While the earliest campus presentations were staged as entertainment for visits by state dignitaries, increasingly, other sources of student entertainment began to sprout up at the State Normal and Industrial School (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro). Recitals were planned by music professor Wade Brown, who also assisted the campus Literary Societies in staging elaborate operettas.
The Literary Societies were created in 1893 as social organizations that focused the energy of the student body on debates, dramatic productions, and social activities. In the early years, there were only two Societies (Adelphian and Cornelian), but as the school’s enrollment grew, two additional organizations were added (the Dikean in 1918 and the Aletheian in 1923). Involvement in plays and pageants were a popular benefit of belonging to a Literary Society and the students enjoyed participating in theatrical events that allowed them to dress in ornate costumes.
In the early years, the students at the all-girl State Normal played both male and female roles in the productions. Following 19th century conventions, the school’s Lady Principal, Sue Mae Kirkland, would not allow the girls who held the male parts to wear pants. Instead, they wore long black skirts. By at least 1910, as seen in still photographs of the production of The Little Minister, students were allowed to wear black bloomers instead. It was not until 1911 that the students could wear pants on stage.
In most part, the school plays were held in the auditorium or “chapel” of the Main Building (now the Foust Building). When the Students’ Building was completed in 1902, each society had a separate meeting room and an auditorium, which included a stage for debates and productions. Yet, not all performances took place inside. A staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, performed by the Ben Greet Woodland Players, was given at the outdoor theatre in Peabody Park. This venue was comprised of a wooden stage fronted by a sloping ground, which acted as seating. The theatre was also one of the locations used for the school’s elaborate May Day festivals, the largest of which took place in 1912 and 1916.
These May Day celebrations, organized by drama professor Mary Settle Sharpe, featured an Old English theme and included large parades with horse-drawn floats, colorful dances, and creative “tableaux vivants.” In 1912, the students presented three plays at several different areas of the campus, which were repeated during the day, enabling 3,000 observers to partake in all of the entertainments. The 1916 May Day event was even larger than the first, again featuring Shakespearean plays performed by elaborately costumed students.
|To Arms for Liberty, ca. 1918
As interest in campus theatre grew, the Dramatic Club was formed between 1912 and 1913, to allow girls with a particular interest in theatre to participate more fully in campus productions. Incorporating both a general manager and a business manager, as well as an active membership, the new group performed Booth Tarkington’s The American at the 1913 Commencement exercises. Additionally, special performances such as To Arms for Liberty, which included the students representing the Allied nations as well as American farmers, Red Cross workers, and Liberty Bond representatives, were produced to raise money for World War I mobilization efforts. Yet it wasn’t until 1921, with the arrival of Raymond Taylor, that campus dramatics flourished.
The next installment of The Rise of Campus Dramatics will feature the establishment of the College’s Playlikers group and the hiring of Raymond Taylor, who would become a major figure in campus theatre until his retirement in 1960.
By Kathelene McCarty Smith