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The dramatic history of theater at UGA

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The dramatic history of theater at UGA
Thalians1894-Hargrett

The Thalian Dramatic Club in 1894, pictured one year after its founding, is the second-oldest collegiate dramatic club in the United States.

The University of Georgia’s Department of Theatre and Film Studies didn’t appear out of thin air: what started as a way for university students to entertain themselves would eventually turn into a full-fledged program. At the center of the university’s long-winded history with its theatrical department is a five-year long rivalry between two opposing organizations, a competitive spirit of exclusivity and intimidating reputations.

Theater was a vital part of life in Athens during the 1920s, according to Dina Canup, the Department of Theatre and Film Studies historian. During that era, theatrical performances were a lavish affair: before the city’s larger performing arts centers were built, the university's first dramatic organization would flock downtown to rent out the Georgian Ballroom.

“All sorts of people would come to the shows and everybody would wear fancy dress and have a formal ball after the show,” Canup said. “It’s a very different downtown scene than post-football games today.”

The university’s formal history with theater dates back to the founding of the Thalian Dramatic Club in 1893, Canup said, but the student body previously demonstrated an interest in theatrics with minstrel shows and burlesques. Representing the first organized dramatic group on campus, membership in the Thalian club was highly sought after. Only 18 members were chartered at a time, according to Bernice Maxwell’s 1956 master thesis studying UGA’s theatrical activities. Little else is known about the organization’s first 10 years, but plays were typically comedies coupled with minstrel performances, according to Maxwell’s findings.

Though the Thalian club’s founding predated the university’s admission of female students in 1918, the organization still had honorary female members, according to Canup. One year after the admission of women, Mary Dorothy Lyndon, the first female graduate of UGA, became director of the Thalian club, and increased “the caliber” of performances, according to Maxwell’s findings ­— show dates became more reliable and the organization ceased postponing productions.

Rivalries and mergers

Two decades after the founding of the Thalian club, another theatrical upstart group sprung up as a response to the organization’s exclusivity, Canup said. The creation of the Blackfriars in 1926 spawned a five-year long rivalry between the two groups, which quelled only after the university’s administration merged the groups into one organization in 1931.

“They hated each other. They would pick at each other’s shows, sabotage sets — it was a real unhealthy environment,” said Zachary Pareizs, a junior theater and entertainment and media studies major and the artistic director of the Thalian-Blackfriars.

Under the name University Theatre, the merged Thalian-Blackfriars were then designated as the official theatrical group of UGA. The merger served as the impetus for the creation of the Department of Drama in 1939.

Under the supervision of journalism professor Edward C. Crouse, the previous director of the Blackfriars, the chapel of the Lucy Cobb Institute, a women’s college prior to the integration of UGA, was transformed into the Seney-Stovall Memorial Theatre.

“What any theater group needs is a home theater space and that became their space,” Canup said.

University Theatre was officially provided a formal place on campus upon the completion of the Fine Arts Building in 1941, which housed a 1600-seat theater and the smaller Cellar Theatre space.

Since its construction, the university has renovated the Fine Arts Theatre within the building in 1976 and again in 2010.

The university’s theater department is no longer based out of Seney-Stovall, but the former Cobb chapel — an octagonal building covered in red bricks and dark brown trim — is now part of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

‘A lens to critique society’

In its modern state, the Thalian-Blackfriars are entirely student-run but enjoy a close relationship with the department, Pareizs said. Without the organization, “there would be no theater department,” they said.

The Thalian-Blackfriars spoke to Pareizs more than any of the other theatrical groups on campus after they watched the group’s “insane” production of “The Effect” by British playwright Lucy Prebble.

To Pareizs, theater offers more than just entertainment, but also “a lens to critique” society and challenge perceptions, something they often find in Thalian productions.

Pareizs noted the group’s traditions of professionalism and accomplished collaborators, which include recently-graduated prolific playwright Abraham Johnson, and alumni coupled with the campus’s relationship with theater gives the Thalians an intimidating reputation.

“Man, if this crashes and burns then I’ve destroyed an almost 200-year-old institution, so that’s terrifying,” Pareizs said.

Pareizs hopes to keep the tradition alive and to create “beautiful theater” and opportunities for students.

“It’s very beautiful to think of the legacy of the group. We’re continuing in this tradition that has existed on UGA’s campus for so many years,” said Pareizs.

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