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B.4.c  The SPU University Players. 

(Currently on hiatus as of the 2009-10 academic year)

A distinctive feature of the University Theatre’s schedule has been the touring program of the SPU University Players. 

A Brief History:

The SPU Players begins with the commitment by President C. Dorr Demaray to establish a drama production program at Seattle Pacific College.  A few “safe” plays had been mounted on campus in the mid-1950’s, and what was then the Department of Speech (now Communication) took to offering on 3-credit course called “The Theory and Practice of Play Production.”  In the course of a single quarter members of the class, with only superficial advice from the professor, selected a play script to produce, sent for the scripts, cast, rehearsed, designed and completed the production elements and performed before sizable student and faculty audiences.  Dr. Demaray, a former English professor, had greater plans for drama on campus, and in 1961 hired an eager young soul—yes, that’s our beloved James Chapman—to teach the theory and practice course three times a year, along with three sections of public speaking, three sections of oral interpretation, one offering of voice and articulation, and one section of group discussion techniques.  Yearly!  These were the beginnings of the present theatre program.

The first thing to change was the structure of the “Theory and Practice” course.  No longer did the class do the selecting of scripts or the casting or the directing.  The productions, however, were still largely built and rehearsed quarter to quarter by students enrolled in the course or volunteering  their assistance.  This kind of madness has been called “the theatre of human sacrifice” and “nuts-o theatre.”  Not the best of circumstances, to say the least, but due to Dr. Demaray’s endorsement the institution had three productions a year—one of the very few Christian colleges at the time so committed.

In the mid-60’s the Alumni Director caught the direction of the President’s favor and negotiated to “commission” plays to tour to area alumni rallies.  These productions were, of course, uncredited overload for both students and director, but were assembled out of the conviction that a wider exposure would at once enhance the fledgling program and help satisfy the zeal of performers and director for bringing theatre to the campus and church communities.  This decision was, for the institution, a risky move since the theatre (and especially movies) was considered forbidden fruit by a perceived majority of the support base.  The institutional catalog in 1963 still carried these injunctions: “no smoking,” “no al­cohol,” “no dancing,” “no attending the theatre.”  The Big Four.  Although “no superfluous adornment” (meaning jewelry and make up) had just been deleted from institutional rules, pool tables were still banned, probably from their strong association with taverns.  For the college, therefore, to actively promote the development of theatre was a bold move for the time.

When the alumni rallies endorsed the plays presented—careful script choices illustrated  positive moral influence was achievable by drama as well as music—the college Church Relations people became emboldened, and in 1965 the Seattle Pacific College Chancel Players were legitimized.  Funding covered transportation and minimal production preparation costs only, with no scholarships, and this expenditure was expected to be reimbursed by taking “collections” in the churches.

The Chancel Players productions were designed to be just that: plays presented by players in the chancel of a church.  The variety of production settings encountered by the group focused the emphasis of the presentations on language and modified formal blocking.  No scenery could easily be carted along, nor lighting equipment (although we tried early on), and sound equipment had not yet come of age; the wire recorder was still in use, with reel-to-reel magnetic tape only in its beginning stages.  Not available on our budget at least.  Thus the style of production adopted by the “Chancels” was one heavily influenced by a new emphasis in theatre circles at that time: Story Theatre.  Not really so new, obviously, since story-theatre is at the roots of the art, but distinctive at least in an era which knew only full-blown productions.

Story-Theatre is distinguished by its sheer theatricality, its absence of scenic and lighting support, and its reliance on hand props and actor attitudes to set the scene.  It consists of one or more actors telling a story and illustrating that story physically, most often by em­ploying unusual and attractive movements and body configurations.  It is reminiscent of mime as much as it is oral story telling, and in fact combines the two into something seemingly new as the physical movement cleverly both illustrates and comments on and often contradicts the words.  The form reached its apotheosis in the early 1970’s with the commercial popularity of the musical Godspell.

Anyway, it was theatre on the cheap, and was quickly picked up by the counterculture movement as a means through which anybody could have direct access to theatrical art.  It was fresh in that it needed to simultaneously draw upon the active imagination of both the per­formers and the audience to even work.  It was artistically significant and educationally sound in that it depended upon unassisted acting to communicate its intentions.  So we grabbed for it and have never really given it up.  Today’s University Players are direct-line inheritors of the style.

The mid-1970’s saw the introduction of modest scholarships for the performers, funded by the Church Relations Office in much the same way it was supporting the group that be­came the SPU Singers.  In those days also began the Spring break tour, one year the cast even traveling as far as Hawaii.  Professor Scranton was directing the group in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and instituted the policy of the original script, many of which he wrote, when it became all too obvious that the style of production we desired was not available in other ways.  Today’s group continues that tradition through the creation of scripts principally through improvisation. Since the mid 1980s leadership of the University Players have come from the ranks of Players alums, such as Nolo Augustson, Patti Williams, Afarin and Eric Morgan, Esther Williamson, Josiah Wallace, and Joshua Hornbeck.

In recent years the group has written and performed separate shows for school presentations and church presentations. As a consequence the name has been changed to the SPU University Players. Whatever the name, and whatever the audience emphasis, the group remains a distinctive part of our mission, one by which we seek to both express spiritual concerns through our art and explore communication through spare theatrical formats.

Joshua Hornbeck was named University Players Director Emeritus at the June 2009 SPAM Awards.

Next Section: B5a: Auditioning and Casting

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