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Thespians: A History Lesson

The Penn State Thespians has changed a lot since our founding in 1897. Our
history here at Penn State is rich and full of many interesting facts and people.

Famous Alumni
The Penn State Thespians has been the home of some very notable people in the
professional theatre world and beyond.

Becoming a Member
The process is established so that you can learn as much as possible about the, club, how it
works, and its history, before becoming a member.

Production Staff Positions

Each show is completely student run and so our members and members of the Penn State
community fill those positions. Here you will find a list of positions and learn more about
how the work behind the production process is broken down.

Signature Sheet
This sheet is here for you to keep a track of all of your hours completed with The Penn State
Thespians and must be turned into your Prospective Spec Master before Inductions.

Prospective Project Proposal Sheet

Use this sheet as a guide to completing your project. This sheet must also be turned into
your Prospective Spec Master prior to Inductions.


The purpose of this organization shall be to present theatrical entertainment and to provide
the students of The Pennsylvania State University with educational experience in all phases of
dramatic production; and in doing, hereby enhance the cultural diversity of its members and
the University.
-The Penn State Thespians Constitution


A dramatic association has been formed under the name of Thespians. It is to be a
permanent organization, new members being elected each year from the lower classes.
-The Free Lance, Nov. 1897
The first Thespians meeting was called to order on October 22, 1897, by our founders,
Drs. Fred Lewis Pattee (author of Penn States Alma Mater) and John H. Leete, both
professors at the University. At this meeting, the club acquired its name, Thespians (suggested
by Leete), the officers were elected, and the first show was selected. The Rivals was
Thespians first performance, held in the college chapel of the original Old Main on February
14, 1898. The scenery was borrowed from the Garman Opera House in Bellefonte, and the
costumes were rented from a company in Philadelphia. The show was performed at the
Garman Opera House a few days later, partially to facilitate the return of the scenery.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Pattee was the head of the Department of English, and Dr.
Leete was a professor of Mathematics. Neither had roots in theatre, yet both came together to
form Thespians. This tradition continues today, as many of our members are not actively
pursuing degrees or careers in theatre.
Musicals did not become standard Thespian faire until 1912, with the production of
Popocaterpillar VII. Costumes and rights were secured courtesy of the Cornell Masque.
To generalize our shows and styles, Thespians performed one show per year until
1919. At that time, we began producing one show per semester. Until 1910, our shows were
mostly theatrical classics. From 1910 to WWII, we switched to musical comedies. During
WWII, farces were presented, primarily for economic reasons. Finally, after the war,
Thespians saw a return to musical theatre, which has continued to the present day.


For the first two decades of the Thespians existence, the shows were cast exclusively
of men, due in no small part to the low numbers of women on campus. Men cross-dressed for
female parts and danced in such musical numbers as the Hula, Bunny Wiggle, Japanese
Glide, and Gorilla Hug.
The sex barrier was broken for a short time in 1918 because so many of Thespians
members were called to service during World War I. Four women were allowed to be part of
the cast of It Pays to Advertise, and Margaret Fishburn (19) landed the first female lead in a
production. There was a comment in the program concerning the integration of co-eds into
the cast, stating: The difficult parts. Verily, the war works wonderful changes. This was,
however, only a temporary change. Shows returned to all-male casts at the conclusion of the
In 1926, a woman was again permitted to perform onstage for a Thespians variety
show. This performance led the way for an all-female chorus in the 1929 production of H.M.S.
Pinafore, and by 1931, women became commonplace in Thespian productions. Because they
were still not permitted to become members of the club, Penn State women formed a sister
club, the Masquerettes. The club existed alongside Thespians from 1934 until 1953, when
women were finally inducted into Thespians as full-fledged members. As an interesting aside,
it wasnt until the 1991 constitutional revision that women were permitted to serve as
president of the club. Despite this regulation, there were three female presidents prior to the


In one form or another, Thespians has maintained a Board of Advisors since the very
inception of the organization. The major ups and downs of Thespians history coincide with
changes to this Board, and its history is valuable in understanding our own. Indeed, Drs. Lewis
and Pattee are listed as its earliest members. In the early years of the club, the Board
functioned as an integral part of Thespians. Because the clubs founders were on this Board,
they had a vested interest in the success of the club from the onset. They were involved with
club affairs and ensured our initial success as a student organization. From the clubs birth,
Thespians had been travelling the east coast by taking their shows on the road. This started
out as a relatively simple process, and the club remained largely in Centre County. As we
began doing musicals, the casts and equipment necessary began to require much more capital
to travel, and destinations were pushed as far away as New York City.
Gradually, debts accrued. The First National Bank of State College was the chief
creditor of Thespians, as it became tradition to take a note (or add to an existing one) when
the club fell on tough financial times. Because the banks president, Claude G. Aikens, was a
supporter of Thespians, no great pressure was applied for the repayment of the loans. Out of
town creditors, however, were not as munificent. Eventually, pressure on both the club and
College (there was no University yet) led to the great audit of 1926. The audit revealed a
debt of $10,205.06 (over $100,000 in todays money) and assets of only $269.97 (about
$3,000 today). This major discrepancy was caused by Thespians first financial disaster:
taking Wooden Shoes on the road in 1925.

While the organization improved after that first fiasco, the height of our debt would
not be reached until 1928, when a financial statement noted liabilities of over $15,000. At this
point, the Board of Advisors, then known as the Board of Directors, shifted gears. The College
installed a graduate manager to oversee club finances, and the Board held a tight grip on the
financial reigns of the club. Throughout the 1930s, the club continued to pay off its debt.
In 1932, however, a new problem was to plague the Thespians. At the time, Thespian
shows were performed during commencement weekend at Penn State. An original show, We,
the People, was highly resented by four female members of the Colleges Board of Trustees.
Those women wrote a letter to then-president of the College, Ralph D. Hetzel, complaining of
the vulgarity and lack of respect to the flag demonstrated in the show. Dr. Hetzel politely
informed the women that he had no control over student groups and that he felt coercion and
censorship to be ultimately detrimental to student success. Their concerns, however, were not
truly dismissed.
Working through the Colleges chain of command, word of the displeasure of the
trustees reached Thespians Board of Directors. They resolved, among other things, that the
Board would appoint a Production Committee (currently the Production Staff). The only
student representation during this appointment was the Thespian president, and only then as
an ex-officio member. Additionally, all scripts and budgets had to be approved by the Board
before production started. At this time, the Board had become heavy-handed in all aspects of
Thespian production, a far cry from the relative freedom the club experiences today. After a
brief bout with financial problems in 1939 (creditors tried to hold the College responsible for
Thespians remaining debt of $8,000 to no avail), Thespians found themselves amidst another
controversy over vulgarity. After our 1942 show, dean Warnock made several suggestions to
the College. These included assuming Thespians remaining debt and integrating control of
the club with the Department of Music. Ultimately, however, these suggestions only resulted
in, again, a revised Board of Directors (now the Board of Control). By 1951, the debt of 1928
was finally paid off in full. With that, the final historical Oops! was overcome.

GENE KELLY: Participated in three shows for 1929-1930 before transferring to

JULIUS EPSTEIN: Wrote lyrics for Thespians and went on to write more than 30
screen plays, including Casablanca.

OLIVER SMITH: Built sets for Thespians. Won Tony Awards for stage settings on

Broadway productions of Brigadoon, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!,

Guys and Dolls, and Hello Dolly.

CARRIE FISHBEIN ROBBINS: Performed as Mammy Yocum in Lil Abner with

Thespians. Won a Tony Award for her costume design of Grease.

JONATHAN FRAKES: Performed with Thespians, went on to play Commander

William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

MARY LOU BELLI: Played in the Fantastiks with The Penn State Thespians in
1975/76 and is now an Emmy award-winning director Mary Lou Belli who has
also earned multiple honors for her work in television and theatre.

JONATHAN FRAKES: Started classes at Pennsylvania State University, enrolling as

a psychology major. The next summer, he worked as an usher for the local
theater and observed his peers thoroughly enjoying acting. He was motivated to
switch his major to theater arts and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1974.
He is known for his role as Commander William Riker in Star Trek: Next
Generation and subsequent spin-offs.

Becoming a member of Thespians is a two-semester process. The process is
established so that you can learn as much as possible about the, club, how it
works, and its history, before becoming a member. In order to be inducted
into the club, you must fulfill the following requirements:
CREW HOURS This requires at least 10 hours of work on a crew for two
mainstage shows. These hours can be for any approved crew (lights,
costumes, cast, etc.).
SET HOURS You must contribute three hours to set construction
(building and/or painting). The vice president will notify prospectives
when and where these hours will take place.
COSTUME HOURS Three hours are required in the costume shop. The
shop is located in the basement of Schwab Auditorium, and you will be
notified of the hours that the costumer will be working.
LOAD-IN You must assist in the load-in for one mainstage show. This
requires at least four hours of work on load-in weekend. This weekend
occurs one week before each show opens.
STRIKE You must assist in strike for one mainstage show. This requires
that you stay and help until the everything is completely struck or until
the Technical Director or Stage Manager dismisses you. Strike occurs
immediately following the closing performance.
REHEARSAL You are required to attend one rehearsal for each of two
mainstage shows. These rehearsals may be attended at any stage of the
rehearsal process.
PROSPECTIVE PROJECT You must complete a Prospective Project, These
projects have typically included assisting in cleaning out our shops in
Schwab or the office, but other projects approved by the Prospective
Master may also be completed. Creative projects increasing the club or
communitys wellbeing or notoriety are encouraged. Projects must be
approved prior to completion.

PROSPECTIVE MEETINGS These meetings will be held regularly

throughout each semester. These meetings will serve to provide
Prospectives with relevant information (opportunities for crew hours,
etc.) and allow opportunities for questions and answers. The goal of these
meetings is to allow members of each prospective class to get to know
each other and to ensure that the pledging process is as enjoyable as
PROSPECTIVE QUESTIONS Each prospective must ask either five
members any three questions or three members any five questions. You
must write down the questions asked and the answers given verbatim.
Each interviewee must sign off on their answers. These questions are to be
turned in at the same time as your completed signature sheet.
CLUB HISTORY Read it, learn it, know it.
COMMUNION A technically optional, though highly encouraged, portion
of the pledging process, communion will occur on a weekend evening
prior to inductions.
PROSPECTIVE SKIT Each prospective class will present a skit
immediately prior to the induction ceremony.
INDUCTIONS Inductions are held at the last meetings of the Fall and
Spring semesters. You must complete this ceremony to become a member.
Once you have completed these requirements, a head of crew, as appropriate, must
sign each portion of your signature sheet. Your packet signature sheet must be
completed by Inductions [the last Thespian Meeting of each semester]. You will
also be assigned a Big who will help orient you to the club, answer your
questions, and provide an experienced friend within Thespians.


You may apply for any one of the following positions.
Note that many of these Positions have assistantships.

Director Responsible for presenting their interpretation of the show to
the audience in the actual productions. Thus, they have artistic control
over almost all areas of production. The director has the final say in
casting, staging, actor coaching, design concepts, and all other artistic
Musical Director Responsible for finding and directing the pit orchestra
or the performance. The musical director is also responsible for
interpreting the orchestration in a manner consistent with the director
and vocal director.
Vocal Director Responsible for training and coaching the singers. The
vocal director also works to ensure the vocal health of the cast.
Choreographer Responsible for the creation and expression of all the
dancing/movement in the show that is consistent with the directors
Scenic Designer Works with the director to design the set and creates
support documents, such as ground plans and elevations. Also works with
the scenic artist to devise appropriate colors.
Scenic Artist Works in conjunction with the scenic designer to paint the
set, to mix colors, and to work with the technical director to coordinate set
Lighting Designer Plans all the lighting for the show, including
practicals. The lighting designer should also create support documents
such as an instrument schedule, lighting plot, hook up sheet, etc. the
lighting designer also works with the master electrician to rent
instruments and to hang and focus.

Sound Designer In charge of determining what sound equipment is

required for the show (microphones, monitors, etc.). Also responsible for
finding any sound effects requested by the director. The sound designer
must reserve and set up the equipment as necessary and operate the
soundboard throughout the show.
Costume Designer Creates the costumes to be worn by the actors
during the show, following guidelines given by the director. The costume
designer is expected to create renderings of the costumes prior to
Properties Master Responsible for acquiring or building all props for
rehearsals and performances. Also responsible for any set dressings
requested by the scenic designer.

Production Manager Responsible for coordinating all aspects of the
production to ensure that everything runs smoothly. The PM also runs the
production meetings and keeps the production staff informed of each
others needs.
Assistant Production Manager Requirements vary by production
manager. Typically assists more with the communication aspects between
cast and production staff, but this is not specified.
Stage Manager Coordinates all aspects of what is performed onstage.
They are responsible for organizing all rehearsals, reserving rehearsal
space, helping coordinate the design staff, and organizing the production.
During tech rehearsals and the performances, the stage manager is
responsible for coordinating all action on- and off-stage, including calling
and inserting cues.
Assistant Stage Manager Requirements vary by stage manager.
Typically in charge of coordinating all backstage activities during the
performance in addition to other duties.

Technical Director Responsible for coordinating the construction of the

set. The technical director is also responsible for creating support
documents for the scenic designers plans that layout how the set is to be
constructed. They are also responsible for reserving appropriate
construction space. Master Carpenter Uses plans created by the
technical director to guide the building of the set.
Master Electrician Uses support documents provided by the lighting
designer to hang, wire, and circuit the lighting plot for the show. The
master electrician is also responsible for running the light focus,
maintaining the lighting equipment, and typically running the lighting
board during tech rehearsals and performances. These are brief
descriptions of the positions available for each show. Please speak an
individual who has held the position in the past to learn about the full
extent of a specific positions duties. You are encouraged to apply for any
position or crew you are interested in, regardless of experience.


Prospective: __________________________

Big: __________________________

Prospective Master: _____________________

Prospective Project: Title: ___________________________________________________
Date Completed: ____________________

Signature: ______________________

Main Crew Hours(10 hours per show):




1. __________________________ ____________________ ___________________

2. __________________________ ____________________ ___________________

Costuming and/or Marketing Hours (3 hours per show):

1. ________________________ ___________________
2. ________________________ ___________________
Set Hours (3 hours per show):
1. ________________________ ___________________
2. ________________________ ___________________
Rehearsal (observe one per show, signed by Stage Manager):
1. ________________________ ___________________
2. ________________________ ___________________
Load-in Hours (4 hours for one show):
1. ________________________ ___________________
Strike (4 hours for one show):
1. ________________________ ___________________


A prospective project should take at least four hours of time, and it must
directly benefit the club or the community. You are welcome to participate in
well-established projects, such as Schwab cleanout or selling ads for a
program, but you are encouraged to propose any project you would like to
Creative projects to benefit the club, increase its notoriety, or provide
community service through theatre are welcome proposals.
Name: ______________________

Signature: ______________________

Prospective Project Title: ________________________________

Anticipated Date of Completion: ________________________
Prospective Master Signature: _____________________________
Rationale for Selection: