Serious drama

How did the University of Nevada, Reno’s Department of Theatre & Dance survive the budget cuts?

Rob Gander says having the theater department on the chopping block this summer was a “terrifying time.”

Rob Gander says having the theater department on the chopping block this summer was a “terrifying time.”

Photo By amy beck

There were a lot of bitten fingernails in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Department of Theatre & Dance this summer. At the risk of seeming overly dramatic, the department is still reeling from a recent near-death experience. In a last-minute decision by the university’s administration, Theatre & Dance, which was slated for the chopping block as recently as June, was given a reprieve.

“It was a really awful experience, and I do not want to mince words here,” said Rob Gander, department chair. “It was a terrifying time. A lot of questions arise when your program is about to be eliminated, where you ask, ‘Are we even valued here? Does the administration even value these disciplines?’ And we eventually had to come to the conclusion that no, they didn’t, or they wouldn’t have proposed elimination in the first place.”

The cuts, which ultimately became a combined $25.4 million for each year of the biennium, were initially planned to hit the humanities particularly hard. Not only were theater and dance bracing for elimination—which would have also eliminated the resident theater troupe, Nevada Repertory Company, and much of the Performing Arts Series—but so were French, social work, and the library’s Special Collections and Archives.

“When the state’s proposing huge cuts, the administration gets painted into a corner and has to cut funding somewhere, we know that,” said Gander, explaining that the university’s budget proposal went before several committees for review, including the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts—the umbrella under which the Department of Theatre & Dance and other School of the Arts programs fall—and the Faculty Senate. The overwhelming majority of those involved did not support the elimination of theater and dance from the University’s offerings.

“So we know now that the faculty support theater, and that they believe the arts are for the community, not just for theater majors, but for a large group of students who come here and have their first live theater experience here,” said Gander. “It was rewarding in many ways to see the faculty disagree and want to save it. And that support led the administration to say, ‘We can’t close it, it is valued.’ So we continue to exist.”

Getting their act together

Not that the department, or the School of the Arts, for that matter, emerged unscathed. The School, which is comprised of the University’s music, art, theater and dance programs along with the Black Rock Press, lost substantial funding. As David Ake, director of the School of the Arts, explained, “It’s hard to say how many positions we lost, because some are retiring, and their positions aren’t coming back, but it’s substantial.”

Budgets to teaching assistants were cut, some lecturers were lost, and programs lost some money. All programs, however, were saved, with the exception of the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre, a typically under-enrolled program that was put on indefinite hiatus; students already enrolled will be allowed to complete the program, but no new enrollments will be allowed.

“That could potentially impact recruitment for us later on, but I just got our numbers for fall, and we’re on par with previous enrollments,” said Gander.

Another saving grace was the $5-per-head arts fee that the Associated Students of the University of Nevada and the Graduate Student Association imposed on themselves last year, which injected much-needed revenue into the School of the Arts, some of which was used last year to help Nevada Rep add automated scenery and lighting to its productions for the first time.

School of the Arts director David Ake says the cuts hurt, but they’re “carrying on.”

Photo By amy beck

Ake also gives considerable credit to Interim President Marc Johnson for the reprieve: “I’m not just saying this—he really stepped up and recognized that theater and dance, and the arts in general, are central to having a well-rounded education at the University and are vital to the Reno community at large.”

So when you come back from the brink, knowing that the administration had once considered getting rid of you, isn’t it tempting to retreat, lick your wounds and have a good pout about it?

Sure it is, said Gander. But after seeing the overwhelming support that came out of that situation, it also became even more important to showcase all they could do for the university and the community. “We now have to move forward, do what we do, prove to people how valuable we still are and, ultimately, make the most out of our chance to continue.”

On with the show

Nevada Repertory Company had already set the bar pretty high for itself before its latest, remarkable theater season. That included the recently unearthed Mark Twain play, Is He Dead? It was brought to the stage with the help of the nation’s preeminent Twain scholar, and The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival paid a visit to campus to judge several of its actors. Still, this season is shaping up to top the last one.

This season’s premiere production, which will run for the first three weeks of November—a record length of time for one of Nevada Rep’s productions—will be Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The company has done Shakespeare plenty of times before, but never like this: This year, it’s mounting its first contemporary production in the original pronunciation.

“In the 400 years since Shakespeare died, the English language has changed significantly,” explained Gander. “There were numerous rhyme schemes in his writing that no longer exist because those words no longer rhyme.” For example, in Shakespeare’s time, the words “love” and “prove” rhymed—like “loave” and “proave,” if that makes sense. Original pronunciation—or OP, as it’s often called—provides an opportunity to hear the text as it was meant to be heard, as audiences heard it 400 years ago. Although Gander says OP is more like a dialect than an accent, “[It] is still remarkably easy to understand, even to a modern ear.”

Eric Rasmussen, a professor in the University’s English department and a co-editor of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare, serves as dramaturg, or literary adviser, for this production. Rasmussen was instrumental in securing the rest of the creative team: The Globe Theatre’s own consultant, David Crystal, author of Pronouncing Shakespeare, and his son, Ben Crystal, a British actor and scholar who will play the title role and coach the student actors in OP.

Following that in December is The Beach Plays, a compilation of 15 short, one-act plays—of which Nevada Rep will do eight—written about one location, the beach, by members of the Playwrights Unit at the HB Playwrights Foundation. This Nevada Rep production will be one of the first non-New York stagings.

In spring comes more big news. First is Anne Garcia Romero’s feminist retelling of the Don Juan story, Juanita’s Statue, which will make its world debut with Nevada Repertory Company. Romero herself will fly to Reno several times to assist with the production.

Following that is the musical Anything Goes, for which Adam Cates will direct. Cates, a Reno native, has since gone on to work in New York as, among other things, assistant to the director for the Broadway production of this show. Cates will also choreograph the Fall Dance Festival in November.

Another big coup for the dance program is landing Darrell Grand Moultrie, a nationally renowned choreographer, instructor with Juilliard and the Ailey School who, among other things, appeared in Billy Elliott. Moultrie will choreograph a spring dance show at the University.

“Not to say that we’re rich, or that these cuts haven’t hurt us,” said Ake. “We’re losing some good people. But we are carrying on, and not just surviving but actually thriving, and it’s great.”