by Rick Pender
On Oct. 4, 2008, the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music celebrated the 25th anniversary of its acting department, a noteworthy benchmark for any fine arts training program. But there are a lot of points of interest along that quarter-century road, and many players who have made the program what it is today.
One-time musical theater department head Worth Gardner started the ball rolling when he learned that Professor of Theater Paul Rutledge would soon retire. The Theatre program at UC under Professor Emeritus Rutledge had a long and proud history as a major in the College of Arts and Sciences, granting Bachelor’s degrees in Theatre Arts and Speech and Theatre. Gardner’s initial intention was to move several faculty positions into his department, but when he recruited Michael Hankins, the Apprentice and Intern Director from the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville said he’d only come to UC if he could head a conservatory-style acting program. Moving the program to CCM and changing the degree from a liberal arts based Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree to a performance based Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree was officially approved in 1983.
Hankins drew Kvapil into the mix, and the two were assigned the task of creating a curriculum. “We were at a disadvantage,” she laughs today. “We were inexperienced with academia as we both had exclusively professional backgrounds. We had to write a summary of what would be taught in each class. I don’t know how we got it done.” But they did, and that fall classes began, offering degrees to undergraduates and two master’s level programs, one in directing and one in acting. Since 1986 when the first degrees were conferred, more than 200 actors and directors have graduated from CCM Drama.
Hankins departed in 1989, but Kvapil, Burnham and Finney, by then all full-time faculty members, remained. They were joined during the next decade by two of the program’s master’s-degree products: Richard Hess, who arrived in 1990 and earned his M.F.A. in directing, was hired in 1993, and became department chair in 1994, a position he still holds. k. Jenny Jones, who earned her M.F.A. in dramatic performance in 1995, was a full-time adjunct instructor of acting and movement for several years until 1998, when a permanent position was created for her.
Speech professor Rocco Dal Vera, who offers dialect coaching at theaters across the U.S., arrived in 1998. He observes that most of his colleagues came into positions that were created for them. “I think that in the history of theater programs, this is really rare. It’s often a gypsy situation, but here we have institutional memory.”
For instance, there are fond memories of the department’s early days in Wilson Auditorium, which opened in 1930, where classrooms, performance space and faculty offices remained until 1999, when the program moved into the new CCM Village. Part of Wilson’s structure became cracked and had been ‘condemned’, but the fledgling department commandeered the stage itself and adapted it into a performance space with bleacher-style seating in the portion still considered safe. (That configuration served as the inspiration for the flexible Cohen Family Studio Theater in the new CCM complex.)
(L-R- Philip Solomon, Cooper Thornton, Nicole Callender, Eric Weisheit, Shannon Rae Lutz,
and David Schaplowsky)
Hess, who did everything at Wilson from mopping floors and moving chairs to hanging lights and hunting down scenic elements, says, “Sometimes it used to rain on stage during shows, and you could hear the lights sizzle during dramatic pauses; we were never sure if Wilson was completely safe. Yet we had classes in the lobby and in the old library —and in an unremarkable little room, ‘Room 109,’ in which a lot of theatre magic happened.” Room 109 also apparently had a window that was never locked and could easily be climbed through, giving students 24/7 access to the building for rehearsals and other activities.
Part of the program’s evolution toward success was distilling its offerings to what could be done most effectively. The graduate program in dramatic performance was eliminated in 1998. When the department moved to the CCM Village in 1999, it was a further catalyst for change. “Being housed with everyone else made us do what we did better,” says Hess. “We became more integrated.”
The focus is now squarely on training undergraduates to be theater professionals. In a CityBeat interview in 2000, Hess told me that he preferred not to characterize changes in the program as an expansion. “Rather than say ‘growth,’ I want to say it’s been a deepening of the drama program. We didn’t change our philosophy or take a short cut. What we’ve done is do what we do better. As a result, student performances have grown, our reputation has grown, and our recruitment has grown. It’s a big snowball.” CCM Acting is currently the third most-applied-to program in the Conservatory, after musical theater and voice.
In 1998-1999, Hess and Burnham directed the two-part Angels in America, giving Tony Kushner’s much-praised drama its first Cincinnati staging. A year later the department produced Frank Galati’s immense dramatization of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a show that convinced Finney the department had arrived. “There was a certain depth of field across performances that marked a turning point, a new level of sophistication in performance.”
This was the product of recruiting more students into the program, yielding an “ensemble” of roughly 50 actors for directors to draw upon — and that evolves from year to year as new students enroll, some graduate and others leave following an evaluative process in the freshman and sophomore years called “boards” that determines if they are progressing. Today students are recruited in auditions in cities from New York to Los Angeles, including Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, and Louisville.
At least once during their four years at UC, acting students are required to find work with one of Cincinnati’s professional or semi-professional theater companies. Landing off-campus performance opportunities is one way the program prepares students to get hired after they graduate. “We’re not just taking their tuition and giving them a nice hobby,” Hess explains. “We train professionals.”
To that end and thanks to a generous endowment from the family of A.B., Dolly, Ralph and Julia Cohen, the program annually presents graduating seniors in audition showcases in New York City and in Los Angeles, where today more than four dozen drama grads work steadily in film and television. CCM Acting is one of only a handful of BFA programs in the nation that can boast of bi-coastal actor showcases for industry professionals. The Cohen Family funding also supports the operation of CCM’s Studio Theater and an array of other departmental activities, including residencies by notable playwrights, directors, actors, and industry professionals. Close ties exist between CCM Acting and Anne Bogart’s SITI Co. and Theatre MITU out of New York.
The acting department’s 25 years have coalesced around a concerted focus on students by faculty who bring component parts to create a dynamic, successful program. This evolutionary process has yielded a coherent, unique training program for theater professionals.
Richard Oberacker (CCM Acting 1993) is currently the Musical Director and Conductor in Las Vegas for the Cirque du Soleil extravanza KA at the MGM Grand Casino. He served as the Musical Director and Conductor of the First National Tour of The Lion King and for Cirque Du Soleil's Dralion. He has served as associate conductor for the National Tours of Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Music Of The Night, and Show Boat. He composed the score forThe Gospel According to Fishman, Dracula; the Game of Love, Don't Make Me Pull This Show Over and ACE.
Damian Baldet (CCM Acting 1995) Damian appeared in the Broadway production of Sophie Treadwell's MACHINAL (4 Tony Award Nominations). Damian played Timon for more than five years in the London, National Tour and Las Vegas productions of The Lion King. He has also appeared in A Murder, A Mystery and a Marriage (Two River Theatre Co.) and in many shows with The Civilians in New York, where he was a company member: Gone Missing, Nobody's Lunch, and Canard, Canard, Goose. He is a graduate of UC San Diego with an MFA in Acting.
The Satori Group founder Lindsey Valitchka (CCM Acting 2006)
The Satori Group, an award winning theatre company founded in 2006 and now residing in Seattle, Washington, is a theatre company devoted to new works and ensemble work created by the 4 beautiful actors pictured above. Projects have included iLove, (rsvp), TRAGEDY: a Tragedy, Artifacts of Consequence, Winky, and Making of a Monster.