April 05, 2006

Gala weekend to mark theater's 40th anniversary

by Vincent Rhomberg

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The theater department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will celebrate the 40th anniversary of McLeod Theater with more than 100 alumni from across the country gathering for the gala weekend event.

The April 7-8 celebration includes panel discussions, honors for well-known theater faculty and an appearance by at least one of the many actors who went on to fame in the film and television industry after cutting their teeth at SIUC's theater department.

Nestled in the center of SIUC Communications Building, McLeod Theater has been a centerpiece of performing arts at SIUC, giving thousands of aspiring actors, directors, technicians, set and costume designers a feel for the professional stage. It remains a busy area, with new productions almost constantly setting up as others wind down.

The University included the theater in its plans when it broke ground on the Communications Building in 1963. It was a huge leap forward from the previous home of campus productions, the Harwood Avenue Playhouse, according to "Theater at Southern Illinois University," by James L. Brown.

With its top-of-the-line technology, the new, nearly 500-seat theater opened with the new building in 1966. Its first production, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," starred Dennis Franz and Peter Michael Goetz, both of whom went on to meet with great success in the entertainment industry in years to come.

In 1980, the University named the theater for former theater department head Archibald McLeod, who helped plan the theater. McLeod was chairman of the department from 1954 to 1975 and is credited with helping establish the department as a separate entity in the then School of Communications.

Over the past 40 years, McLeod Theater played host to hundreds of productions and is a mainstay of the arts in Southern Illinois, said Shirley Clay Scott, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

"McLeod has been the primary site of classic, avant garde, dramatic, comic and musical theater for this campus and for this region. ‘Jocasta' and ‘Lear,' ‘My Fair Lady' and ‘Lady Bracknell,' ‘Cunegunde' and Bat Boy' have come to life before us as faculty practice their art and students learn theirs," Scott said. "The campus and the community reap the benefits. The collaborative and communal nature of theater makes McLeod a site of community building and communal experience as well, and we are in multiple ways much richer for its existence."

The gala weekend promises something for every fan of the theater, beginning Friday morning with a series of panel discussions focusing on the differences between college and a career in the theater. At 4:30 p.m., alumni, students and guests will meet at the University Museum for the opening of a design exhibit of the work of Mordecai Gorelik and Darwin Reid Payne.

Gorelik, who designed sets for the original Broadway productions of "A Hatful of Rain," "All My Sons" and "Golden Boy," served at SIUC as a professor from 1960 to 1964 and continued in a research capacity through 1973. Gorelik's work is one of the many treasures in the Morris Library collection. This past year, the SIUC theater department received a $9,000 grant from the U.S. Institute for Theater Technology to digitally preserve the collection of his renderings.

Payne, an alumnus of SIUC, placed his artistic stamp on the theater department from 1957 to 1983, both before and while serving as acting chairman and chairman. He is the author of several books including "Computer Scenographics" and "Scenographic Imagination," both of which are considered standard industry essentials for scenic design.

The theater department will hold a reception to welcome alumni and celebrate the opening of the exhibit. Payne, who will be honored for his lifetime achievements at the USITT banquet in Louisville, Ky. April 1, will be on hand for a unique book-signing opportunity. He resides in Carbondale.

Saturday evening will find the alumni at the gala dinner. The highlight of the dinner is a special tribute to Christian H. Moe, who along with his wife, Carolyn, has been a driving influence in the SIUC community since arriving in 1958. Moe, the man for whom the laboratory theater is named, served on the theater department faculty from 1958 to 1997. Moe is still active in the department and is one of the founders of the Stage Company.

After the dinner, alumni, students, patrons and guests head to McLeod Theater for an extravaganza production, "40 years in 40 Minutes." A cast of students and alumni will recreate the performance history of the theater in whirlwind fashion.

Following the performance, Goetz, who starred with Franz in that first McLeod production, will give a keynote speech. Goetz is well known for his performance in the film, "Father of The Bride," and has appeared in numerous television series including "Lou Grant," "The Gilmore Girls," "Touched by an Angel" and "The West Wing."

The theater department caps off the evening with an anniversary party in the theater lobby, hosted by the SIU Alumni Association.

A complete schedule of events follows:

Friday, April 7

• 9:30 a.m.-noon, panel discussions on acting, foam carving, audio books and "The Business,"various locations, Communications Building.


• 1-3:30 p.m., panel discussions on African-American theater practitioners, "Education: How Theater Influenced Their Careers," various locations, Communications Building.

• 4-6:30 p.m., Gorelik/Payne exhibit, book signing and reception, University Museum, Faner Hall.

• 7:30 p.m., "Journeys," new plays by SIUC students, Christian H. Moe Laboratory Theater.

• 9:30 p.m., writers informal conversation, "Living as a Playwright Beyond School," Christian H. Moe Laboratory Theater.

Saturday, April 8

• 1 p.m., alumni new play readings, Christian H. Moe Laboratory Theater.

• 6 p.m., reception sponsored by SIUC Alumni Association, Student Center Ballroom D.

• 6:30 p.m., banquet and tribute to Christian H. Moe, Student Center Ballroom D. For tickets, call 618/453-3001.

• 8:30 p.m., "40 Years in 40 Minutes," followed by keynote speaker Peter Michael Goetz. McLeod Theater; $15 at the door. Anniversary party in lobby.

For more information about the event call the theater department office at 618/453-5741.

Coordinating and expanding major cultural outreach programs is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.