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The Happy Time
Craig Hartley ’58 had no particular interest in the theater when he auditioned for a role in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke during his junior year. The play was the first Players production directed by Morris Koffman, who served as the group’s faculty adviser and permanent director for the next 14 years. Quite by accident, Hartley had discovered what would become his “dominant avocation” and he decided to try out for the next Players production — a comedy called The Happy Time.

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Meanwhile, Cornelia McMann, a senior at Troy High School, agreed to accompany a friend to auditions for the play. Both girls were cast and McMann was soon playing the love interest in Hartley’s life as well as on stage. The two began dating almost immediately and were married a year later. Hartley also went on to earn an M.F.A. in theater from the University of Florida while a member of the engineering faculty, and today he is a member of the Screen Actors Guild with film, television, and stage directing and acting credits to his name.

The Players have brought dozens of couples together. The first may well have been Hugh Archer ’37 and his wife, Mary Jane. Married since 1940, they met at a Players audition after she answered an advertisement for actresses posted at Russell Sage College where she was studying science for her nursing degree. Hugh Archer was elected to membership in the national honorary dramatic fraternity Alpha Psi Omega, in 1935, two years after the Delta Xi Cast (or chapter) was established at Rensselaer.

Married students also took to the stage with their spouses. Joyce McGrath and her late husband, William McGrath ’50, performed together in the highly successful farce John Loves Mary at the 15th Street Lounge in 1949. Of that production — the Players’ 75th — one reviewer wrote, “From the time the curtain rose until it rang down at the end of the third act, the audience roared with laughter.”

The (not-so) Impossible Dream
After Professor Morris Koffman ended his tenure as permanent director in 1970, the Players entered a new era of autonomy as a student group.

Julia MacDonald says the early 1970s was a period of great creativity and experimentation for the Players. “There was a very talented group of people who flowed back and forth between the radio station and the theater in those days,” she says. They produced a show on the floor and built risers for the audience. They worked with props suspended from the ceiling.

MacDonald says Harris “Hap” Erstein’s 1970 production of Man of La Mancha was the high point of her Players experience. The crew constructed a rake (sloped) stage and painted everything black. Since there was no pit, they built a loft above the stage, with a wooden staircase, which they slowly lowered to create the effect of descending into a dungeon. The show sold out and was held over and sold out again on the second weekend, proving to skeptics that the Players could manage themselves and produce outstanding theater. (Today, Erstein ’70 is the theater and film critic for the Palm Beach Post.)

The autonomy of the RPI Players is very significant, notes Rick Hartt ’70, managing director of the Rensselaer Union and staff adviser to the group. “A theatrical production requires many students in leadership roles. You have to have a production manager/producer, you have to have a sound director, you have to have a lighting director, you have to have a stage manager and props manager and a costume coordinator. And you have to have all those people for every play. At Rensselaer, all of these roles are filled by student volunteers, without faculty oversight,” he says.

In fact, the voluntary na-ture of Rensselaer’s theater program may be the reason for its longevity.

“We [engineers] would never have had an opportunity to be officers [in the Players] if we had been in a liberal arts college,” says George Kelly, who once served as president. And other former Players point out that at Rensselaer there was ample opportunity for inexperienced actors to perform or work on crews.

Kara DiCaterino ’02 seized the opportunity to become involved with every aspect of theater. As a stage manager she learned to work with the actors and directors, with the technical crew and the entire production team. As a member of the executive committee she participated in running the theater, making business and creative decisions.

Although the Players hire directors for their fall dramatic play and a director, musical director, choreographer, and accompanist for their spring musical, it is the students who select the plays and do the hiring. Students also direct the mid-season “Evening of Performance,” a night of one-act plays, and help orient new students to Rensselaer by leading a two-day drama experience for approximately 50 first-year students.

“Being in the unique environment of an engineering school where we happen to have a theater club that’s open to everybody, but no theater program, has allowed hundreds of engineers and scientists like me to get involved in theater,” says Eugene Kosarovich. Even more important, he says, is the fact that everyone is taking the same difficult courses. “That is how I developed my love of theater,” he says, “in that warm, very secure environment.”


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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

 
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