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Calvin Theatre Company History

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After the stagehand pulls the curtain closed and the players wipe off their makeup and the audience leaves their programs on the seats, the pictures remain to tell the story.

A long line of black-and-white portraits, each labeled with simply a title—The Little Foxes, Candida, Divine Reverberations—and a date—“fall 75,” “winter 92,” “fall 03”—flows along the walls of the Gezon Auditorium.

James Korf, a professor of theater emeritus, is stalking this memorial and his memory: “Any time you see a stage company of Phantom, he is the stage manager. He played Disney characters for three years … . She was a professional actress in Chicago … . He was in the original Blue Man on Broadway. She’s in Beauty and the Beast … . He’s performing in an Irish band.” Others, said Korf, are now doctors, ministers, real-estate agents, politicians.

The Calvin theater program, say the people who labor therein, was never meant to be a conservatory. At Calvin, the play’s the distinctively liberal arts thing; the Calvin theater ideal is, and has long been, educational.

And Calvin students have been strutting their stuff in theatrical productions since the Franklin campus era. "It was plays for the fun of doing plays,” said Korf.

The Thespians, whose various incarnations undertook everything from The Children’s Hour to The Piano Lesson, originated as a student organization: the Thespian Club. “The aim is to produce one play a year for public entertainment, a play worthy of presentation in our circles,” reads the 1933 Prism description of the group.

Two years later, the club presented two plays, The Wedding and The Game of Adverbs, and in the ensuing decades, the group offered two to three productions a year. By 1946, the student troupe had come under the leadership of non-faculty member Melanie Batts, who continued in the director’s chair for 10 years, staging productions such as Melody and The Heiress.

In 1954, Ervina Boevé came to Calvin from Holland Christian High School, where she taught history and coached both the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams. It was Boevé who began the process of transforming theater from a twice- or thrice-yearly tread of the boards into a true academic endeavor.

Furnished with an MA in theater from the University of Michigan, Boevé was originally hired by the communication arts and sciences department to teach speech. In 1956, she inherited the Thespian Club from Batts and mounted her debut Calvin theater production, An Enemy of the People, at Ottawa Hills High School. The following year she produced Arms and the Man at the St. Cecilia Music Society. It was a venue she would use for years. (Her husband, Edgar Boevé, then a Calvin professor of art, was a longtime set designer on her productions.)

Tom Ozinga ’60, a Calvin professor emeritus of communication, remembers St. Cecilia, specifically its nether regions: “There were strict instructions not to flush the toilets down there because (of) the sound of the pipes rattling,” he said, laughing. Ozinga, who in his student days acted in Much Ado About Nothing, The Open Prism and other productions, also remembers Boevé: “We greatly respected this woman because she knew her stuff,” he said. “I think she really had a gift for understanding college-age kids. She pushed us. … She did some substantive drama. It wasn’t light, fluffy stuff.”

In a filmed conversation with Calvin theater faculty, taped in 2003, Boevé mused about her philosophy of teaching theater: “It became a way of opening the mind to another set of ideas, a way of looking at those ideas. They [students] were challenged with them in their literature courses, in their history courses, but to get it now in a performance situation, where you have to deal with it and understand it to portray a character—to me, it became an objective.”

In 1955, Boevé introduced “Principles of Dramatic Production,” making theater at Calvin a curricular activity. She also directed plays for Lab Theatre and the annual Gilbert and Sullivan operettas for the Alumni Players, founded in 1959.

"It was her life’s work,” said current theater professor Deb Freeberg. “Without her, there would be no theater at Calvin. It would be an extracurricular activity, like intramural sports.”

Boevé prevailed when the bookstore staff wanted to cover the text for the class to hide the word “theater.” She challenged the taboo on representing death by offering Hamlet. “We had bodies all over the stage,” she recalled, chuckling. She persevered through all the politics: “We had a great deal of support from other departments,” she said. “We also had hostility from other departments because what we were trying to introduce was a competitive discipline.”

Jessica Powell, a ’72 alum who acted in The Crucible and other plays, remembered Boevé’s understated approach to conflict: “She was discerning and demanding, but warm. She was very gracious,” Powell said. “It’s so easy to get bitter and snide, and she never did, which is to me just embodying the Christian values.”

In 1967, Calvin opened the Fine Arts Center, which featured a 60-by-20-foot stage to accommodate Calvin musical and theater productions. “They went looking for someone who could light and design sets and fill that space,” said Korf, who was then a teacher at Zeeland High School. He came to Calvin as a scenic designer in 1969. “Strangely enough, I was already working on a master’s degree in scenic and lighting design. I think people end up where they are because they’re supposed to be there.”

Korf, who earned his master of fine arts in scenic design from the University of Michigan, became the Thespians’ director in 1980. “I thought, ‘The stuff they’re doing at Calvin is as good as the stuff at U of M. Why doesn’t anybody know that?’ he said. “I think the answer to that question was, ‘They’re not supposed to know that.’ Theater is something you’re supposed to do quietly. They hear you have a theater program in Iowa, that’s not going to go over well. You know, farms are going to be willed to Dordt rather than Calvin.”

His major contribution to Calvin theater, Korf said, was his promotion of it. Korf, who directed plays such as The Glass Menagerie and The Diviners, began the practice of producing playbills and posters for Calvin productions as well as building a theater brand. (In 1986, Patricia Vandenberg succeeded him as Thespian director.)

David Leugs ’82 who had earned a master in fine arts in theatrical design from U of M, came to Calvin in 1988 as a lighting designer and technical director. Leugs, the current director of theater, designs both scenery and lighting, teaches and directs Calvin productions. “I had the benefit of both Ervina and Jim’s approaches,” he said. “It was hard not to think of them as parents.”

In recent years, he said, the theater major at Calvin has evolved into a multi-track offering, allowing students to major in acting/directing, theater history, or production and design. Leugs favors revising the theater curriculum, requiring all students to take the same nine to 11 courses. “We are moving toward a solid liberal arts major in theater,” he said.

Boevé retired in 1990, and Freeberg arrived in 1991 as her successor. “Very big high heels to fill,” she commented. Freeberg, who has a PhD in theater arts from the University of Pittsburgh, assumed the role of director of theater the following year. In 1993, the Thespians became Calvin Theatre Company (CTC). Michael Page made his entrance in 1999, bringing with him a PhD in American literature and a lifetime of acting and theater experience. And in 1996, Stephanie Sandberg came on the scene with a PhD in theater history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Over the last decade, the three have earned a whole bouquet of Grand Awards, local theater honors, for the plays they have directed. “I think my colleagues are so gifted,” said Freeberg. “I’m a much better scholar and a much better teacher through them spurring me on.”

The students the trio have directed in plays such as Emma, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Edith Stein, The Piano Lesson and Disciples have earned their share of laurels, too. However, the awards, Page emphasized, are not the point; nor is the play the only thing: “We teach theater as a way to understand God’s world. It’s never fundamentally about putting on a play, but about investigating God’s world.”

Page loves theater in a liberal arts setting: “I’d almost rather work with student actors than anyone else,” he said. “They’re always willing to experiment. They work hard. And they haven’t gotten into years of bad habits.”

A sizable number of students spanning the various Calvin theater eras (some of whom are pictured in the Gezon) have converted their theater habit into a career. Powell, who followed Calvin with drama school, now acts in theater productions around her home base of Marin, Calif. “I am a middle-aged, white, tall woman,” she said. “I play wicked queens all the time.”

Lucas Van Engen ’01, who has played roles on Law and Order, All My Children and Gossip Girl, wants to try out every possible dramatic medium: “Film, TV, Broadway—I want to do the whole gamut,” he said.

Jayme Mellema ’99 is currently wresting with the challenges of designing sets for Sweeney Todd in his new teaching role at Duke University. “Seeing David Leugs doing design for a living, it was definitely an example of how I could potentially do this for a living,” he said.

Deborah Lew ’00, who has starred in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway and is currently in rehearsal as Cosette in Les Misérables, will be performing at Calvin again on Oct. 2 as part of “75 Years of Inspiration,” a yearlong celebration that includes conferences and plays, including a series of one-acts by Wild Goose Creative, an alumni arts group. “It’s going to be my experience and also singing songs from shows I’ve been in,” Lew described her participation. She remembers CTC as her one-time family: “It will be great to see everybody.”

The Calvin Alumni Association is partnering with the Calvin theater department on the events. “We know from our interactions with alumni how important theater and the arts have been in their experience at Calvin,” said alumni director Mike Van Denend, “so when the department notified us about this being the 75-year milestone, we thought it was appropriate to reflect and to show gratitude and to celebrate.”

Leugs would agree: “I think everyone should be a theater major,” he said. “It’s the perfect culmination of the liberal arts because it brings the whole world together into one area of study.”

by Myrna DeVries Anderson '00. This piece was reprinted with permission from the fall 2008 edition of the Calvin College Spark.

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