by NORAH WALSH
Every year, The Princeton Review releases its list of the top 25 universities for Best College Theater, and this year, UMW ranked 19th out of 389 total universities. According to The Princeton Review, the list is based on students’ ratings of their college theatre productions that are sourced from an annual survey sent out to university students.
“The Princeton Review list of the Best College Theater is developed from the student’s surveys and the Princeton Review distributes,” said Gregg Stull, the chair of the department of theatre and dance and a theatre professor at UMW. “What we love about it is it’s a metric about what students on this campus feel about the theater program. This is not somebody crunching numbers and data, and we are thrilled about that because we want to be a part of students’ lives here.”
The support that students receive from faculty and staff members in the department shines through in the productions they present during the academic year.
“We create the opportunities, and students have to avail themselves of the opportunity,” said Stull. “When we talk to first- and second-year students, our goal is to get them out of their rooms, in our building, doing the stuff that they need to be doing in order to grow their skills.”
Stull also spoke about the wide variety of opportunities that students can get involved in, whether that be acting on the stage or contributing to the production behind the scenes. He emphasized that these opportunities can become careers and how Mary Washington being a liberal arts college allows students to explore these options.
“We want students to understand that they could build a career stitching costumes, they could build a career designing lights. All of those things are possible here,” said Stull. “And we want to introduce them to that.”
Students spoke about their personal experiences with faculty members in the department.
Seth Drenning, a senior theatre major who most recently starred as Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express” expressed his appreciation for the department faculty, highlighting Marc Williams, an assistant professor in the department of theatre and dance. Drenning will appear in UMW’s production of “True West” in February.
“My advisor and acting teacher was Marc Williams, and he really puts a lot of care into you individually, assesses you as a person and what your goals are, and will really push you to meet your goals,” said Drenning. “He knows when to take a back seat and let you go with it.”
Emily Kile, a senior theatre and English double major, commented on Gregg Stull and the influence he has had in her acting career as a professor, advisor and the director of the first show she was in. Kile recently played the role of Countess Adrenyi in “Murder on the Orient Express” and will star as Nigel in “Matilda the Musical,” which opens Nov. 1 and will run for three weeks.
“I feel like, I have grown so much with [Stull], and I feel like he has always been so invested in me as a person and as a student,” said Kile. “He’s that way with every student in this department, and it’s really special to like feel that kind of support from somebody who’s a professor and also the chair of the department.”
Jon K. Reynolds, the director of marketing and audience services for the department of theatre and dance, commented on how the faculty and students’ work has merited their presence on the list for Best College Theatre.
“Getting this ranking showed us that the work is paying off, that we are putting incredible work on the stage,” he said. “Not only does it show a great theatre production, but also the theatre students really recognizing the work that they’re doing. It’s a strong program academically and production-wise; we’re doing the right things right now.”
The reach of the department’s work doesn’t stop at College Avenue, but offers entertainment to the greater Fredericksburg area as a whole, says Reynolds.
“We don’t just market to the UMW community,” Reynolds said. “This is not just a theatre for students to come to see productions, this is a theatre that is a legitimate source of entertainment and a place for people in the Fredericksburg community—Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline County—to come and see productions and be involved in productions.”
Drenning shared similar sentiments.
“We treat Klein Theatre as if it were a professional regional theater, and it’s very well funded. We have a lot of resources at our disposal; we bring in guest designers that are sought after in the professional theatre world,” he said about the performances. “We are given a lot of tools to succeed from everything around us and they look great; they look comparable to anything you’d see in D.C. or something.”
The history of the program
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus, the department felt the effects of the closure in more ways than one.
“We shut down in the spring of 2020 when our production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ by William Shakespeare was being built in the theater,” said Reynolds. “The costumes were very far ahead, and when we were told, basically, ‘go home, you cannot reenter the building,’ the students were obviously devastated. We were devastated. It was a huge loss of time, resources and revenue at the box office.”
But, even due to the circumstances, the faculty prevailed in organizing productions that students could take part in.
“A group of faculty and staff got together and said, ‘Okay, we need to figure out, how do we rescue this? How do we do this on Zoom?’ And we did a Zoom production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ It was free to everybody,” said Reynolds. “The performance was put on Zoom one night and then streamed in perpetuity on YouTube and is able to be viewed on there.”
Stull, a UMW alumnus who majored in theatre at the University, spoke on the history of the department.
“We have always on campus had a terrific theater program,” he said. “Since its inception, the arts have been a focus of the school for decades and decades and decades.”
The new theatre
The new theatre that will replace Marshall Hall and Russell Hall offers new ways for the department to grow. According to the University’s website about the project, “Schematic design was completed in fall 2023 and the project is awaiting authority to proceed with preliminary design.”
Stull talked about the project and the level of involvement that the department of theatre and dance has had in the project.
“We, the entire faculty and staff here, have been involved from the beginning, and, in the very beginning, we did an assessment of what our needs were, and that has, over time and through conversations, become more of a reality.”
As the schematics were completed this semester, the interior design of the building is the next to be finalized.
“Right now, we’re in the process of doing the drawings that lead to working drawings,” said Stull. “So, we are honing in on the specifics of what’s inside that building. Though all the space has been allocated, now they’re just doing the detail work of how it all works together.”
Stull elaborated on the new theatre and how the interior will be designed. Inside the new building will be two theatres: one with about 300 seats and another 150-seat studio theatre in a flexible, multi-story space.
Following the department’s move to the new building, duPont Hall—where the department is currently housed—will also undergo renovation, according to Stull. These plans encompass Pollard Hall and Melchers Hall, which will be renovated from the ground up for the purpose of allocating additional space for the music and studio arts departments, as they will take over duPont Hall following the transition.
As for Klein Theatre, plans are in place to continue to preserve the performance space.
“Klein Theatre will become a gorgeous recital hall,” said Stull. “It’s a perfect size and shape for a recital hall, and it will be renovated acoustically and aesthetically, so it will remain a performance space on campus.”
“They’ve honored us”
UMW theatre ranking 19th on The Princeton Review speaks to the quality of the performances, and it also shines a light on the close relationships between the students and faculty in the department so that they can create such high-caliber productions.
From virtual performances during COVID-19 to the construction of a new theatre on campus, the theatre and dance department strives to put on quality performances, and the recognition on this list speaks to the dedication and trust that lies behind the curtains.
“I feel like the community that exists at UMW theater is filled with so much support and trust,” said Kile. “Whenever I’m in a production, I can have full faith in everyone around me, that they are going to do a beautiful job, and so I just feel so lucky to work with people who are so incredible. I feel like we’re always pushing each other to do our best, and I think that’s really special.”
“The fact that students are recognizing that this is an important part of a campus is meaningful to us and much more meaningful than some outside evaluation of number crunching,” said Stull. “And so we’re thrilled with the students on the campus. They’ve honored us in this way.”