Theatre: A Meeting of Minds

The Servant of Two Masters, an 18th-century farce by Carlo Goldoni, was presented by VUT in February.
The Servant of Two Masters, an 18th-century farce by Carlo Goldoni, was presented by VUT in February.

Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso may not seem the most relatable of characters for college-age theatre. Catch the cultural giants on the verge of breakthrough, however, and modern students suddenly find themselves joining in the toast to possibility.

“Who doesn’t think, when you’re in college, that you’re on the cusp of greatness yourself?” asks Phillip Franck, associate professor and chair of the Vanderbilt University Department of Theatre, which closed its season with Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile April 7–10.

The piece—which envisions the duo in a Parisian bar just before Einstein publishes his groundbreaking theory of relativity and Picasso creates the seminal painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—was not just an opportunity to present something lighter than normal fare. (Yes, it’s that Steve Martin, in a more sophisticated yet still comedic tone.) It was also a chance to explore the way theatre connects to the rest of life.

“Theatre functions as a bridge between many different disciplines,” says Franck. The small department, one of few that focuses solely on undergraduate education, is aimed less at being a professional training ground than at preparing students for further study. As such, that further study often includes fields like law or education at other institutions in addition to theatre.

The rich combination makes for lively interaction, and Terryl W. Hallquist, associate professor of theatre and director of the April show, admits she’s been challenged, too: She read a book about Einstein in preparation for the play.

“Never in my life did I think I’d do that,” she says. “Theatre takes you places you never thought you were interested in going.”

The department rounds out its offerings with visiting professionals, giving students a real-world peek at life in the industry. This spring’s roster, thanks to endowments and strong connections, included Tina Packer, founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley; and Michael Bloom, artistic director of Cleveland Playhouse.

But the students are far from the only ones on the cusp of great things, adds Franck, who also works in professional lighting design. Two new faculty members will join the department in the coming year, making for an “exciting” time overall.

“We’re always looking for ways to expand our educational opportunities,” he says. “Theatre is ultimately the study of human nature. Even if you’re not going to pursue it after college, you can still learn a lot about human interactions just by being involved.”

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