When Lights Go Up Onstage, Broadway Stars Are in Storrs Spotlight

Pat Sajak (left) starred as Felix Ungar opposite Joe Moore's Oscar Madison in the Neil Simon classic,
Pat Sajak (left) starred as Felix Ungar opposite Joe Moore's Oscar Madison in the Neil Simon classic, "The Odd Couple". (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)
Pat Sajak (left) starred as Felix Ungar opposite Joe Moore's Oscar Madison in the Neil Simon classic 'The Odd Couple' at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Sajak, the longtime host of 'Wheel of Fortune,' is just one of the stars who has been seen in Storrs.  (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)
Pat Sajak (left) starred as Felix Ungar opposite Joe Moore’s Oscar Madison in the Neil Simon classic ‘The Odd Couple’ at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Sajak, the longtime host of ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ is just one of the stars who has been seen in Storrs.  (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)

As befits his position as artistic director and head of the Department of Dramatic Arts in the School of Fine Arts, Vincent Cardinal is a storyteller.

Cardinal recounts that while at the Student Union last summer, he overheard someone say: “I had the strangest thing happen. I was at a restaurant and I saw a guy who looks just like Pat Sajak!”

“It cracked me up,” says Cardinal, who at the time was directing the longtime host of “Wheel of Fortune” in the role of Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. “You don’t think you’ll see a celebrity around in our little downtown.”

As Storrs Center continues to grow, Cardinal says there will be more celebrity sightings, as the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) and other performances and exhibitions that are part of the School of Fine Arts increasingly attract audiences from throughout the region.

“For a lot of people in Connecticut, the front door to this University is athletics, but I think for a growing number the front door is the arts,” he says. “I see a large population getting to know the University because they come to see a play and spend a day on campus and discover we are multifaceted and have multi-levels of excellence on this campus. Any university at its best is a vital intellectual, artistic, and recreational community.”

Terrence Mann (left) as Don Quixote with UConn SFA alum Richard Ruiz as Sancho Panza in Connecticut Repertory TheatreÕs Nutmeg Summer series production of Man of La Mancha. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)
Terrence Mann (left) as Don Quixote with UConn SFA alum Richard Ruiz as Sancho Panza in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer series production of Man of La Mancha. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)

The performance last year by Sajak in “The Odd Couple” followed the CRT production of “Man of La Mancha,” which starred the veteran Broadway actor Terrence Mann. CRT has also provided opportunities to present regional debuts and premieres of new plays by playwrights such as Mike Reiss (“I’m Connecticut”), Theresa Rebeck (“O Beautiful”), Stephen Svoboda (“Odysseus D.O.A.”), and Simon Stephens (“Punk Rock”).

Cardinal says UConn has established a reputation as a place where actors, directors, and writers in the performing arts – including many who have won prestigious Tony and Emmy Awards – have opportunities not available to them elsewhere.

“Theater people just like to do theater,” he says. “What’s happening with our summer program in particular is that a lot of famous people who want to work together, really seasoned Broadway folks, don’t get to pick and choose who they get to work with. What happens is a group of people say: Wouldn’t it be fun to do this show together? I wonder whether the Connecticut people will let us?”

When that happens, such collaborations benefit the Eastern Connecticut audiences who enjoy the performances and the UConn students who have the opportunity to work as actors and backstage support crews alongside of accomplished stage actors. More often than not, especially during the academic year, when heralded performers arrive in Storrs they also spend time in the classroom with students and faculty sharing their wealth of experience and knowledge.

Vince Cardinal, artistic director and head of the Department of Dramatic Arts, has the dual roles of department head and artistic director for all CRT productions.
Vince Cardinal, artistic director and head of the Department of Dramatic Arts, has the dual roles of department head and artistic director for all CRT productions.

When the lights go up on opening night at any of UConn’s three performance stages – the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre, Nafe Katter Theatre, and the Studio Theatre – it is the culmination of months of planning, set construction and rehearsals that bring together dozens of students, faculty, and backstage collaborators. It is a year-round process that brings together actors, directors, set designers, casting directors, costume makers, craftsmen, and musicians to produce nine shows each year.

Even as shows are on stage, there is planning for the next season of performances, with an eye toward meeting both artistic and educational goals.

“There are several balls in the air at all times,” says Cardinal, who has the dual roles of department head and artistic director for the productions. “What would serve what our students need to learn as well as our local community? There is the joy theater brings, but there is also the edification, stimulation, and challenge, and the financial reality that you have to sell tickets to keep the thing going to accomplish the first two missions.”

One way the dual goals are accomplished, he says, is by having a theme for the season of shows that is detailed in the CRT program as the “Artistic Director’s Note.” For the 2012-2013 season, the productions center on how the nation’s youth often are caught between political and social battles. Early productions this season included “O Beautiful,” a contemporary story of today’s politically polarized age; and “Romeo & Juliet,” Shakespeare’s classic love story of teenagers from feuding households. Recent productions include “Punk Rock,” set at a British boarding school; and upcoming is “Hairspray,” the award-winning musical about the transformation of an outsider into a teen celebrity, which runs from April 25 to May 5.

Getting the word out

The word about UConn’s performing arts is going beyond Eastern Connecticut via traditional news outlets and social media, Cardinal says, with Internet postings on Facebook and through Twitter.

“We have a record number of kids coming in and auditioning,” he says. “When we ask why they are here, they’ve been following rehearsals online, they know who our kids are. There was a time when you would build a beautiful show and nobody but our audience would see the set. Now word gets out and Playbill calls and wants pictures to feature us on their website, or the Associated Press does a story with international reach. Our little shows that used to be hidden in the Quiet Corner reach an international audience consistently, which is great for the kids and for their futures and for our participation in the greater conversation of theater in the world. It’s shrunk the community in a positive way.”