by Zinta Aistars
Half-a-century stands center stage, in the spotlight. The curtain rises on 1964, as the Festival Playhouse of Kalamazoo College opens its inaugural season as part of K’s theatre arts program. A great deal of work, however, had taken place behind the scenes before that curtain could rise.
This past summer, in the midst of gearing up for Festival Playhouse's golden anniversary season, Lanny Potts, technical designer and professor of theatre arts, sat down with Ed Menta, professor of theatre arts and director of Festival Playhouse, to consider all that has happened to bring the Festival Playhouse to where it is today.
“Think about it,” says Potts. “Some 50 years ago K started the K-Plan. And when we think about the beginning of the Festival Playhouse, we think about Nelda K. Balch, and how she integrated theatre and the K-Plan. Through Nelda, we achieved excellence—and I do mean excellence.”
Nelda K. Balch joined Kalamazoo College faculty in 1954, originally as a speech and English professor. There was no theatre arts academic program, but theatre was Balch’s greatest passion. During her years at K, until her retirement in 1981, and then, because that’s how passions unfold, putting in four additional years, Balch created a legacy.
“In 1958, Nelda directed the first college or university production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot,” says Menta. “It was a landmark play, dazzling, and K was the first college to do it. Today it’s a modern classic, but in 1958, it was considered to be a weird, unusual play.”
When the play debuted overseas, audiences walked out. At K, it was no less provocative, a story about two vagrants waiting for Godot, who never does show up, and having philosophical conversations while waiting. Balch, committed to excellence in theatre, easy or not, brought the play to K’s stage not just once, but twice.
The legacy of Nelda K. Balch was taking root for a theatre program that would come to be known as provocative and thoughtful, never compromising artistic integrity.
“Nelda had a personal relationship with Dorothy Dalton,” Potts says. “It was through the generous support of the Dorothy U. Dalton Foundation that K students had the opportunity to work in theatre through the summer, and to work with art experts.”
Clair Myers, who had worked alongside Balch for 16 years building K’s theatre program, is today the executive director of the Wayne Theatre Alliance.
“For a long time Nelda was a one-person department,” Myers recalls. “I was at Kalamazoo College from 1966 to 1982, and back in the 60s, the theatre was on the third floor of Bowen Hall, which is now gone. Dorothy Dalton liked Nelda’s choices in plays, and she gave K a gift to build a better stage.
“I’m very proud of what we accomplished during that time,” Myers adds. “The theatre department made adventuresome choices in plays, not typical of colleges then or now. We started a pattern of one classical piece, one avant-garde, and one musical.”
That pattern became a tradition bequeathed to subsequent professors in the department. They include Brant Pope, Larry Jaquith, Ed Menta, Lanny Potts, Karen Berthel, and others.
“What I think was remarkable about K's theatre—and continues to be—is that students could be every bit as prepared for the 'real' theatre arts world with a liberal arts degree as a student who had followed a narrower B.F.A. degree program,” Myers says. “K students certainly had a greater level of maturity and resiliency than would be expected of newly-minted graduates.”
Theatre majors today can take advantage of drama study in England, experimental projects in the Kalamazoo College’s Dungeon Theatre, placement with regional and professional theatres, and the opportunity to participate in the New York Arts Program.
Jon Reeves considers himself a “short-timer” in the theatre arts program. He was hired seven years ago as director of technical theatre. “The 50th anniversary of Festival Playhouse is a season of celebration. The lives of our students are changed by the unique noncommercial theatre we offer as well as the ability given to them to create shows in our black box space,” Reeves says. “Students are involved in every aspect of theatre, from helping choose the season to all the technical, management, and acting positions. This type of hands-on training helps with future jobs or education in a way no classroom can.”
“Our students do extraordinary work,” Potts agrees.
Menta nods. “Theatre at K exists on the accomplishments of our students. We also collaborate with community theatre in Kalamazoo as a member of the Theatre Kalamazoo Consortium. It’s the ethos of Kalamazoo that instead of competing against one another, we work together.”
“Ed has the ability to thoughtfully connect our work at K to our community,” Potts adds. “Kalamazoo is uniquely rich in arts, but we differ in that when we do select commercial work, it is with the intention of how we benefit our community and also our students, how we tie that selection into liberal arts. We are fortunate that we are not entirely dependent on ticket sales,” Potts says, giving the Festival Playhouse greater freedom to make braver choices in play selections. “We’ve had some plays that are poorly attended. It’s a risk you take, especially with new work.”
Menta lists area theatre in which K theatre faculty is involved. Reeves, he says, works with several Kalamazoo area theatres, as well as in nearby Saugatuck. Potts designs for Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo, and Karen Berthel, department chair for theatre arts, also works at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre.
Theatre, all agree, is a uniquely collaborative effort. Therein is part of its practicality.
“Students often say they can’t major in theatre,” Menta smiles, “because it’s not practical. We meet with First Year Seminar students and talk about theatre arts and how theatre teaches you skills that are useful no matter what career you choose-- collaboration is one of those skills. And theatre incorporates all liberal arts disciplines--philosophy, history, politics, business, science: they’re all in theatre.”
Potts agrees. “Business today is looking for people who know how to work collaboratively. You can teach all kinds of subjects, but it’s hard to teach people how to work. You see it on sites like LinkedIn: employers are looking for people who have passion, dedication, discipline. There’s no better place for that than theatre. In theatre arts, you learn how to sacrifice for the greater good. If you come to work willingly, and you are intellectually engaged and focused, you will excel in life. That’s what theatre teaches you.”
Menta explores the liberal arts aspects of everything he brings to the Festival Playhouse stage. He frequently brings in professors from other disciplines to speak to theatre students about elements of current production—political
"In theatre arts you learn how to sacrifice for the greater good."science or psychology, for instance—and invites alumni to work with and mentor current students.
If Balch broke new ground staging Waiting for Godot, Menta did likewise with Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), directed by Karen Berthel. Well, a play by alumna Lisa Kron ’83, came to the stage at Kalamazoo College after winning a Tony Award in 2006. The performance of Well at K was the play’s first on a college or university stage.
Menta brings the world to Kalamazoo College, and then takes his students out to the world. In 2008, Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka came to K from Nigeria to watch a performance of his play, Death and the King’s Horseman at Festival Playhouse. The play involved Nigerian guest artists Febi Euba (director), Omafolabo Soyinka (choreographer), and Bisi Adeleke (master drummer). In 2012, Menta brought guest director Irfana Majumdar from India to Kalamazoo College, where she and students created and staged the play, Kahani. Then, they took the play to Varanasi, India, for a performance there. Varanasi is a study abroad site for a number of K students.
"What makes theatre at K so distinctive,” says Menta, “are these special projects. The 50th anniversary season will live up to this standard.”
Festival Playhouse will celebrate its golden anniversary with a grand re-opening of the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse, a return engagement (The Dog and Pony Show) by performance artist Holly Hughes ’77, a Homecoming evening of favorite scenes from the favorite plays of alumni, and three classics of modern drama--A Dream Play (August Strindberg), Peer Gynt (Henrik Ibsen), and a restaging by Nora Hauk ’04 of the Max Frisch comedy, The Firebugs, which played in the original Festival Playhouse season 50 years ago. The golden anniversary also includes a “talkback” series led by K theatre alumni, a senior student performance series, and more.
Talkback productions, Menta explains, feature a question-and-answer period involving the audience and members of the production. And Hughes’ appearance continues a recent tradition at K: the Festival Playhouse Diversity Guest Artist Series. “We've brought some top-of-the-line theatre artists to Kalamazoo through this series,” says Menta.
“What we do in theatre arts is often a life-changing experience for our students. I think that’s due to the kinds of plays we do and how we do them, the way that we integrate theatre with a liberal arts education, our collaboration with the community at large, and our special projects. When I look back at all that we have done over the years, I am very proud of our accomplishments.”
With the grand re-opening of the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse, with new lighting, reupholstered seats, and various other improvements, Kalamazoo College is prepared to raise the curtain on the next 50 years.
Photo 1 - Professors of Theatre Arts Ed Menta (left) and Lanny Potts.
Photo 2 - Clair Myers, professor of theatre arts at K from 1966 to 1982.
Photo 3 - A 1965 Faculty Readers Theatre production of The Misanthrope. Nelda Balch (second from left) was the founding and driving force behind the Faculty Readers Theatre program.
Photo 4 - The Nelda K. Balch Playhouse under construction in 1976.
Photo 5 - Nelda Balch in Orleans, France, in 1945 with Von Blech, a dog liberated from the German lines. Balch served with the American Red Cross during the war.