Theater and Dance at UTSA
Until last year, Stephen Young had never set foot on stage in front of an audience. But the first time he did so, as Petruchio in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” at UTSA’s Recital Hall, he knew he was meant to act.
“It’s a great feeling of power, but also very humbling,” said Young, a senior classics major.
Unlike Young, Dencia Baltimore, a senior English major, had been appearing in plays and musicals since childhood in school and in local theater back home in Dallas. So performing on stage is second nature to her.
“It might sound weird, but when I’m on stage I feel at home,” said Baltimore, who also is president of the Thespian Troupe at UTSA and had a lead role as Queen Elizabeth in “Richard III” last fall at the Downtown Campus’s Buena Vista Theater.
What the two actors have in common — besides their passion for the stage, of course — is their desire to see even more theater performances and acting classes at UTSA. Their participation in Acting I and II, courses offered by the English Department, complements the activities of the Music Department’s Lyric Theatre program, coordinated by Dr. William McCrary and Michelle Pietri (profiled in past issues of Ovations). Such student interest across departments could lead to a stand-alone theater program in the future.
“For historical reasons both Music and English have nurtured drama at UTSA over the years,” said COLFA Dean Daniel J. Gelo. “We continue to expand classes and facilities as student interest warrants, and in the conceivable future UTSA could have a theater department or school of the performing arts like those at many Tier I institutions.”
Young and Baltimore have good reason to be hopeful. Dr. David Frego, chair of the Department of Music, said preliminary plans have been drawn for a black box theater adjacent to the Art Building, which will be a component of the Main Campus performing arts complex that is part of the UTSA Master Plan. Unlike the more traditional Buena Vista Theater, the black box will consist of a large, square room with black walls and a flat floor instead of a stage.
“A black box theater is an intimate space for the performing arts,” Frego explained. “It works well for musical performances as well as plays. We have more than 200 recitals here each year. So rather than use the Recital Hall, which seats 500 people, we can use a smaller space for an audience of about 30.”
Frego’s enthusiasm for the potential of the performing arts is shared by Lynn Oliver, a lecturer in the English department who teaches Acting I and II. Oliver has enjoyed an extensive career in the theater and television industry. After graduating from college, she went to New York and appeared in plays on and off Broadway, even appearing in summer stock with actor Christopher Lloyd, best known for his role as Emmett Brown in the “Back to the Future” trilogy. Prior to coming to UTSA last fall, she was the theater director at Taft High School in the Northside Independent School District.
At UTSA, Oliver has directed “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Richard III” and the modern drama “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” by Bertolt Brecht. These performances give her the opportunity to help her student performers hone their acting skills, learn about blocking, and work on character development. On the bill this year is another Shakespeare classic, “Romeo and Juliet.”
Oliver’s passion for Shakespeare is an exciting extension of a long tradition in the English department of bringing actors from the London stage to UTSA twice a year for a week of performances and workshops featuring the works of the Bard. Oliver also advises the Thespian Troupe, a student group that meets once a month to discuss plays for possible production, act out scenes and bond as fellow actors normally do.
Dencia Baltimore, Steven Young and Armando Urdiales are among those Thespian Troupers. In fact, the three call themselves the “Shrew Crew” in reference to the first production they ever appeared in together at the university, “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“A black box theater is an intimate space for the performing arts. It works well for musical performances as well as plays.”
Dr. David Frego
Urdiales said that he appeared in a few plays while attending San Antonio’s Memorial High School, but when he took Acting I and II at UTSA, the acting bug bit.
“It’s interesting putting on shows,” Urdiales said. “Working behind the scenes, studying your part and learning your lines, blocking, character research – I love it all.”
As for Baltimore and Young, the two plan to relocate to New York after graduation to attend acting school. “I plan on pursuing an acting career to the fullest,” Baltimore said. “This is what I’m passionate about.”
Just as Oliver has been elevating the role of theater at the university, David Frego has been doing the same for dance. “When we recruited David to UTSA as Music chair in 2008, I was intrigued by his expertise in Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a music education technique involving body movement, and David’s potential for growing a dance program,” said Dean Gelo. “We agreed that a campus of 30,000 should have a dance program.”
Gelo and Frego hired an expert from the University of Minnesota to study the feasibility of establishing a dance program at UTSA. “And the answer was yes, it’s very viable,” Frego said, “partly because we have two dance studios already existing on campus in the Rec Center. They have the proper floors, barres and mirrors.”
Frego noted the growing popularity of dance on campus. When students learn that dance classes are available, those classes fill up quickly. So far Frego has hired two part-time dance instructors to teach ballet and modern dance and will hire a full-time dance instructor for the 2012 – 2013 academic year. This year’s offerings include Ballet 1, 2 and 3; history of dance; modern dance 1 and 2; jazz and film dance.
“I am particularly proud that our burgeoning dance program has been framed broadly from the start, to include all styles,” said Gelo. College benefactors Rajam and Somayaji Ramamurthy were so impressed with the commitment to world genres that they created an endowment to bring renowned dance teachers in the Indian tradition to campus each year.
“My goal is that once we have a number of courses, we create a program so that students can get a minor in dance,” Frego said. “Then, in a few years time, move that into a major so that people can get a bachelor of fine arts in dance.”
Between the passion of the students and the concerted efforts of the English and Music departments, UTSA is now poised for the rapid growth of outstanding theater and dance programs on campus. As Shakespeare tells us, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” If that’s so, then at least those players at UTSA will step onto that stage well prepared.