100 Years of Theatre & Drama

In the fall of 1915, the first for-credit course in play production was offered to students at the University of Michigan, making U-M the first university in the country to offer theatre production classes for credit.[1] The class culminated with a single performance of The Servant in the House, by Charles Rann Kennedy.

With this milestone, the University set the stage for a century of excellence and groundbreaking achievements in the dramatic arts, ultimately conferring degrees on hundreds of students who would become leaders and best in all areas of theatre performance and production.

The Department of Theatre & Drama is now observing its centennial, as well as 125 years of acting classes for college credit, dating to the academic year of 1889-1890 when the first course in Shakespearean reading was offered.

In addition, 2015 marks the centenary of the birth of Arthur Miller (BA ’38). One of the most significant figures in American theatre history, Miller enjoyed a long relationship with the Department of Theatre & Drama; SMTD’s Arthur Miller Theatre is the only one in the country to bear his name, by the playwright’s own designation.

To celebrate these important anniversaries, the department is hosting a series of exciting events this fall, most of which fall over Homecoming Weekend, October 8-11. The weekend will be capped by a star-studded red carpet reception (prior to the October 8 performance of Miller’s All My Sons) to welcome back decades of theatre & drama alums. The play will be directed by Wendy Goldberg (BA ’95), artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neil Theater Center in Connecticut, and will also have an all-alumni creative team. All My Sons will run from October 7-18.

“It means so much to me and, I know, to my fellow alums, to honor the memories and the experiences we shared at Michigan,” said Priscilla Lindsay, an alumna of the department (BA ’71, MA ’72) and its current chair. “It’s all about our professors, the crazy things that happened backstage and in rehearsals and classes, the green room stories, the friends we made, and the love of theatre we share. No matter what we did with our lives, our time spent in the company of amazingly talented directors, actors, designers, stage managers, and playwrights has become the ongoing inspiration for the rest of our lives. We are coming back to share that feeling, to reconnect with old friends, and to relive the highs, and maybe even the lows, of theatre at Michigan.”


Curtain Up

Theatre & drama studies at the University of Michigan had their genesis with Thomas C. Trueblood, hired in 1884 to teach classes on public speaking to students in the Law School and what was then the Literary School (now LSA). Trueblood’s course proved so popular that he was appointed to the faculty the following year. After the success of his first class in Shakespearean reading (1889), the Department of Elocution and Oratory was created in 1892 to meet student demand, with Trueblood appointed chair. The first BA degrees in elocution and oratory were likely conferred the following spring,[2] and in 1896 the department presented its first play, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Trueblood.

The department would change its name six times over the next 87 years, spending 40 years as a part of the Department of Speech, and finally becoming the Department of Theatre & Drama in 1979, when theatre studies were at last made separate from speech, following multiple efforts over many years to effect that change.

Despite its fluid moniker, the department consistently offered excellent classes and created remarkable theatre thanks to the extraordinary faculty who followed in Trueblood’s footsteps, and a motivated and highly creative student body.

By 1923, students were so engaged in theatre studies that additional experiences in play production were needed. As a result, the department created the Student Laboratory Theatre, the precursor to today’s Basement Arts, providing the opportunity for students to direct, design, perform, and manage the production of plays. In its various iterations, this student-run initiative has remained a critical and beloved part of the Michigan theatre experience for 92 years.

Following Trueblood’s retirement in 1926, after 42 years of service, Valentine Windt was hired and would become a critical figure in the department’s history. Over the next 27 years, until his sudden death in 1956, Windt would steadily develop play production at U-M, directing 241 plays, setting high standards for the department, and increasing the status of both educational and professional theatre at Michigan.


Navigating The Mid-Century

Under the guidance of Trueblood and Windt, theatre studies during the first half of the 20th century grew into a thriving program, graduating many talented artists and scholars, including William P. “Doc” Halstead (PhD ’35) and Claribel Baird (MA ’36). The duo, considered dynamic by all who knew them, took up the mantle of guiding the department through the mid-century period, earning devoted admiration and affection from scores of students and colleagues.

Halstead began teaching and directing soon after earning his degree, and was chair of the department from 1954 until his retirement in 1975. Baird joined the faculty as associate professor in 1948 and retired in 1971; she had previously spent 10 years as a summer session visiting lecturer and guest director of the Michigan Repertory Players (the summer theatre company). The couple married in 1952.

“He was so much more than just a college professor to everyone,” said Robert C. Chapel (BA ’67, MA ’68, PhD ’74), professor of drama and former chair of the Department of Drama at the University of Virginia. In a remembrance of Halstead that he wrote for the department’s commemorative centennial book (available in fall 2015), Chapel said: “He was a cheerleader who criticized in a most constructive and positive way and a saint who made you want to learn.”

In 1952, Halstead directed James Earl Jones (BA ’55, HLHD ’71) as Epops, King of the Birds in Aristophanes’s The Birds, the first time an African-American played a leading role in a department production. The following year Baird directed Jones in Deep Are the Roots. Among many others who studied with Halstead and Baird were actors Maureen Anderman, Christine Lahti, and Margo Martindale; actor and current department chair Priscilla Lindsay; director Steve Zuckerman; and director Jack O’Brien, who also worked with Baird when she starred in You Can’t Take It With You on Broadway, with O’Brien as assistant director.

“She was inspiration personified, someone for whom one longed to be good enough, and yet who never for a moment allowed her standards to shift,” wrote O’Brien. “She was a great teacher.”

The legendary Halstead-Baird years would coincide with a number of high points for the department. In 1965, celebrating 50 years of curricular theatre, the department mounted Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts I, II and III; in 1967, a festival of three Arthur Miller plays celebrating Michigan’s sesquicentennial was presented; and in 1973, an annual Invitational Festival of Experimental Theatre was launched, patterned after the Edinburgh Festival.

The following year, with the opening of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre, the department completed production of the entire Shakespeare canon, the first university theatre department to do so. It was a feat only previously accomplished by four of the world’s most celebrated theatre companies, including England’s Royal Shakespeare Company.

Major social upheaval was also underway during this period, and in 1970 the Black Action Movement (BAM) was founded at U-M to increase enrollment of African-Americans at the University. That December, the department presented its first Black Theatre Program production, Who’s Got His Own, by Ron Milner, with an all-African-American cast. The program, later renamed Black Theatre Workshop, received a grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts in 1972 and produced several more plays over the next few years.


Independence And A New Home

Throughout the ’70s, the effort by faculty to separate theatre from the Department of Speech was reinvigorated, and in 1979 was finally achieved, with the Department of Theatre & Drama established as a part of LSA.

Then, in 1982, University leadership began discussing the feasibility of having Theatre & Drama join what was then the School of Music, following the Department of Dance, which had joined the School in 1974. In 1984, during Dean Paul Boylan’s tenure, the transfer was enacted.

In 1987, another major change took place when University Productions was created to form a single separate entity with responsibility for scenery, costumes, lighting, and sound for dance, musical theatre, opera, and theatre productions. “UProd” was made responsible not only for production, but also for marketing and selling tickets and managing the various performance venues.

From 1990 to 2005, Erik Fredricksen chaired the department, and oversaw another period of substantial growth and creativity, It was during this period that a capital campaign was launched to fund a new building on North Campus that would provide the first dedicated headquarters for theatre and musical theatre studies.

In 2006, the Walgreen Drama Center opened, named for Charles R. Walgreen, Jr., a U-M alum who generously supported the 1997 presidential initiative that launched the building project. The 100,000-square-foot complex, featuring a contemporary glass and concrete design, includes the Arthur Miller Theatre, the Towsley Studio, Stamps Auditorium, costume and set design studios, a camera studio, classrooms, and faculty offices. For the first time in 90 years, theatre students had a home of their own! That same year, theatre and dance were added to the school’s name, another major step forward in acknowledging their critical role in a full-spectrum performing arts school.


The Second Century

After Theatre & Drama became a part of SMTD in 1984, a number of other firsts took place, beginning with degree programs. A BFA in theatre was established, with concentrations in performance, design and production, and directing. This was followed by a bachelor of theatre arts (BTA) and then an interdisciplinary BFA in interarts performance, created in partnership with the Stamps School of Art & Design, for students interested in both theatre and visual arts. In addition, a minor in Performing Arts Management was established, featuring a concentration in courses that teach business practices for the performing arts.

Meanwhile, the department continued to focus on the importance of diversity, creating a minor in African-American Theatre in the 1990s and, in 2013, a minor in Global Theatre and Ethnic Studies. Diversity issues also led the department to join with other university theatre programs to create the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative, to address the underrepresentation of women in theatre, both as playwrights and in the availability of substantive female roles. The Consortium commissions new plays by women, the first of which, Good Kids by Naomi Iizuka, debuted at SMTD earlier this year.

By the time Priscilla Lindsay returned in 2010 to lead the department into the next century, it had changed in many ways, but still retained the excitement that she remembered.

“So much has changed since I was here in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” said Lindsay. “But what hasn’t changed is pride in being a Michigan Wolverine, pride in being part of theatre at Michigan. There was and is, no better place to learn and grow.

“We, as alums, have a unique opportunity to give back now, to make sure that future classes of theatre students are as diverse as possible, and that all are able to come to Michigan despite the high cost of a college education. We all know the value of connection, of community. Theatre, as we learned it at Michigan, is a way to engage, to communicate, to heal, to transform. Our future will depend on how well we continue to do those things, and how committed we are to turning out informed artists, administrators, educators, trustees, audiences, volunteers, and donors who want to work for a better world.”


For more information about the Department of Theatre, please visit the Theatre 100 website.


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse and Richard Ferguson-Wagstaffe.


[1] The Carnegie Institute of Technology had instituted the first degree-granting department of drama in the United States in 1913-14, but the school was not an accredited university at the time.

[2] The department was a constituent part of the Literary School and degrees for all students are designated only by degree received (e.g. BA), not by specialty within the department.