From Curtain Club to ProTheatre: Why the Name Change Matters
The Curtain Club remained Ursinus' main theatrical outlet from its acknowledgment as a student organization in 1930 into 1968, until it changed its name to ProTheatre. This may have been a simple name alteration, but why did it need to happen? The trends of college theater groups across the United States during this time reveals how undergraduate theater transformed into something more radical and environmentally affected than expected. By researching the plays that were performed in the past at Ursinus, mainly focusing on productions in the 1950s into the 60s, and then noting the changes to the typical American university's theater program, the Curtain Club's movement into ProTheatre depicts the growth of theater as a whole and the need for audience participation and increased involvement within the performances themselves.
Ursinus held at least two theater productions during each semester, sometimes holding three or four, and since most of them were open for two days, there was much more time during the year to put on other plays and even student-written one-acts. During the 1950s, Ursinus performed many plays: May Day (1950), Arsenic and Old Lace (1951), Sari (1952), The Philadelphia Story (1952), Light Up the Sky (1952), Two Blind Mice (1953), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1954), The Mad Woman of Chaillot (1955), My Three Angels (1955), Charley's Aunt (1956), Ten Little Indians (1957), Sabrina Fair (1957), She Stoops to Conquer (1958), and The Solid Gold Cadillac (1959). This list does not include other productions during the decade, but they are all ones that the archives have playbills of.
Most of these plays have similar qualities, especially in the time period they were written in, the characters, and plot points. Between 1939 and 1953, all but three of the listed plays above were written, and most of them take place during these times as well. The only ones that were written before were May Day in 1611, Charley's Aunt in 1892, and She Stoops to Conquer in 1773. There was no information regarding the production of Sari or when it was written; the only evidence shows that it was performed at Ursinus in 1952. The characters in these plays consisted mainly of white people, except for Charley's Aunt in which the persona of the aunt is Brazilian and the character of the colonel is Indian. Not only were these casts primarily white, but they were dominated by leading men. Some plays prioritized women in leading roles such as The Philadelphia Story, but even if there were multiple main characters, most were led by men like in Light Up the Sky, which has two men and one woman in the main roles. The plots all shared their own differences, but each of them involved some sort of romantic element whether it be a budding romance between characters, an amorous setting, or the appearance of ex-lovers. While the plays have differences, they have similarities that reveal information about the 1950s: how productions were dominated by white actors and actresses, romance was a key part of each play, and there was not much controversy surrounding these productions when Ursinus performed them. As shown by the number of productions Ursinus held, theater was a growing interest of the campus, and the same can be applied to the rest of the United States during the 1950s (League).
Theater has been a prominent aspect of American society, but in education, theater had a slow beginning until the Second War War ended. Thanks to the American mindset of 'being the best' and wanting to dominate other countries, especially the Soviet Union, in new advances and education, a cascade of educational reform acts were established, such as the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 (Berkeley 57-58). These acts were developed to increase federal programs and funding for those programs, and most of these included work within the humanities and the arts. The two main programs created were the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, which prompted theater and performance to be intertwined with already existing curricula in American universities (58). This increase in the humanities and theater began to expand across the country, and educators themselves were excited by this growth.
The expansion of theater in the United States saw a shift in the educational focus, providing that theater be held at the same standard as other subjects and courses. People began to think that there should not be discouragement pointed toward these students or teachers who are involved with the arts because they are just as knowledgeable in their field of work. That's their specialty. Samuel Seldon described that studying "dramatic art" leads students to "acquire...an intuitive recognition of values, a feeling for moral relationships, and a sense of unrationalized, but nevertheless valid, perspective" (Seldon 4). While there were controversy and backlash surrounding this right-brained approach implementing theater into the national college curricula, it still took place. There would not have been a more perfect time either since "The Directory of American College Theatre for 1960 reported enormous curricular expansion from 1945 through the 1950s" in theater and the arts (Berkeley 60). From the 1950s, theater reached even more horizons in the educational world during the 1960s into the 70s.
From the 1960s to the 1970s, theater not only became more popular amongst American colleges, but it also developed into a more focused discipline. There was a rising "interest in non-technical theatrical training," which included acting and performance, and "[designing]...college theatre as a vocational program" (Berkeley 61). Educators in theater departments did not want their students to be released into the world and laughed at because of their degree in the performing arts. They sought to broaden the scope of theater courses, allowing students to participate in backstage work, acting, design, and technical management. By giving students an expansive range of tasks and experience, employers would notice their credibility and expertise. The Curtain Club was a part of this theatrical growth in American colleges, which is one of the reasons why it changed into ProTheatre.
With the dramatic increase in theater across the United States, the Curtain Club had to join the movement. In 1968, it changed its name to ProTheatre, marking a new transition into the progressive theatrical world. For this reason, ProTheatre became Ursinus' response to the societal activism happening around the country. It is "Pro-Change."
ProTheatre was designed to keep audiences entertained by including them within the productions. From the Ursinus Weekly article listed to the left, it shows that Ursinus wanted to "[break] the barrier between play and players." Members of ProTheatre aimed for a more "experimental theatre" by utilizing improvisation, audience interactions, and drama within the play being performed. Students were asked to understand the production and their characters to their fullest capacity in order to perform some of what was on the script and to develop their personas and plots through ad-libbing and facial expressions. The audience would be involved as well, and actors were known to interact with them. This could have been the beginning of Ursinus' "talk backs" after every performance. Through examining the developments of theater across the United States, it is clear that the Curtain Club needed to join this theatrical movement and transition into ProTheatre to keep up its popularity.
Berkeley, Anne. "Changing Theories of Undergraduate Theatre Studies, 1945–1980." The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 42 no. 3, 2008, pp. 57-70. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jae.0.0015
Rogers, Bethany L. “Teaching and Social Reform in the 1960s: Lessons from National Teacher Corps Oral Histories.” The Oral History Review, vol. 35, no. 1, 2008, pp. 39–67. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20628002.
League, The Broadway. “Internet Broadway Database.” IBDB: Internet Broadway Database, www.ibdb.com/.
Seldon, Samuel. “Dramatic Arts in the University Curriculum,” Players Magazine (March–April 1946): 4.