It was while starring in a critically acclaimed Broadway play a few years back that Gabriel Byrne had an epiphany. The audience, the Irish performer realized, was "packed with well-to-do, white-haired people." "Theatre is dead," The Usual Suspects actor and stage veteran remarked to his fellow cast members. "There's no one under 60 out there, and they can all afford $200 for a night."
The line got little ink beyond the arts and theatre blogs, but sobering traces of his words remain evidenced elsewhere: in declining ticket sales, smaller productions with smaller casts, and capital losses for regional theatres across the country.
While it was only five years ago that most theatres operated in the black, more than half had a negative bottom line in 2008 and 2009, and an in-creasing percentage experienced shortfalls greater than 20 percent of their operating expenses, according to the most recent data from Theatre Communications Group, the leading organization for American theatre.
The stage for American regional theatre — for the professional companies across the country that produce classics like Shakespeare and Wilde alongside contemporary plays written without the commercial appeal of Broadway productions — is a rocky one. And so within this national context, it may come as quite a surprise that in the small college town of Newark, Del., theatre is not just alive, but thriving.
In only three seasons of its existence, the Resident Ensemble Players (REP), UD's professional theatre company, has produced seven plays that have been named "Critics Pick" by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Established in 2008, the REP is composed of one stage manager and 10 of the country's most talented and respected actors. In addition to their extensive credits on Broadway and at America's leading regional theatres, all 11 REP members are among the 322 alumni of the University's Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP). Named one of U.S. News and World Report's top-10 graduate master of fine arts (MFA) programs in theatre, PTTP has been a major force in supplying actors, stage managers and theatre technicians to the profession. Nearly 1,000 students apply for the graduate program's 24 seats.
"The marriage of experienced professionals and gifted actors-in-training allows us to offer a full season of plays at the highest quality to the entire region – and for less than a night at the movies," says Sanford Robbins, REP producing artistic director and chair of UD's theatre department, who also frequently guest directs for many of America's leading professional theatres.
REP productions are directed and designed by UD faculty as well as major world-renowned artists. The past season's production of All the King's Men, for instance, was designed by Tony award-winning director Adrian Hall, and the scenery was designed by three-time Tony winner Eugene Lee, a production designer for "Saturday Night Live" whose Broadway credits include Wicked and Sweeney Todd.
Sales for REP productions have grown each year, with audience growth of 44 percent in its second year, and a 30 percent increase above that in its third. No ticket exceeds $25, and in the 2010–11 season, REP performed for 22,327 people.
"But REP is more than theatre," says Stephen Pelinski, a member of the Resident Ensemble Players. "It's a university resource."
Because the PTTP operates on a four-year rotation, in which the graduate students spend three years training and only one performing fully produced productions for the public, the REP members are contracted for four years. In addition to offering the larger community a full season of plays, this cycle provides extraordinary training opportunities for MFA students in acting and stage management, each of whom is mentored by a member of the REP, and an exceptional education experience for the many undergraduates who take courses taught by the REP actors.
Pelinski, a leading actor with 20 years at the Guthrie Theatre and past roles in the Yale Repertory Theatre and Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, calls this academic emphasis the "UD difference."
While other universities have training programs and acting companies, what they don't offer is a pipeline of graduate students into leading roles. "To bring the MFAs along to go toe-to-toe with the professionals is not something that's done," Pelinski says. "By being part of their acceleration process, we're helping out the future of American theatre."
Part of that future, as Gabriel Byrne understands, relies on those who attend the plays. The REP audience is composed of 52 percent general public, 16 percent faculty and staff, and 32 percent students. "Having such a large segment of young theatre-goers is highly unusual at any theatre in America these days," Robbins says.
But given theatre's role in the academic curriculum, perhaps it isn't so unexpected.
The number of undergraduate theatre minors in the University has grown from 27 students in 2008 to more than 130 today. The classes, taught by REP actors, are among the most popular on campus, with courses often filled in days. And because the plays are closely intertwined with material taught in various humanities courses, students can watch the works they study in class as they were intended.
"Plays were never written to be read; they were written to be seen," says Michael Cotsell, an associate professor of English who requires his drama and American literature students to attend REP productions and frequently invites the actors to discuss the works with his students. "The REP is a wonderful resource for the entire campus community and a distinguishing feature of a University that dares to be first."
Indeed, only a dozen institutions have professional theatre companies, with Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown among this select group. Even fewer still are the number of universities to commission an eminent playwright of Theresa Rebeck's stature to write a play specifically for their company.
Rebeck — a television writer, novelist, Pulitzer Prize finalist and executive producer (alongside Steven Spielberg) of "Smash," an NBC pilot that will debut this fall — wrote O Beautiful, which made its debut this past spring in UD's Roselle Center for the Arts.
From a prominent article in the front-page Arts section of the New York Times to the half dozen directors of national theatres who came to Delaware for the world premiere, "O Beautiful put REP on the map," says Robbins.
The play — "a satirical look at the politics of the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and the failed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, as dramatized through [an] abortion story and a related, fictitious incident of bullying at a high school," wrote the Times — sold out each night of its three-week run.
Following the success of O Beautiful, Robbins, who directed the production, has received more than a dozen scripts from prominent playwrights and New York Times authors who want to produce original pieces for UD's theatre company. And with adequate funding, they well could.
"O Beautiful demonstrated that we can do it really well and do it in a way that garners national attention," he says.
Investing in such a project, Robbins adds, is an investment not just to theatre, but to the larger campus community.
Rebeck was commissioned by the departments of English and Theatre through a private $50,000 grant from the Unidel Foundation and administered through the Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center. As the University's first playwright-in-residence, she guest lectured in a variety of English courses and spoke to students in the Freshmen Year Experience program, interacting with nearly 1,000 students, in total.
Still, it's her play that captivated national attention and put the Resident Ensemble Players on an even larger stage.
In January 2013, O Beautiful will be presented at Houston's prestigious Alley Theatre, with Robbins directing and many of the REP and PTTP actors assuming the same roles they had during the play's UD debut. Productions are also under consideration at several other major theatres in America and the UK.
Gregory Boyd, artistic director for the famed Alley Theatre, calls O Beautiful "a very big play about a lot of things at the forefront of people's minds." The Alley has produced six of Rebeck's prior works, and Boyd has a long history with both Rebeck and Robbins.
This fall, Boyd will come to campus to direct the REP production of Noises Off, the 1982 play-within-a-play farce that has been called "the funniest play written in my lifetime" by New York Times columnist Frank Rich.
"Difficult to direct, but great for the audience," Boyd says. "To do it right, you need terrific actors."
And he has no qualms about the Resident Ensemble Players, a group he has "long admired but never worked with."
"I can do any play I want [at the Alley], so it has to be an attractive project to get me away," Boyd explains. "The thing you look for as a director, besides the script, is a group of actors who really excite you, and this group is fantastic."