Arian Moayed remembers his early days in New York as the time of the muffin diet. "We were so broke that we had to eat a muffin a day," he says. "You'd buy a muffin, go to your temp job, and every hour you'd have, like, three bites. It had enough sugar and grains to get you through the whole day."
In 2002 he was fresh out of Indiana University and had come to the city with classmate Tom Ridgely to start a theatre company. Their first show, called Lost in Yemen, or the Bizarre Bazaar, cost about $500 to produce, and it ran for one sold-out evening. But it was the beginning of Waterwell, an ensemble that has earned critical raves (and a Drama Desk nomination) for group-created works such as Marco Millions (based on lies), The Persians...a comedy about war with five songs, and The Last Year in the Life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta.
Waterwell is one of many professional theatre groups with college roots. Sometimes they're created by like-minded alumni suffering through the early, hardscrabble years after graduation. Other times they're sanctioned by the college itself, with institutional dollars behind them. Whatever the case, they're evidence that the ties between theatre and academia don't end with graduation. Some even promote the philosophy or aesthetic of a program or professor. Moayed and Ridgely, for example, credit their interest in collaborative creation to I.U. professor Murray McGibbon, who exposed them to productions like Mnemonic by the British ensemble Complicite. After Lost in Yemen, the two used their I.U. connections to recruit musicians and actors to Waterwell, a Complicite-style company, even though that style wasn't part of the I.U. program.
"The interest in collaboration was really a reaction to the noncollaborative work that I.U. was doing," explains Moayed. "I.U. was known to do classics -- to do plays and do them well. We reacted to that and asked, 'What else can theatre do? This play kind of looks like a movie, and I just don't want to see that. I want to do something original and fresh and alive and big.' It was really grandiose and idealistic college stuff, but it's something the company tries to ground ourselves with, especially if things aren't going well."
The Stolen Chair Theatre Company
More often, however, an alumni company is an extension of theatre training rather than a reaction against it. At Swarthmore College's small theatre program, chair Allen Kuharski keeps a bulletin board spotlighting the work of ensembles with roots in his program, including Pig Iron Theatre Company and Green Chair Dance Group, both based in Philadelphia, and New York's Stolen Chair Theatre Company. In fact, the company ideal and the aesthetics of collaboration are part of the curriculum at Swarthmore, which includes Théâtre du Soleil, Ariane Mnouchkine's renowned ensemble known for its use of historical styles.
"From freshman year on, you're exposed to the successful theatre companies which have come out of the college," says Jon Stancato, one of Stolen Chair's artistic directors. After graduating, he wanted to continue in the collaborative vein of his college years, so he sought out his classmates. "We know if we sit down to chat with a collaborator from Swarthmore, we're starting on the same page," a lesson he learned in his company's early days, when he tried recruiting actors through auditions. "We were trying to create a space for collaboration, and the actor would say, 'Okay, tell me what to do.' And we'd say, 'Well, let's try a few things.' And the answer would be, 'I don't want to try anything; I want you to tell me what to do.' "
Eventually Stancato and Artistic Director Kiran Rikhye built a committed, stable ensemble that has created acclaimed work. Swarthmore supports the group by offering summer residencies and booking performances, yet for the most part Stolen Chair is on its own -- learning, Stancato says, "that sometimes 12 cooks in a kitchen are better than one."
Another example of a group based on the shared ethos of a college program is the Civilians, a New York - based company that emerged from classes taught by Les Waters at the University of California, San Diego. Steve Cosson, the group's artistic director, took a directing class with Waters, who was once a member of the U.K.'s Joint Stock Theatre Company. The Joint Stock method, used to create plays like Caryl Churchill's Fen and Cloud Nine, asks actors, writers, and other artists to interview and develop relationships with the real people the play is about.
Waters' class "was inspiring," Cosson says. "I enjoyed going out into the world and figuring out how to draw people out and spark conversation. I also came to believe that something like the Joint Stock method could break artists out of the insularity of American theatre, and I really began to think hard about applying some of these ideas to an American company." He soon found that the actors most receptive to this idea were fellow UCSD grads who had studied with Waters. Any actor could be taught it, of course, but Cosson wanted to reach out to those who already shared his taste for it. Moreover, he says, "UCSD created an atmosphere which cultivated collaboration. The school really emphasized the totality of theatre," including class projects that mingled actors, directors, writers, and designers, making everyone responsible for generating images, ideas, and actions.
Today the Civilians is an independent nonprofit group with informal ties to UCSD. In 2004 the company brought its production of Paris Commune to the UCSD-affiliated La Jolla Playhouse. Gone Missing, a comedy with songs, is currently running Off-Broadway, and This Beautiful City, its new play, about evangelical Christians in Colorado, will be produced at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., in 2008.
Lookingglass Theatre Company
A strong allegiance between students and professors is hardly a 21st-century phenomenon. Alvina Krause, a legendary acting teacher at Northwestern University, retired in 1971 and moved to Bloomsburg, Pa., but at 85 she's still sought out by students. Northwestern theatre professor David Downs studied with her and often talks about her in his classes. One of those listening was David Catlin, who is currently artistic director of Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company. "In our idealistic college years, it sounded like a great thing," he says of Krause's aesthetic. Eventually Catlin and other students in Downs' class mounted a production of Alice in Wonderland adapted by Andre Gregory (mostly financed with the bar mitzvah money of student David Schwimmer). With Northwestern's help, the group took the play to the Edinburgh Festival, where the seeds of Lookingglass were planted.
"Chicago has a big history of ensembles," says Catlin. "But while we were in Edinburgh, we realized there weren't companies doing a lot of physical work. Sure, Steppenwolf was tearing up Sam Shepard at that time, and that was physical, but it wasn't the kind of acrobatic physicality we had discovered working on Alice." Lookingglass pursued physical theatre with training in gymnastics, dance, circus arts, even magic. After they saw Cirque du Soleil, Catlin says, they thought, "Theatre should be that exciting. What if you took that kind of adrenaline and put a story to it?" But the Lookingglass story doesn't end there. Though the company was formed in early 1988, it wasn't until it absorbed another group of Northwestern students that it arrived at its true identity.
Ensemble member Laura Eason, who was artistic director for six years, was one of those who joined Lookingglass in 1991, along with director Mary Zimmerman, today known for her visually rich adaptations of texts such as Ovid's Metamorphoses and Homer's The Odyssey. It was a student production of The Odyssey that brought the two halves of the theatre together. Catlin thought the four-and-a-half-hour show was "jaw-droppingly good." Lookingglass staged The Odyssey's professional premiere, and Eason, Zimmerman, and others joined the company.
The result, Eason notes, was a blend of the "very masculine, strong physicality" of the founders and the "concern with adaptation and lyrical sensibility" of those who joined later. While Lookingglass' original members came from Northwestern's theatre department, Zimmerman and Eason were part of the performance studies program, where faculty like Dwight Conquergood and director Frank Galati encouraged theatrical adaptation. Today the theatre is one of Chicago's most respected and popular ensembles, and its members are sprinkled throughout Northwestern's faculty, strengthening the ties between the two institutions.
Shakespeare on the Cape
Even without such ties, however, important work is possible. As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Eric Powell Holm spent the summer between his junior and senior years trying to start a theatre in South Dakota. Five actors, doing everything from stage-managing to selling tickets, brought two plays to the South Dakota Theatre Festival. "We did Stop Kiss and This Is Our Youth," Holm says. "Lesbians and cocaine. The other shows were Oklahoma! and Barefoot in the Park. We were sort of the black sheep there."
But Holm's spirit was undaunted. After a semester in London exposed him to director Edward Hall's all-male A Midsummer Night's Dream -- a product of Hall's company, Propeller -- Holm was drawn to the idea of producing "really unorthodox" Shakespeare. Sensing that South Dakota might not be the best location for it, he considered Cape Cod, where a classmate, Elliot Eustis, spent his summers. One visit convinced Holm that Provincetown would welcome cross-gendered Shakespeare, and Shakespeare on the Cape was born.
Holm's experience in London also taught him to disregard conventional ideas of casting. Instead he focused on a single question: "Are you personally in love with this part?" "Giving a young male actor a chance to play Viola or Cleopatra or giving a young female actor a chance to play Mercutio or Hamlet has potential to tap into some true passion," he explains. "We had a male Rosalind, an actor who was tall, melancholic, with a deep voice. He's going to play Jacques 20 times in his life. But he's never going to get a chance to play Rosalind again. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the artist and for the audience."
So what does all this have to do with the University of Minnesota, with which the company has no official ties? Very little -- except that SOTC productions are populated almost exclusively by U.M. graduates and current students looking for summer theatre experience. For Holm, who is co - artistic director with Eustis, SOTC is "an ideal training program" for future artistic directors.
The Acting Company
Some postgraduate theatre groups are the idea of the college, not the students. The mother of all alumni troupes is perhaps the Acting Company, founded in 1972 when the Juilliard faculty decided that four years of training weren't enough to produce great classical actors. "They were enormously talented and very well trained," recalls co-founder Margot Harley. "But John Houseman and I decided that they didn't have enough performance experience, so we better keep them together and tour them." So after four years of training, Juilliard's first class of acting graduates -- including Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline -- stayed together another four years, performing classical plays on the road. "That first group," Harley says with a chuckle, "if they see a bus, they get hives."
Touring was also essential because the Acting Company wanted its performers to work an entire season, and even New York audiences couldn't be counted on to support that kind of run. It's "the best kind of experience for an actor," Harley says, "having to play in a different house with different audiences all the time." There was also the hope it would develop a taste for classical theatre in American audiences. "People would approach John when we were on the subway," Harley recalls, "and he would think they were going to ask him about The Paper Chase or some movie. But many of them would talk to him about the Acting Company, because it was their introduction to the theatre." Today Harley is producing artistic director of the group, which recruits actors "from the best training institutions in the country," she says.
The Yale Cabaret
Another university-driven option incorporates professional experience into the curriculum. Many schools are closely affiliated with regional theatres, of course, and internship programs abound, but the Yale School of Drama has had students running their own professional theatre within the school for 35 years. The Yale Cabaret began in 1967 when Robert Brustein, then dean of the Drama School, convinced the university to give the school an old fraternity house, whose basement was converted into a black-box theatre that faculty and students shared. In 1972 the school turned the theatre's management over to the students, who operate it as a sort of year-round summer stock for student projects.
"Our production calendar is pretty rigorous," says Managing Director Jacob Padrón, who will graduate in 2008 with a degree in theatre management. "We want to find a space for everyone here, so we do a different show every week." That means load-in every Sunday; performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; and strike on Saturday night. Each year an artistic team chooses a mission statement for the season and selects projects that honor that mission. For 2007-08, the core values include "rebellion, irreverence, relevance, and community," with shows ranging from The Apocryphal Project, which examines the exclusion of certain books from the New Testament, to a musical about women's suffrage and bicycling, to a play called Hillbilly Antigone.
Padrón calls his job rigorous, because he needs to balance it with a full class load. "It falls to us to get everything off the ground, from the ticketing to production. It's the most challenging experience of my life so far, but I'm really getting the full spectrum of what it's going to be like when I leave the school." Muffins not included.
Back Stage's 2007 College and University Acting Programs Listing. Available to Back Stage subscribers only.