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Frank Thompson Hall: from Athletics to the Arts plaque in Thompson Hall

Since 1964, University Theatre has been NC State’s open access theatre company serving the entire student body. Under the direction of a full-time professional staff, University Theatre provides theatrical programming for the campus-community and local public community while operating and supporting the campus’ three performing arts venues.

University Theatre offers a blend of volunteer student productions and academic theatre training. Productions are open to all NC State students, regardless of major or whether or not they are enrolled in theatre courses – genuinely open access for all. 

Six Decades of Performance

Tremendous support and dedication from NC State students, faculty and staff, and the Triangle community have transformed University Theatre from a small community theatre to a thriving theatre community.

In the Beginning 

University Theatre evolved from small workshops conducted by novelist and playwright Romulus Linney in Pullen Hall in the early 1960s. The Erdahl-Cloyd Union decided that the cultural offerings on the campus needed improvement and hired Linney to instruct and serve as writer-in-residence. When the union decided that Pullen Hall wasn’t adequate for the theatre, they contacted Phillip Eck of the University of Pittsburgh’s speech department to scout the campus for a better location. He and Linney discovered the old Thompson Gymnasium Building, which had been vacant since the opening of Carmichael Gym in 1961. Eck developed a design, and architect Raymond Sawyer completed the transformation of the building from gym to theatre.

Thompson Theatre pre-renovation.
Thompson Theatre. Formerly Thompson Gymnasium, home to NC State basketball.

In 1963, Linney left and Ira Allen came in as theatre director. Thompson Theatre’s first season opened in 1964, with Antigone, directed by Charles Stillwell, the theatre’s assistant director. He also directed The Lady’s Not for Burning, and Allen directed The Zoo Story, The American Dream, and The Firebugs. Small but enthusiastic audiences attended the shows produced by local actors and students.

Initially, Thompson Theatre was established as a professional repertory troupe of actors, adding four professionals each year until reaching 24. The successful 1965-66 season included The Glass Menagerie, produced with only professionals, and The Private Life of the Master Race and Hedda Gabler, which mixed students and local actors. This continued until 1967, when then-Governor Terry Sanford declared that the program would be self-sustaining as a non-academic function of the university, funded through receipts and paying costs from those funds. The professional troupe was abandoned, and students and local actors produced the 1967-68 season.

Turmoil of the Sixties and Seventies

In the summer of 1968, the Design School collaborated with Thompson Theatre to produce a successful intermedia show called Orange Driver, using various types of visual presentations and complex sound effects mixed with actors and dancers. Orange Driver used five film projectors, 13 slide projectors and more than 2,000 slides, coordinated by a converted telephone switchboard. The show packed houses for over 30 performances, and the entire 1968-69 season was devoted to intermedia.

Gene Messick came on as assistant director and intermedia specialist, directing five shows, three original (Ohm is Where the Art Is, Conflict and Hope, and Clickstop!) and two adapted (The Lesson by Ionesco and Thurber’s The Last Flower). At the end of that season, concerned with the lack of student involvement, the union hired John Andrews from Purdue University, Peter MacManus and Hugh Naylor.

During the 1968-69 season, a volunteer student group called University Players performed several productions of traditional theatre, including You Can’t Take It With You, performed in the Erdahl-Cloyd Union and a show they performed in the dormitories, Thurber’s Carnival. University Players and the new staff moved into Thompson Theatre at the same time in 1969, and presented Black Comedy and Blood Wedding

Messick produced one intermedia show that year, then left the theatre after some conflicts with administration. The next year, artistic director Jack Chandler joined the staff and produced Viet Rock, a rock musical about protesting the war that was entered into the American College Theatre Festival. The professional staff grew in the years that followed and presented creative shows such as Alice Construction Co., where actors swung from trapezes; the audience sat on scaffolding or wherever they could get a decent view.

In 1972, the new Student Center opened, and the Student Center administration decided it was time for a more stable student theatre program. Jim Chestnutt joined as scenic and lighting designer, Shirley Owen Mannon as costume designer and Greg Shriver as technical director. The talented group presented the well-received musical The Me Nobody Knows and the less-successful !Heimskringla!, about the travels of Leif Erikson. In 1973, they hired Charles Martin, who came to Thompson with more educational theatre experience. Martin directed Rhinoceros and The Lion in Winter that season, both on a thrust stage arrangement.

Martin, a Pennsylvania native, taught several theatre classes at Appalachian State University. “I liked the idea of coming to a true theatre where I was given the ability to do the necessary things to get it off on the right foot. It was an exciting time,” he recalled. He was surprised to discover that the university administration strongly supported the theatre. “The university was growing very fast, and student fees were coming in fast,” Martin said. “They gave us a rather satisfying budget and we made sure that we used it to our advantage.”

The following year, Martin convinced the administration to set up two special courses, English 298 and 498, for the students to get academic credit for theatre work. Students had to write a paper to complete the course. The next year, the courses moved to the communications department, and the written paper was abandoned.

Under Martin’s guidance, participation in theatre and enrollment in theatre classes soared. In 1976, Terri L. Janney joined the staff as lighting and scenic designer and technical director. Dr. Burton Russell was hired by the communication department as a director and professor in theatre arts. Dr. Patricia Caple came to Thompson Theatre as a communications professor in 1986.

The program continued to grow and produce successful shows through the 1980s. Martin served as Thompson Theatre director until his retirement in 1990.

The Nineties Bring More Changes

In 1990, the university administration hired John McIlwee, who had worked as a fashion designer in New York City, to succeed Martin. “Here in theatre, students, like faculty, learn to be part of a team with obligations to fulfill. Other team members are helped or hindered because of each individual’s participation,” McIlwee said. “With a university that is science-based and research oriented, you wouldn’t expect to have a theatre of our magnitude whose purpose is to provide a general education that coincides with students’ specific curriculums.”

1998 photo from Bus Stop, the first production in Stewart Theatre.
1998. Photo from Bus Stop, the first production performed in Stewart Theatre as University Theatre.

In the summer of 1991 TheatreFEST performed for the first time on NC State’s campus. A three-show summer season in the month of June, TheatreFEST was envisioned as an opportunity to cast local pre-professional and professional actors with student actors and provide students with the opportunity to work alongside seasoned performers. 

In 1998, the staff at Thompson Theatre and Stewart Theatre were combined to create University Theatre, and the theatre opened its first season that included presentations in Stewart Theatre. Although there was some uncertainty that the program could handle the 816-seat theatre, those doubts were quickly dispelled with the success of presentations such as Bus Stop, The Heiress, Once in a Lifetime, and Dracula.

University Theatre has evolved into one of the Triangle’s finest theaters. The News & Observer wrote in December 2000, “University Theatre had an especially strong year, pulling in the most bids from our critics for year-end bests,” and Spectator Magazine named University Theatre “Best Collegiate Theatre in the Triangle.”

A new home for a new century

In 2007, Thompson Theatre building closed for major renovations. The building was gutted and rebuilt, preserving much of the historic structural architecture. Many of the staff retired or left the university during the renovation. The building reopened in 2009 as Frank Thompson Hall, with two beautiful theater spaces and other updated and well-equipped shops, classrooms, dressing rooms and a rehearsal hall.

Concept rendering for the new Frank Thompson Hall.

Six positions within University Theatre were re-hired, accounting for 90% of the student-enrichment and academic staff and a third of the event operations staff. University Theatre’s homecoming to Frank Thompson Hall and hiring of professional staff was like a shot in the arm, boosting student turn-out and increasing audience numbers. Opportunities within production shops, performance, and academics soared. Under the leadership of John McIlwee, University Theatre produced nine fully produced, large-scale, productions a year producing shows in all three of NC State’s performing arts facilities. 

In late 2012 Stewart Theatre closed down as part of the larger Talley Student Union Renovation. The three-year, $120 million project was a complete renovation of the building that had impacts on the program and the staff whose offices were housed in Talley. The event operations team dismantled and removed all performance equipment from Stewart Theatre as well as props and costumes storage which was distributed and stored in various locations around campus. Permanent staff were relocated to Frank Thompson Hall, crowding two and three employees to an office. While Stewart Theatre was included in this renovation, the scope was far less than that of the larger building. As part of the project Stewart Theatre received new seats, a dedicated loading dock, office space, and life safety upgrades. Additional funding was provided by Campus Enterprises for further cosmetic upgrades outside of the original project’s scope. 

Seven years later, in 2019, Stewart Theatre underwent a 5 month, $750,000 renovation to its aging fly system – a series of cables, pulleys, pipes and counterweights located sixty-feet above the stage used to hang and move curtains, scenery, and lighting. The fly system increased capacity from 17 to 25 pipes for scenery, lighting, and curtains. The new computer controlled system adds safety features and allows students to experience a system that they would encounter in many theaters outside of the university. 

Academic offerings increased as University Theatre began administering a newly formed minor and the adoption of the THE theatre prefix for all courses taught by UT staff. Until that time, CHASS provided support and faculty to teach courses within the discipline of theatre. When support was no longer offered, University Theatre gained agency over its courses. Staff members who were hired were credentialed to teach courses within their specific theatrical discipline.  

The Act of Pivoting

John McIlwee retired after 31-years of service directing University Theatre. For two-years after his retirement, the program was administered by an interim director that led the staff in inward reflection of the program’s offerings and potential future as it prepared to hire its next director. 

Joshua Reaves was offered the position of director early Thursday afternoon on March 19, 2020. That same afternoon, NC State reduced its operations and eventually closed the campus to in-person activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Always forward thinking, University Theatre wasted no time developing multiple virtual and online activities during the summer of 2020 despite many believing the fall of 2020 would bring a return to normalcy. University Theatre led the way in providing multiple weekly, and oftentimes twice weekly, virtual opportunities in the fall of 2020; eight series in all. The program had done the unthinkable, shifted its programming, which is intrinsically tied to in-person experiences, and moved them online. Our success caught the eye of local companies and others within the UNC system. UT’s work became a model for others and its staff provided assistance, recommendations, and support to others across the country. 

During the pandemic, the program’s extended intermission, University Theatre utilized its time away from the stage to reexamine its offerings and direction. As the nation and the campus addressed the injustices of racism and discrimination, University Theatre continued its work on anti-racist theatre practices and began working with consultants to create a new mission statement to align its offerings and build a community within the walls of Frank Thompson Hall.

A New Normal

Today the program focuses its efforts towards building an inclusive, student-centered community that inspires meaningful connections grounded in the experience of making and sharing theatre. It no longer puts product or the production above the process or the journey. The program focuses on the student experience and the process of making art and embraces its new role as a completely accessible community builder. The program understands and champions the idea that theatre is not the reason students attend NC State, however for many theatre is the reason students choose NC State over other STEM campuses and for many theatre is the reason students remain at NC State. University Theatre offers the ability for students to access both sides of the brain and enjoy their artistic and performative side while studying at an R1 institution. The arts on campus provide a supportive role by providing an artistic outlet and a place for students to hold community, be it through programming produced by University Theatre or facilitating programming within one of its three event spaces. 

The memories students build and experiences they enjoy with UT are no less important than the degree which will eventually hang on their wall. 

UT continues to be open to all NC State students without the regard to an enrollment in theatre class, their major field of study, or their level of experience. More than 700 students in varied majors were involved in productions and various programming during the 2021-2022 calendar year. The following academic year that number more than doubled for participants while interacting with over 5,400 audience members in the same year.

University Theatre remains a strong and vital part of the NC State University ecosystem, providing expert service to users of the campus’ three performing arts venues and creating a community – a home – for students to engage in the art of making and sharing theatre.

University Theatre at NC State celebrates 50 years! Video created by Philipp Lindemann to honor the students, staff and friends of UT who have, through the years, contributed to the program’s success. Presented at a reception in honor of “The Burial at Thebes, a version of Sophocles’ Antigone” by Seamus Heaney. “Antigone” was the first production staged by UT in 1964.

Help Support Our Program

University Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary in the 2014-2015 season. Help us celebrate our history and prepare for another 50 years by making a gift to the University Theatre Enhancement Fund today!