For students at Davenport’s St. Ambrose University, the end of summer brings with it the usual. Buying books. Attending classes. Preparing for Urinetown.
No, that is not a typo. Less than two years after the triple Tony-winner with the unusual moniker closed on Broadway, the rights to the musical were snagged by St. Ambrose (which will present the production at the university’s Galvin Fine Arts Center from October 13 through 16), adding to an ever-growing list of offbeat, potentially divisive titles performed by the institution’s theatre department. Recent productions also include Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning sexual-abuse drama How I Learned to Drive and Tom Stoppard’s esoteric Rosencrantz & Guildensetrn Are Dead.
Yet St. Ambrose’s goal, as espoused by Theatre Department Chair Kris Eitrheim and his wife, Galvin Marketing Director Eileen Eitrheim, isn’t to shock or titillate so much as it is to challenge. In addition to Urinetown, the department’s 2005-6 season will feature productions of Sam Shepard’s dysfunctional epic A Lie of the Mind (February 17 through 19) and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (April 21 through 23), and all three shows will give St. Ambrose students what Eileen calls “a really broad taste of different things.”
For St. Ambrose’s theatre students, that “broad taste,” the Eitrheims reveal, includes not only a comprehensive exposure to all aspects of the theatre arts, but a voice in determining which shows the department selects for production, and even the opportunity to helm one of those productions.
“We don’t attract the kind of person who just wants to come in and act,” says Eileen of the roughly 30 theatre majors currently enrolled at St. Ambrose. “We tend to attract a person with a really strong work ethic, ’cause they don’t mind trying different things, they’re willing to step out of their shell and give it a try and get their hands dirty.”
At St. Ambrose, performers are expected to work in areas of technical theatre, technicians occasionally find themselves on stage, and everyone learns how everyone’s contributions add up to a greater whole. “When you come here,” Eileen says, “we want to turn out a really well-rounded theatre person. We want a Renaissance theatre person.”
One of those Renaissance students is senior Jenny Stodd, who, in a separate interview, also commented that St. Ambrose’s department “requires you to be pretty well-rounded,” adding that the school’s practice of having actors participate in tech theatre and technicians take acting classes “teaches you to have respect for everybody.” Stodd herself is primarily an actor, but has, like the school’s other theatre majors, worked in tech departments as well, having a special fondness for her work as props mistress for St. Ambrose’s 2003 production of Pippi Longstocking; in the props department, says Stodd, “you really get to use your creativity.”
Expectations are high for St. Ambrose theatre majors, but there are perks, including a voice in which shows are eventually produced there. Kris says, “We have a group of students that we elect in the beginning of the season called the Call Board. And the Call Board is a group of four students, voted on by their fellow students, and they’re kind of representatives for ... our theatre student body. One’s a freshman, one’s a sophomore, a junior, a senior, and they bring their opinions to what we’re doing.
“So around November we start saying, ‘Well, what should we do next year? What kinds of things would you like to do?’ The faculty is really in charge of making the choices, but we really like to keep the students involved in that process.”
Kris reveals that “Urinetown, I think, was a student’s suggestion.” The opportunity to do the show presented itself when a scheduled national tour of the musical fell through, but at the time, Kris’s reaction was, he says, “’Yeah, right. Okay. Sure. That won’t happen, but ... .’”
St. Ambrose theatre majors also have the ability to direct productions on the main stage, a luxury rarely afforded university undergraduates, particularly when a season, such as St. Ambrose’s, is composed of less than a half-dozen works. “Typically,” says Kris, “we have students who go through the directing program, and then they can direct a show downstairs in our studio theatre.”
St. Ambrose’s studio space is a black-box theatre seating 50 people, and in addition to being used for classroom exercises, it houses three full-length plays per year; the 2005-6 season will feature productions of Wonderful World (November 11 through 13), Three Days of Rain (March 31 through April 2), and Frankie & Johnny in the Clair-de-Lune, directed by St. Ambrose senior Scott Peake and running September 9 through 11.
Peake is another of St. Ambrose’s theatre majors who has, through the school’s curriculum, become acquainted with nearly every facet of the art; he says his focus at St. Ambrose has been “primarily acting, but I like doing it all.” Like Stodd, Peake has enjoyed his stints in the props department, working on such productions as Brighton Beach Memoirs, Rumors, and My Favorite Year – “I really love doing research for period shows,” he says – and is excited about the upcoming weekend performances of Frankie & Johnny. “We have a really great cast, a really great crew,” says Peake, who echoes the sentiments of many performers who eventually helm a production of their own: “I’ve always wanted to direct,” he admits.
An impressive effort in the studio space often leads to further directorial opportunities for St. Ambrose students. Kris says that “certain students really do well there, and for those students who really, really shine in the studio theatre, we offer them the opportunity to take a main-stage show,” as St. Ambrose senior Daniel Sheridan did with last spring’s production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.
This opportunity is a rare but privileged one, and it shows the level of faith St. Ambrose has in its students’ professionalism. “In the studio space,” says Kris, “we’re really looking for students of all kinds – designers, directors, actors – to get better and to grow. On the main stage, we’re not really looking for the directors to get better; we’re looking for them to already be there.”
What results from the students’ participation in all aspects of theatrical production, from acting to directing to tech to play selection is, according to Kris, a greater respect for and understanding of what they’ll encounter in the realm of professional theatre. “We try very hard to instill a professional attitude about the work in our students,” he says. “We expect a high level of output from them, and then they expect a high level of output from themselves. And that is across the boards, from the tech end to the actors to everybody else. We try to work – within the confines of an educational setting – as professionally as possible. It doesn’t always work perfectly,” he adds, “but that’s what we strive for.”
As long as St. Ambrose has given its students a full spectrum of experiences and a challenging array of opportunities, says Eileen, those at the institution feel they’ll have done their job.
“It really important,” says Eileen, “that our students are exposed to as many different styles and approaches as we can expose them to. We want them to learn that not everybody works the same way – ”
“And,” Kris adds, “that’s all right.”
For further information on, and tickets to, St. Ambrose University’s 2005-6 theatre season, call the Galvin Fine Arts Center box office at (563)333-6251, or visit (http://www.sau.edu/galvin).