Heritage Theatre Festival: Retracing Our Roots
You want to know a little bit about the history of the Heritage Theatre Festival?
Can you handle the truth?
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getting a little ahead of ourselves…more on that later.
Before we start our history lesson, let’s take a quick look into the future. Now in its 42nd year, Heritage Theatre Festival’s 2016 summer season will begin on June 30 with Gilbert & Sullivan’sThe Pirates of Penzance. The season will also include Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, by Stephen Temperley; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on the comic strip PEANUTS by Charles M. Schulz and book, music, and lyrics by Clark Gesner; The Odd Couple, by Neil Simon; and The Wonder Bread Years starring Pat Hazell.
What is now known as the Heritage Theatre Festival began in the summer of 1974 with The Patriots, a play about, appropriately enough, Thomas Jefferson. According to the primary architect of its early success, it wasn’t exactly an easy road from concept to that first curtain call.
Former Drama Department Chair David Weiss had been thinking for several years about launching a summer theatre at UVA, discussing the idea with several prominent community members, including John Rogan, who was, at the time, the owner of the Boar’s Head Inn. The two even considered building a permanent theatre space on the Boar’s Head grounds. When construction was finished on Culbreth Theatre, Weiss and fellow faculty members George Black, LaVahn Hoh, and Roger Boyle made their move, and the “American Heritage Repertory Company” was born.
“Our intention was to do nothing but American plays and to do them in repertory every night,” Weiss said. “They began with a budget of $77,000, $75,000 of which Weiss raised before the inaugural season began in 1974. “Our first play was The Patriots, by Samuel Kingsley, which was about Thomas Jefferson,” Weiss said. “I figured that was a good place to start.”
The original concept fashioned by Weiss and his cohorts still remains in place today. Heritage was to be a semi-professional theatre, and the original season featured three Equity actors who would work alongside non-Equity performers.
Not that there is anything wrong with that – one of the non-equity performers the next year was Wayne Knight, who would go on to earn an iconic spot in television history as Jerry’s nemesis Newman on Seinfeld. Knight is one of many former Heritage actors who found their way on to much bigger stages. Beloved American actor Jean Stapleton, an award-winning stage, film, and television actor known to millions for her role as Edith Bunker on the classic CBS sitcom All in the Family was featured in the 1992 season. Other notable Heritage alums include Jared Bradshaw (Jersey Boys on Broadway, Forbidden Broadway); noted jazz and cabaret singer Jack Donahue; in addition to UVA graduate Emily Swallow, (TV’s The Mentalist and Southland).
Mr. Jefferson would return to the Heritage stage in 1976 in the original play That Man Jefferson, commissioned by Weiss for the American Bicentennial. The play was co-written by longtime Charlottesville television personality Dave Cupp and co-written-directed by Tony Award-winning New York director Bill Martin. The season also included the popular musical She Wouldn’t Be A Soldier, about a female fighter in the Revolutionary War. By this time, Heritage had undergone a tweak to its name and its mission. As the Heritage Repertory Theatre, it maintained a largely American focus while adding plays and musicals to the repertory from England and other countries.
In 1989, it would be another soldier’s tale that would bring Heritage some national attention, not to mention some wonderful opportunities for Drama Department students. Weiss, who had by now stepped back from an official leadership role with Heritage, had a visit from noted Broadway producer Lou Allen. Allen and his wife, Jay Presson Allen, who wrote the acclaimed play The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, were on Grounds to tour the University with their daughter, a prospective student. Weiss recalled “Allen looked around and said, ‘Hey, we could do a show here.’” That conversation ultimately resulted in the unforgettable original production of Aaron Sorkin’s Tony Award-winning drama A Few Good Men that came to the Culbreth stage in the fall of 1989, and which would famously inspire the 1993 Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards.
“After a long time going back and forth on this,” Weiss said, “ including schedule delays based on Tom Cruise’s schedule, who they originally wanted to bring here to star in it, Lou contacted me in July or August of that year and said, ‘OK, we are ready!’ There were some obstacles. We had to cancel one of our Drama productions, and I had a lot of convincing to do to tell our Technical Director we could pull this off. But we did, and it was an extraordinary experience for our students, many of whom worked on the crew.”
When George Black left for a job at the Virginia Museum Theatre, the door opened for Robert Chapel, who had spent several summers in Charlottesville as a guest director at Heritage. The rest, of course, is history, as Chapel went on to produce 54 shows over an incredible 29-year tenure that wrapped up just last summer and was highlighted in Volume 3, Fall 2015 of the UVA Arts Magazine (magazine.arts.virginia.edu).
Chapel’s departure marks the start of another new chapter in the theatre’s history, which will begin with the upcoming 2016 season. A national search for his successor is currently underway, and University officials are clearly excited about the future of Heritage Theatre Festival.
“Heritage Theatre Festival is a treasured part of the arts landscape not only here at the University of Virginia, but also throughout our local and regional community,” said UVA Drama Chair Colleen Kelly, acting interim Producing Artistic Director for the upcoming summer. “We as a department and as a University are committed to seeing Heritage thrive this summer and for many years to come.”