In the early days of UCF – when it was known as Florida Technological University with the overriding mission to provide personnel for the U.S. space program – there also was a small group of dedicated theatre students, faculty and staff on campus.
In that space-dominated era, that handful of actors, set designers, professors and others in the performing arts literally “set the stage” for today’s highly regarded Theatre UCF.
Now more than four decades later, some of those theatre participants will gather to reminisce about their experiences and the campus productions that were first presented in a tent on a sandy field and later in a science auditorium.
“We were part of something that was unique. It was a brand new school so there was a first time for everything,” said Mary Monroe, ’76, who acted and directed in campus plays and recently set the reunion into motion.
She said there were 12 theatre students when she joined the program. After graduation she went on to a 35-year career as a director and producer in New York, including being the recipient of a Kennedy Center bronze medal, and is now a writer in Rhode Island. “You became a pioneer because you were immersed in something for the first time. Because it was new, there were no restrictions,” she said. “Whatever was the outcome, you opened the door for other possibilities down the road. ”
Monroe said she has heard from about 40 people around the country planning to get back together the second weekend of June to reminisce, tour today’s theatre facilities, attend a play and catch up on what has happened through the years.
She said that during the brief time they spent together the theatre folks formed strong relationships, but many of them later lost touch with each other and some of them have not visited UCF since graduation. And when she heard that one of their fellow theatre students died, she thought it was time for a reunion.
“Because you had this intense experience, you bond,” Monroe said. “The imprint was solid. I thought this was important to be able to come together again. It’s like a denouement.”
The first production in the theatre department’s tent was Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” in November 1969. The department followed with dozens of shows such as “Kiss Me Kate,” “Of Mice and Men” and the Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing” before FTU became UCF in 1978.
“The theatre department was small, and I immersed myself in it, doing every conceivable job. I learned so much,” said Julia Gagne, ’74, who had the opportunity to direct a show even though she had no experience as a director.
“I had great mentor/professors at UCF, and the directing experience was very positive,” she said. “I got to work with my friends as cast and crew, experiment with rehearsal techniques, and experience the thrill of opening a show as a director.”
That experience and the encouragement of department chair Harry Smith and theatre director David Mays led her to pursue an MFA in directing. She later became the artistic director and theatre chair at Valencia College for more than 30 years, where she directed more than 90 shows.
Susie Findell, a staffer taking classes at the young university, said she auditioned for her first play after reading about it in the campus newspaper: “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off,” directed by Frances Johnson of the communication department.
“Being in theatre gave me confidence and poise,” she said. Her theatrical involvement at UCF led her to do Orlando community theatre, a TV Christmas special, voice-overs and TV commercials. “It all started from my UCF experiences and classes.”
Despite the challenges of improper facilities, low budgets and limited participants of four decades ago, Monroe said, “It was incredible the way we all came together. This doesn’t happen often. We were doing things then that were brand new. Whether we knew it, we were pioneers.”
Steven Chicurel-Stein, a professor of theatre and interim director of the School of Performing Arts, said the determination and dedication of those in the FTU theatre program cannot be underestimated because they set the foundation of what is now a nationally accredited department with more than 300 undergraduate and graduate students.
“The art that is created today at Theatre UCF, the teaching and learning of the craft of theatre, and the continued forward movement of the present students, faculty and staff has its footing on the shoulders of those who had the vision, passion, and energy to launch theatre at FTU and early UCF,” Chicurel-Stein said. “To those pioneers, we are grateful.”
Anyone involved with the early years of FTU Theatre who would like more information can contact FTUnions@gmail.com.