WILLIAM HANLEY'S riveting drama "Slow Dance on a Killing Ground" will launch the 30th anniversary of the Towson State University theater department. The production will be presented tomorrow at 8 p.m. in the Mainstage Theatre of the Fine Arts Building.
In conjunction with the university's new affiliation with The Theatre Project, now in its 20th season, a joint photo retrospective celebrating "50 years of Theatre in Baltimore" will be on display. This exhibit marks the official collaboration between the two establishments in the presentation of experimental theater productions and workshops.
The 30-year photo history of the TSU theater department features photographs ranging from the opening show, "The Trojan Women" to the department's last production, "Evita." The exhibit also highlights 25 or 30 of the more than 100 actors, directors, designers and technicians who have gone on to varying degrees of success in professional theater, television and motion pictures.
Notable among these are: Drama Desk Award winner and Emmy nominee John Glover, Tony Award nominee Charles Dutton, Academy Award nominee Howard Rollins, film and television actor Dwight Schultz and 'Star Search' winner John Kassir.
Over the years the university has staged more than 300 shows in the Mainstage and Studio theaters directed by theater department founder and original director Dr. C. Richard Gillespie.
Gillespie arrived at the teachers college???, which only had a drama club, in 1961. He turned the extracurricular theater program into an undergraduate academic major soon after his arrival.
The institution was designated a fine arts center for the State College system in the 1960s, and the Fine Arts Center building opened its doors in 1972. A graduate program in theater is now offered at TSU.
Department faculty members have developed special programs in mime and movement theater, feminist theater and experimental theater. Prominent guest artists have included Shakespearean director Douglas Seale, mime master Tony Montonaro, kabuki master Shozo Sato and feminist playwright Megan Terry.
Directing "Slow Dance on the Killing Ground" is Bob DeFrank, a 1969 alumnus of TSU whose classmates were Dwight Schultz ("The A Team") and Howard Rollins ("In the Heat of the Night").
A veteran of more than 200 professional productions, DeFrank is currently an actor-director and writer for the Round House Theatre, an Equity house in Silver Spring.
He, Gillespie and Chairwoman Maravene Loeschke recently sat in Loeschke's office discussing the fountain of talent that emerged from the TSU's theater classes.
"The competition was tough. I really had to fight for roles,' DeFrank said. 'John Glover was a senior when I came into the school. We became better friends later in New York. But it was because I saw John in a play here I transferred from Essex Community College."
"John was the first theater major to graduate from Towson," Gillespie said. "The year was 1966. He was wonderful to work with. Crazy when he first walked on the campus. So nervous, so eager to work. He knew he was going to be an actor, nothing else.
"His most recent appearance was that of Stockman in Henrik Ibsen's 'Enemy of the People' on PBS. Fantastic performance. He always brings such incredible emotion and truth to the characterizations," Gillespie said.
In a brief telephone interview from his home in California, Glover praised his learning experience at Towson State. "Dr. Gillespie set my standards for me as an actor," he said. "He gave me a joyous respect for the acting profession.
"He arranged to give every student over the four years a taste of every kind of theater from Shakespeare to Ibsen, to Shaw to Spanish and Greek dramas," said Glover, who has a primary role in the upcoming ABC remake of the film classic, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", starring Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave.
"As a result of my tenure at Towson State, I feel very rooted in realistic ideals about the theater," he said.
DeFrank said, "Dwight Schultz lived on my sofa for five years when we were struggling actors in New York. At school he was 'on' all the time. He had 20 characters he would launch into at any given moment."
"His problem was to stop acting," Gillespie said, laughing. "But Dwight is a brilliant actor who always struggled to find the truth and honesty of his character."
During his term at Towson State University, Howard Rollins starred in August Strinberg's "The Dance of Death." "I got him his first job as prop boy at the Spotlighters," DeFrank said. "He said no one was giving him a chance to act."
"I directed Howard in a studio production of 'Romeo and Juliet,"' Loeschke said. "He later starred in the local series "Our Street" on Maryland Public Television then went to New York to study further. The rest is history."
"There were all exciting to work with," Gillespie said. "The basic line is that when I came to the college there was a vacuum. My teaching and subsequent good teaching made the department grow and work." He smiled. "The success of so many people who graduated from the theater courses validates the program."