of Tom Cobb; or, Fortune's Toy A Comedy in Three Acts; the students who produced it were "assisted by several young ladies of the village." The Kenyon Dramatic Company was formed in 1888, but was active only for a year. The Kenyon College Dramatic Club first appears in the College's records in 1895. It, along with the Puff and Powder Club, and the Sophomore and Senior classes, produced plays regularly during the early part of the twentieth century.
In 1903, Professor Reeves, McIlvaine Professor of English, staged a play with students, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, during Commencement. A few years later, the Sophomore Class began to produce plays regularly. The class plays were usually drawn from the standard repertory, including eighteenth century works such as Royal Tyler's The Contrast.
The Puff and Powder Club was formed in 1904. This group wrote and performed original musical comedies, with titles like Certainly Cynthia and Naughty Nita. Cynthia, Nita, and all the other female roles were played by male students, who spent a great deal of time and energy giving these shows elaborate productions; immensely popular and supported by alumni, they annually made three week tours to several cities. In 1926, the faculty and alumni decided that they could no longer afford the time or resources necessary to produce these shows, so Puff and Powder was disbanded.
The popularity of Puff and Powder (and probably the time and energy required by its productions) and the class plays seem to have crowded the Kenyon College Dramatic Club off the stage for several years. Performances recorded during the teens and 1920s were produced by either Puff and Powder or one of the classes. The tradition of the Senior Play continued until 1930, when Professor Reeves' health no longer permitted him to organize the shows.
A newly organized Drama Club began producing plays in 1931, and remained active through the early 1930s. In 1935, John W. Black joined the faculty to found the Department of Speech. Black was very interested in the theater, so the curriculum of his new department included the College's first credited classes in Play and Production. He reorganized the Kenyon College Dramatic Club, and the K.C.D.C., as well and the Play Production classes, performed plays in Rosse Hall, Nu Pi Kappa, Colburn Hall, the Chapel, and the Philomathesian Hall. According to Black, as recorded in Greenslade's history of the College, alumnus Charles Shaffer attended a performance in Philo during which an electrical short caused a small fire; then and there, Shaffer decided to build the Speech Building. It opened in 1941 with a production of Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion (apparently, the theatrical space in the building was first called the Hill Theater in 1953).
World War II severely restricted all activity at the College, but several individuals continued to teach speech classes, including Helen Harrington Black, who taught and directed plays while her husband served in the armed forces. As the College expanded following the war, James Michael joined John Black in 1947.
At this time the Department offered a major in Speech, defined in the 1947 Course Catalogue as the "study and practice in principles of composition and delivery of materials for oral discourse." Michael was primarily interested in teaching drama and in producing plays; he added a second Play Production class, and began the series of courses concentrating on the history and literature of the theater, still called The Stage and Its Plays.
It was during these years that Paul Newman, Kenyon '49 was a student and studied under James Michael. Newman told of a production of Charlie's Aunt that he was in. They had been in rehearsal and were set to perform on the weekend of the great fire in Old Kenyon dormitory. This famous fire would end in the deaths of nine Kenyon students. Nevertheless, President Gordon Keith Chalmers asked the cast of Charlie's Aunt to carry on with the show, to provide some balm or respite to the students grieving from the loss of their schoolmates.
When Black left for Ohio State in 1949, Clifford Haman taught speech while Jim Michael continued to teach drama, direct plays, and chair the department. Haman left at the end of the 1951-52 academic year, and Michael single-handedly ran a department with an exclusively theatrical curriculum. Its name was officially changed to the Department of Drama in 1956-57, but it ceased to offer a major course of study in that year.
Jim Michael managed the department's courses and productions by himself until a second position was added to the department in 1963-64. He was assisted by members of the Kenyon College Dramatic Club, which served (and still does) as the producer of faculty and student-directed productions. Women's roles were played by women in the wider community; these women were also very active backstage, writing and directing music, choreographing dances, providing props and scenery, and designing and making costumes.
The major in Drama was reinstated in 1964-65, at a time when the Departments of Art and Music were also expanding and developing majors. The three departments, until this time departments in the Humanities Division, organized themselves as the Fine Arts Division in 1965-66.
Drama 11-12, Introduction to the Theater, the department's foundation course, was added to the curriculum in 1967-68. Coinciding with an update to the Registrar's course numbering system, the course was re-numbered DRAM 111-112 in 2000.
Daniel Parr, a designer/technical director filled the department's second position in 1968 until his retirement in 1989. As the college expanded in anticipation of the arrival of women students, another generalist's position was added and filled by Harlene Marley in 1969. Marley would be the first woman to be awarded tenure and achieve the rank of full professor at Kenyon. She retired from the college in 2004. A third position was added to the department and filled by Thomas S. Turgeon in 1972. Turgeon retired in 2008. He and Marley were the mainstays of the department of many years after the retirement of James Michael. A costume designer/teacher became the department's fifth position in 1975-76.
The arrival of women students in the fall of 1969 marked the end of widespread community involvement in productions; the department's co-curricular production program evolved into a laboratory for its classroom teaching. With rare exceptions, students now perform and crew all productions.
Until the early 1970s the department shared a part-time secretary with the Department of Art. This staff position was made full-time in 1971. The Department's Faculty Secretary now also serves as Box Office Manager and as a general assistant to the faculty. After years of various, and mostly unsatisfactory arrangements for technical assistance in the scene shop, the staff position of Technical Director was created in 1978. An analogous position in the costume shop, Costumer, was added in 1986.
Responding to demands by women students, the department added non-credit dance classes to its offerings in 1971-72. While students received no credit for these courses, and teaching conditions were far from ideal, they established dance as part of the community's cultural life. With advice from several distinguished teachers of dance, the department instituted credited courses and a major in dance in 1977-78; at the same time, a sixth full-time position was added to the department, filled by Margaret Patton, a choreographer, who retired in 1999. The growth of the dance program necessitated the addition of a part time position in 1984.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the department's activities and classes grew too numerous to be housed exclusively in the Shaffer Speech Building. Performances were given all over the campus, and classes, costume building, and scenery storage occupied a number of college buildings in the village. Dance classes were taught on the shaky foundations of the building now occupied by Advancement; that space doubled as a performance space for student-directed shows. Years of planning and fund raising culminated in the winter of 1978, when the Bolton Theater opened with Michael Cristofer's C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby, a world premiere directed by alumnus Paul Newman. In 1981, the Shaffer Swimming Pool was remodeled into the Bolton Dance Studio, thanks to the same donor who made the theater possible.
Ted Walch, Kenyon '63, began a summer theater in the Hill Theater in the summer of 1966; it was discontinued two years later because of lack of community and financial support. In 1980, the Kenyon Festival Theater, a fully professional summer theater, began production, also under the direction of Ted Walch. In 1984 it too drowned in a sea of red ink.
The department's name was officially changed to the Department of Dance and Drama in 1984.
In 1991, a donor began funding on a year-to-year basis the position of Playwright in Residence. In May 1994, the College's administration began an organized fund-raising campaign to make this a permanently endowed position, named in honor of James Michael. Wendy MacLeod, Kenyon '82, who had demonstrated success as a critically acclaimed playwright and skill as a teacher, filled the position.
A sixth faculty position was added in 1998, which allowed for the teaching of film related classes on a regular basis. In 2007 with the announcement of the "Drive for Excellence" campaign, the college announced the establishment of the Thomas S. Turgeon Endowed faculty chair. Jonathan E. Tazewell, Kenyon '84 was appointed to this position in 2009. Due to the increased demand by students in dance, a second full time position in dance was created in 2002.
For many years the department supported the teaching of film and the students interested in making film as a part of their major. In 2011 the department was officially changed to the Department of Dance, Drama, and Film with the addition of a new and complete major in film, and currently, there are nine faculty and three supporting staff and administrators in the department.