The University’s Department of Theatre & Drama puts on several well-attended, big budget productions a year, giving students an opportunity to perform in and to watch quality shows. Unfortunately, the attention received by those productions means that student-run performances are often overlooked.
Student theater groups like Basement Arts and RC Players give students of all majors a chance to participate in every facet of putting on a theatrical production. They also provide students with free or low-cost entertainment almost every weekend.
Basement Arts got its start on the corner of Washington Street and State Street in the old Frieze Building. In its basement was a storage closet used by the Department of Theatre & Drama. A group of students looking for a place to practice and perform its own productions thought the room might be a suitable venue for a new theater. The department liked the idea, and in 1987 the students formed a student theater group called Basement Arts, turning the storage closet into the Arena Theatre.
Although the Frieze Building and the Arena Theater are no more, the Basement Arts theater group is still going strong. The group now rehearses and performs in Studio One, a theater in the Walgreen Drama Center on North Campus.
The RC Players puts on entirely student-run performances as well.
While Basement Arts is mostly known among the North Campus crowd, RC Players productions are more popular on Central Campus. Both student groups are open to all students from all schools at the University. They find most of their actors and directors through advertising at events like Festifall, creating posters and using basic word-of-mouth publicity.
For Basement Arts, directors who want their work to be performed must go through a proposal process. Meaghan Shelley, a senior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and Basement Arts’s artistic director, wrote in an e-mail interview that the group usually gets about 15 proposals a semester.
The performances produced by Basement Arts are wide-ranging in themes and authors. In the past, they have produced a play based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, musicals and plays written by students and pieces written by professional authors. Last weekend, Basement Arts put on “Donut Play (With Guns)” written by New York author Addison Proctor. Shelley thought it was one of the group’s more notable productions.
“Basement Arts was the very first company to produce this show in its entirety,” she said. “The author was in town for a few rehearsals and the final performance, where he and the cast held a talk back after the show where audience members could ask questions.”
While Basement Arts and the RC Players have their similarities, they occupy different niches in the University community. RC Players tend to have a larger number of non-theater majors. In contrast, according to Darren Criss, a Music, Theatre & Dance senior, Basement Arts is comprised almost entirely of theater majors, despite also being open to all majors.
Criss, who has participated in Basement Arts productions as both an actor and director, wishes that more people would take advantage of this opportunity. He views Basement Arts as a “hidden gem,” and said that he’s always incredibly excited when he finds out people who aren’t theater majors are in the audience.
Both Basement Arts and RC Players currently face obstacles, though.
While Basement Arts has been moved to Studio One after the Frieze Building was demolished, Shelley finds that the studio space is a bit confining for the group.
“In the Walgreen Drama Center, we have a brand new theater that is not only used by Basement Arts, but by faculty and students for classes during the day,” Shelley said.
She added, “We are also more limited in terms of rehearsal space, because we share with University Productions.”
Space issues have put a damper on the number of shows Basement Arts can perform per semester. Additionally, the move to North Campus has made it harder to attract students from Central Campus to shows due to both distance and advertising difficulties.
The RC Players have to deal with insufficient performance conditions as well.
“The East Quad Auditorium is really run down, and we’ve had trouble with our lights and sound boards,” Gray wrote in an e-mail interview. “It was supposed to be renovated over the summer, but the project was postponed until this summer.”
The group has also been having trouble finding new blood.
“A lot of our students are graduating this year, and we need to work on getting our name out there so more people can join our group,” Gray said.
Despite the difficulties, the students see their theater groups as an integral part of the performance scene at the University. Basement Arts and RC Players provide students with a chance to see fantastic productions on weekends without traveling far or completely emptying their wallets. All Basement Arts shows are free, as are the majority of RC Players productions.
Gray sees student theater not only as an enjoyable hobby, but as a real commitment.
“We may be a bunch of people who don’t necessarily want to commit our lives to theater, but when we put on a show, we do it for real,” she said. “We produce really quality performances, and we’ve created an incredible community through doing so.”