50 Years of Mizzou Summer Repertory Theatre

The cast of Ragtime, Rebecca Allen Photography
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Departments: 
Theatre

The tagline for MU Theatre is “Theatre Makes a Difference,” and for 50 years, the Summer Repertory Theatre (SRT) on the University of Missouri campus has been making a difference in the lives of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the community.

The program was renamed the Larry D. Clark Summer Repertory Theatre in summer 2017 to honor its founder and longtime advocate, the late Larry Clark, dean emeritus of the College of Arts and Science and professor emeritus of theatre.Larry Clark

To mark this summer’s 50th anniversary of SRT, Department Chair Heather Carver and her colleagues staged a trio of high-caliber productions that vividly demonstrated the boundless possibilities of live theatre: Corduroy, directed by Matt Saltzberg, PhD ’11 theatre; two Comedies in Concert shows, directed by theatre doctoral students Lainie Vansant and Derek Munson; and Ragtime: The Musical, directed by Joy Powell, PhD ’15 theatre.

All the World’s a Stage

Larry Clark taught acting, directing, and the history of the American theatre, and he co-wrote the acting textbook, Acting is Believing, which is now in its 12th edition and considered a classic text in the field. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1956 at what is now Missouri State University in Springfield and completed his master’s in theatre at MU in 1961, studying under Donovan Rhynsburger, founder of the MU Department of Theatre. After earning his doctorate at the University of Illinois, Clark joined the Mizzou faculty as a professor of speech and dramatic art in 1966 and remained until his retirement in 1999. 

According to Saltzberg, Clark was among the vanguard of a movement to characterize people in theatre as actors and scholars, as opposed to scholars who just happened to enjoy theatre.

“When I entered the PhD program several years after Dr. Clark’s retirement, I benefited from his original, guiding impulse and was able to act, direct, and write a dissertation about acting and directing,” Saltzberg wrote when SRT was renamed in Clark’s honor. “I built a synergistic career in which research-based practice and practice-based research stand at the forefront.”

 

Ragtime choreographer Keith Tyrone Williams

Ragtime choreographer Keith Tyrone Williams works with members of the cast.

This dual-natured approach is what has made the SRT program so impactful for half a century.

“The tie-in of academic and professional theatre is something the Larry D. Clark Summer Repertory Theatre has really infused,” Carver says. “We can do both: we can be professional, and we can learn. It’s learning, it’s apprenticeship, it’s all that good stuff that comes from working together.” 

This model was great training for generations of MU thespians. Patrick Chmel, MA ’72, PhD ’75 theatre parlayed his SRT experience into a career as the director of theatre at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

 

Ragtime choreographer Keith Tyrone Williams

Ragtime choreographer Keith Tyrone Williams in rehearsal with cast members.

“SRT was a crash course in making theatre happen efficiently and professionally. Very few theatre organizations dared to engage in the repertory process, rehearsing three shows during one month, then performing them in the next. It taught me both the artistry and the bare-knuckled workmanship behind getting theatre done.” 

A Storied History

In an unpublished memoir, Clark wrote that his fondest Mizzou memory as a masters’ student involved the Rooftop Theatre Under The Stars—a stage Rhynsburger had erected on the roof of the education building—where theatre productions were held during the summer months. Actor George C. Scott (of Patton) had performed during one of the theatre’s first seasons.

 

Rooftop Theatre Under The Stars—a stage on the roof of the education building

The Rooftop Theatre Under the Stars on top of the education building.

Rhynsburger tapped Clark to be one of two student directors during the 1960 season. That same year, the new theatre, later renamed in honor of Rhynsburger, was launched, and productions moved indoors to the air-conditioned space with a well-equipped stage. MU’s Summer Repertory Theatre season officially launched in 1969, fulfilling Clark’s vision of creating a professional, paid theatre experience for students.

“Larry really wanted to make those connections for people—to have a professional company in the summer,” Carver says. “We believe in theatre as a job. We love what we do, but it is work. So everyone is paid in the summer, and that’s an important part of what we’re doing.”

 

Heather Carver and Dean Pat Okker unveil new theatre name.

Theatre department chair Heather Carver and Arts & Science Dean Pat Okker unveil the new name of MU's summer repertory theatre in July 2017.

Carver says paid summer theatre is a bit unusual—most summer repertory companies and community theatre troupes are volunteer.

“During the academic year, students are taking classes on how to do theatre, but in the summer you could go to work at a grocery store or you could get paid to do theatre. That’s something Larry wanted to create, and we’ve kept going,” Carver says.

Clark directed a number of student actors who would later become household names: Tom (Moore) Berenger in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?; Chris Cooper in Pal Joey and When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?; and Mark Fauser, who acted in Grease, South Pacific, and Bus Stop at Mizzou and was later cast in television shows such as Quantum Leap, Coach, and Evening Shade with Burt Reynolds.    

 

A scene from Ragtime, Rebecca Allen Photography

Members of the immigrant cast in a scene from Ragtime the Musical; Rebecca Allen Photography.

“One of the goals I recommended in my proposal when I was seeking the initial funding for establishing the Rep company was to improve the level of talent for our better students to work with and use as role models,” Clark wrote. “Another goal was to provide the community with first-class theatre, with each show featuring excellent acting and mounted with settings and in costumes that met the highest standards of the field.”

Telling Stories that Matter

When it came time to pick the shows for the 50th anniversary year of SRT, Carver and Powell wanted to go big.

“We knew we wanted to do something bigger than what we normally do because we wanted to celebrate this legacy that Larry Clark created,” Powell says. “We want to tell stories that matter, we want to tell stories that resonate with folks from all different walks of life, and we want to celebrate what we feel like our country is about—which is diversity.”

The team chose Ragtime for the main summer production, which has been on their “dream show” list for a long time.

 

A scene from Ragtime, Rebecca Allen Photography

A scene from Ragtime the Musical; Rebecca Allen Photography.

Ragtime, written by E. L. Doctorow, was published in 1975 and is a work of historical fiction mainly set in the New York City area during the early 20th century. It features three intersecting storylines: the New Rochelle cast about an affluent, Caucasian family; the Harlem cast, which focuses on a black man’s search for justice; and the Ellis Island cast, highlighting the immigrant experience in America.

Powell says it takes a veritable army to produce a show as complex as Ragtime, which features 34 cast members, a 16-piece orchestra, and a large crew of people backstage making it all happen. About 125 people were involved in the production.

 

Ragtime rehearsal, Rebecca Allen Photography

Members of the "veritable army" it took to stage the production of Ragtime the Musical rehearse prior to the show's open; Rebecca Allen Photography.

“We had folks in Ragtime who are students—undergrad, graduate, and PhDs. We had alumni, we had faculty and staff, we had community folks, and we had people from New York—people who’ve been on Broadway—here working on the show,” she says. “I had an assistant director, two acting coaches, a music director, a stage manager and two assistants, and the costume crew and the shops creating the sets—it’s huge. I knew I was going to need help, and what’s so great about theatre is it’s collaborative.”

 

Kara Braudis in Ragtime, Rebecca Allen Photography

Kara Braudis as "Mother" in Ragtime the Musical; Rebecca Allen Photography.
 

The View from the Stage

Kara Braudis, BA ’02 biological sciences, MD ’07, majored in biology during her time at Mizzou, but also took musical theatre classes and participated in theatre. She even landed the starring role of Maria in the 2002 SRT production of The Sound of Music. After finishing her degrees, she has gone on to a successful career as a dermatologist at MU Health Care.

But this anniversary summer, Braudis made a return to the Rhynsburger Theatre stage, where she performed a leading role as Mother in the New Rochelle cast of Ragtime.

 

New Rochelle cast of Ragtime, Rebecca Allen Photography

The "New Rochelle" cast of Ragtime the Musical; Rebecca Allen Photography.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a number of years, but I have two kids, and it’s a decent time commitment,” she says. She had reached a stage in her life and in her professional career where she wanted to set some new personal goals and expand her boundaries. Ragtime fit the bill.

“I think the show is as current and as relevant as it has ever been,” she says. “It actively explores themes (immigration, racism, women’s rights) that we are dealing with on the national stage right now.”

The Harlem cast of Ragtime follows the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a confident, educated black man, who is seeking justice for the death of his lover. The role went to a graduate student named Marques Jerrell Ruff.

 

Marques Jerrell Ruff in Ragtime, Rebecca Allen Photography

Marques Jerrell Ruff as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Symmone Sparks in Ragtime the Musical; Rebecca Allen Photography.

Ruff majored in music education and performance with a minor in theatre at Central Connecticut State University. He then served as a middle and high school teacher for several years before joining Chanticleer, a Grammy Award–winning male classical vocal ensemble based in San Francisco. After four years of touring the world with Chanticleer, Ruff decided it was time to pursue a master’s degree. He will graduate with two from MU in spring 2020: one in choral conducting and one in voice performance. And Ragtime was a powerful experience for him.

 

The Harlem cast of Ragtime, Rebecca Allen Photography

The "Harlem" cast of Ragtime the Musical, Rebecca Allen Photography.

“Summer repertory theatre, specifically this show, is important because you are working with people from all walks of life. From those who’ve done musicals on Broadway and national tours to students who’ve just finished their freshman year of college. The breadth of experience—about life and how this business works—is amazing to witness and be part of. We were tasked with not only being good singers, but also impactful storytellers.”

The Play’s the Thing

In addition to Ragtime, SRT also performed three other productions this summer.

The first two were part of the annual Comedies in Concert series, where Mizzou actors, directors, and playwrights read, rehearse, stage, and perform a show in one day! This summer’s renditions included Prince Snow, directed by Munson, and How to Catch a Sasquatch by Katy Troha, directed by Vansant.

 

A scene from Corduroy, Rebecca Allen Photography

A scene from Corduroy; Rebecca Allen Photography.

They were followed by Corduroy, a children’s show based on the classic book by Don Freeman featuring the tale of a bear “on his delightfully destructive chase through…a department store in search of his missing button.” For the first time, SRT also staged a sensory-friendly version of the play in conjunction with the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. They had to restage and rethink the entire performance, but it opened the performance up to new audiences—a fitting addition in the anniversary year.

 

A scene from Corduroy, Rebecca Allen Photography

Murphy Ward as Corduroy with Myriah Araiza as a clown in Corduroy; Rebecca Allen Photography.

Bringing theatre to the public has always been a priority for the program. In late June, SRT performed Corduroy for the local Boys & Girls Club at the Columbia Public Library. A few weeks later, they staged a version of Ragtime at a local nursing home.

“It’s a lot, but it’s worth the effort for the people you love,” says Carver. “These are all parts of what Larry built with the idea of community. The idea is to keep merging the whole mission of the SRT, which is to bring professionals, and the students, and the community together.”

Another Curtain Call

One final way the theatre department honored the 50th anniversary of SRT: a reception at Studio 4. The MU Theatre community, including current students and alumni, gathered to swap memories and celebrate everything that makes SRT special. (And eat burgers at The Heidelberg afterward, of course.)

This memorable event was spearheaded by a group of alumni, including Susan Langhauser, BA ’73 speech and dramatic arts, and Patrick Chmel.

 

SRT party, Rebecca Allen Photography

Members of the cast and crew of Ragtime the Musical mingle with guests at the SRT reunion party; Rebecca Allen Photography.

“Stepping out on the Rhynsburger stage after 50 years was emotionally (and surprisingly) overwhelming,” shares Langhauser. “It felt like I'd never left home. Catching up with fellow alumni was a magical experience. We all just wanted to step back into our past—because those were unforgettable, life-changing summers. SRT formed me as a woman, as an artist, and as a friend.”

"SRT represents the best of Mizzou traditions," says Patricia Okker, dean of the College of Arts and Science (the home of the theatre department), who spoke at the event. "It provides students an opportunity to practice their craft in a professional setting, it attests to the power of Mizzou’s research and creative activity to address the great challenges of our time, and it brings together faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members."

 

 

SRT party, Rebecca Allen Photography

Heather Carver, Megan Murphy Chambers, Claire Syler, Kara LeFevre Braudis, Jules Wilcox, and Cheryl Black share a laugh at the SRT reunion party; Rebecca Allen Photography.

Powell says she was very excited to meet the theatre alumni who returned for the reunion. “We’re standing on their shoulders, and to celebrate with them about how far we’ve come and what we are dreaming for the future is really powerful. It makes for such an exciting, memorable event where we can draw a mile marker on our journey and say, ‘We’ve come this far—50 years for Summer Repertory Theatre!’”

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