BWW Interview: Producing Artistic Director Sandy Robbins of UD REP
This is the 3rd of Aisle Say's interviews with local arts professionals. Each organization has similar overarching concerns of cancellations, lost revenues, refunds, donations, personnel anxiety and the preposterous nightmare of rescheduling in uncertainty. On the other hand, each have specific issues relevant to their own audiences, procedures and organizational structures.
There is no live theater in the state - much less the region - that has delivered qualitative consistency in every aspect of live performance (acting, set, sound, light, costumes) than UD Resident Ensemble Players (REP). Sandy Robbins brought his MFA program from U of Wisconsin to UD and created the Professional Theatre Training Program, known as PTTP.
Beginning in a former girl's gym on campus in 1989, I recall sitting in the bleachers watching the mournful "Dancing at Lughnasa", a memory play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. It spoke to the sadness of dirt-poor Irish and economic deprivations. (Okay, 'jolly' or 'laugh a minute' is not normally ascribed to Irish plays).
Moving to the lush and intimate Thompson Theatre in the Roselle Center for the Arts in 2008, this inaugural season included Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid". I could not believe what I was seeing. This is the first time I have publicly addressed my personal issues, but I was born with a bereaved chin. The little that there was of it lay on the floor during that evening! I chuckle as I reminisce on the enema gloves worn by Michael Gotch and Mic Matarrese and then eventually inserted in orifices better left unspoken.
REP's mission is to stage the classics (Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Wilder, Williams, etc...and periodically inject a new play, examples include several by award-winning Teresa Rebeck. REP actor/playwright Michael Gotch has premiered two of his own plays at the venue.
This is a true ensemble of actors. Each could play each other's characters. And the majority of the ensemble have been there since the opening: the aforementioned colorectal surgeons, Stephen Pelinkski, Elizabeth Heflin, Kathleen Pirkl Tague and Steve Tague. Some original members have left. Relative newcomers are Hassan El-Amin, Rene Thornton, Jr and the irrepressible and hilarious Lee Ernst. In their comedies one looks forward to the inevitable chaos Ernst brings to his character.
In the interview with Producing Artistic Director Sandy Robbins, I questioned how he created such a formidable cultural foundation and why so many actors have been with him since inception. He went in another direction, saying that not only do the actors love one another, but also that, by definition, actors are peripatetic, moving from one show in one city to the next opportunity somewhere else. "Residing in a community gives the opportunity to raise a family and create financial stability as well as establishing a 'team' of actors who know each other intimately and can achieve more artistry as a result. All of them are part of the UD faculty and teach at least one theatre class, (now online) "Also", says Robbins, "the classics we present give all of them the prospect of expanding themselves artistically".
True, Mr. Robbins. But Aisle Say doth protest: you HAVE created an estimable culture. Stability, teamwork and congeniality is no easy task. Just ask professional and college coaches.
"We are in the midst of assessing", comments Robbins in an understatement as colossal as the crisis upon us.
"We cancelled The Crucible after its first week. We had THE WHIPPPING MAN and ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN ready to close out the season. Our contracts call for upfront payment a year out. Therefore, we paid 100% for all the producing rights, the casts and creative crews for this season and NEXT".
REP's donor base takes up multiple program book pages. "The donors have been very faithful and responsive".
Season ticket holders, like those of the other organizations I have interviewed, either donate the tickets or ask for a raincheck for next year. (Although the latter works against next year's revenue).
Unlike other non-profit theatrical groups, REP is not stand alone. It is a part of the University, "so we really don't qualify for grants as do the others. We report to the Provost and the President. We'll take a look at what the NEA receives from the first stimulus go round and determine how to proceed".
Actors Equity Association, the union, does not allow live streaming of performances. A group can use one camera to tape a show for archival purposes. Publishing houses and the authors of a work would not get their cut, so they allege.
Aisle Say suggests this rule must be amended in the new normal. Let's say we get back to live audiences. Many patrons will still be wary. Social distancing is established (think WH briefing room). The theatre loses money for they can't pack the house. If a 3-camera set up filmed the production at dress rehearsal, that version could be sent encrypted to their mailing list. There would be a fee. How AEA eventually and the publishing house from where the script was licensed will join in as well. Bottom line, the old strictures must be rethought and negotiations should begin. It must be part of the new normal.
Robbins reports that a member of the costume committee had a wonderful idea. They already had their sewing machines and material at home. Presently 44 people are making masks, shields and gowns for Christiana Hospital, 1st responders, other medical organizations and UD employees.
With an ensemble as creative and innovative as REP, they are considering pod casts of old radio shows. "Dylan Thomas did UNDER MILKWOOD as a radio show" says Robbins. "The entire Orson Wells repertoire is being considered".
(Stay tuned for Wells' "War of the Worlds" and attendant foley art. If the broadcast comes to pass, it absolutely must be aired on a King Lear 'wild and stormy' night with bursts of 'fiery lightning', 'rumblings of horrible thunder' and 'groans of roaring wind and rain').
As with all who are shut down, the agonizing question is WHEN? Robbins laments, "even if we had an all clear for September, we would need to know in June to prepare".
p.s. Aisle Say is Shocked, Shocked, Shocked that he has never been asked to provide his favorite all time 5 past productions for a 'revival' season!