The Graduate Theatre Department has earned its stay in the spotlight. The prestigious collaboration with The Old Globe has a growing reputation as one of the top acting programs in the country. Due to high demand, annual acceptance has dipped below 2 percent, with only seven new actors admitted each year. Thanks to small class sizes, each student enjoys a full-tuition scholarship and unrivaled access to instructors.
USD's Graduate Theatre professors may be full-time instructors, but they still find time to work professionally in their field. Three professors in the MFA program collaborated this spring to produce the US premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's "Life of Riley" at The Old Globe.
"Although The Globe has often produced first productions of plays and musicals, it rarely gets the opportunity to present a new work by such a distinguished playwright," said Professor Richard Seer, Chair of the Graduate Theatre Department. "As you can imagine, I was extremely flattered to be asked to direct it."
"Life of Riley" is Ayckbourn's 74th play. The British playwright is widely considered to be Britain's most prolific living playwright, and he just happened to be a favorite of the late Craig Noel, The Old Globe's Founding Director.
"Lou Spisto [The Globe's Executive Producer] has scored big with this US premiere, not only for allowing the San Diego audience a chance at seeing a new Ayckbourn piece, but for honoring the funny bone of Craig Noel," said Professor Ray Chambers.
Chambers took on the role of Jack, a "self-obsessed sexist and a cheater." Jack is the oldest friend of the title character, whose impending death has caused the entire cast of melancholy oddballs to cope with their loss in unique and comedic ways.
Seer, who was recently named Craig Noel Distinguished Professor of Graduate Theatre, said the play's dark humor is typical of Ayckbourn's work.
"George Riley, the title character who never appears on stage, is diagnosed with cancer and has only six months to live," Seer said. "Typical of Ayckbourn, the friends are often much too preoccupied with their own issues to give George's problem much thought, and their self-involvement is the source of much of the play's humor."
In order to provide an authentic reading of the British playwright's work, the cast relied on the expertise of Professor Jan Gist. In addition to her decade of work at USD, Gist is also the resident voice and speech coach at The Old Globe.
"My job as voice and dialect coach is, first, to study how the writer uses dialogue to create life on stage," Gist said. "I find out from the director how he wants to convey that story, then I coach the actors to vocally express their talents and skills to convey it all."
According to Gist, the dialogue in the play required several regional British accents. Gist researched all of them and provided coaching to the actors so that they could nail their characters' pitch patterns while staying true to the playwright's "witty rhythms." She said much attention was given to the actors' individual choices regarding how their characters ought to speak.
"I helped each of the six actors to define their individual version of speech," Gist said. "Luckily the actors, including Ray, were highly skilled and disciplined so they gave the audiences all these different versions of dialects, while still maintaining the world of the story."
The play ran through June 5, giving the professors time to prepare for another semester and season of MFA productions. Next up, Seer will direct Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," opening in November.
With a fresh set of graduate actors headed to San Diego this fall, Gist said she feels at home in the Department of Graduate Theatre. She said she admires the vision and practice of theatre training here.
"I also feel constantly renewed and inspired by the beauty of the campus, and the generosity of the university's faculty, staff and administration," Gist said.
Chambers, who began instructing at USD last year, said his favorite thing about the Department is its partnership with The Old Globe.
"[The Old Globe] is a long-established leading regional theatre dedicated to bringing the classics and new works to life, while USD is garnering national attention as a university of quality education, research, high standards and new ideas," Chambers said. "Both institutions have the respect of the nation and the confidence to help each other train the next generation of actors. I love it here."
- Anne Malinoski ‘11