Harvard University’s legendary student troupe, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, staged their first show in 1891. The Yale Dramatic Association, the nation’s second oldest student theatre group, didn’t begin until 1900.
Unlikely as it seems, Armstrong Atlantic State University’s own Masquers are in close competition with their thespian counterparts in the Ivy League.
The Masquers mark 70 years of bringing fine theatre to Savannah, in various incarnations, with a series of events and productions throughout the ‘06-’07 academic year -- featuring not only a fond look back into history but an eager glimpse at what the future holds.
“The group first began when Stacy Keach Sr. was brought in as a faculty member to create theatre courses,” says Dr. Peter Mellen, AASU theatre professor and Masquers director. (Keach’s namesake son, of course, would gain a great measure of fame in his own right as an award-winning stage and screen actor.)
“Their first production was in 1937,” he says, at what was then called Armstrong Junior College, then located in the historic Armstrong House just north of Forsyth Park on Bull Street. Productions were held at a nearby college building long since demolished.
That original group -- first known as the Playhouse -- then began blending the community with the student body in productions, Mellen says, in a tradition which continues to this day.
The mission of the Masquers is twofold, he says. First, “The Masquers are here to provide high quality entertainment and performance opportunities for the students of Armstrong. That means we have to provide a mix of productions, because we have a mix of students. We need family-oriented material and also more cutting edge stuff, because we have both those populations,” Mellen explains.
“The other side in terms of the theatre department is that we need to provide the best possible training to make these students marketable,” he says. “That means jobs with the Equity union or the service unions -- or more and more lately, the Screen Actors Guild.”
Though Mellen has been at AASU for 14 years, the history of the Masquers is long and expansive enough to continue to bring new surprises for him.
“There are so many unusual and interesting stories,” he says. “I had no idea just how many really neat things had happened in this program’s history until we started digging it up.”
Mellen credits AASU history professor Janet Stone and AASU librarian Caroline Hopkinson with much of the research for this year’s commemoration. “They’ve been doing displays and going through archives. They’ve discovered some absolutely fascinating things.”
One of the most remarkable developments in the Masquers’ history came in 1953, when the federal government officially struck down segregation.
“The same year as the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Armstrong hosted a southeast theatre conference where the Masquers performed Othello,” Mellen says.
“Of course the question at the time was, ‘How black is your Othello,’ and well, he was definitely black,” Mellen says.
“Can you imagine in 1953 trying to host all those events, bringing in schools from all over the southeast, several of which had black faculty members and black students?” he asks. “Trying to find someplace in Savannah that would accommodate a mixed race event like that was quite a thing to attempt at the time.”
In 1959, the city of Savannah sold Armstrong to the University System of Georgia, and the college experimented with restricting its productions strictly to students. (The school didn’t move to the southside until 1966.)
“That’s when they decided to separate ‘town and gown,” Mellen says. “Those alumni no longer active at the school then formed the Savannah Little Theatre, which still survives today. But in recent years of course they’ve brought town and gown back together again.”
Indeed, the Masquers still feature open auditions, while always adhering to the rule that “any role that can be played by a student will be given to a student, all things being equal,” Mellen says.
Still, it’s important to emphasize that Masquers auditions are open not only to the general public -- i.e., non-Armstrong students -- but also to non-theatre majors at AASU.
“I still find people around campus who are unaware that they’re allowed to audition even if they’re not theatre majors,” he says. “I think a lot of what drives that misperception has been the growth of our theatre department. But you can still come to a Masquers play and find out that the lead is a biology major.”
Mellen says the emphasis on the year-long celebration is twofold: “We’re celebrating our past and also celebrating our future.”
To reference the past, “one thing we’re doing is bringing in alumni to direct and design shows. The next show up is The Play’s the Thing, a black box show directed by Judit Fekete.”
Other alumni-directed shows this season include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, directed by Bess McCreary, and Antigone, directed by Anthony Paderewski, the set of which will be designed by alumna Megan Potter.
Alumnus Steve McGuire selected a little known 1920s romantic comedy to direct called The Three-Cornered Moon. Why?
“That was the first-ever Armstrong production,” Mellen says. “It was first done at the school in 1937.”
The Masquers take a look into the future with two particular efforts.
One builds on last year’s success of the “Women’s Voices” feature.
“This year instead of doing ‘Women’s Voices’ we’re doing ‘New Voices,’” Mellen says. “We’re asking AASU students to submit original monologues and short plays. Then students will select which ones to produce in January. So you will actually hear the writing of the current student population.”
At the end of the fall season comes “Dramarama,” 18 one-act plays all done in a row over a six-night period.
In a sort of local theatre version of American Idol, “The director chosen as best director of ‘Dramarama’ then gets to choose a full-length play to direct as the last black box show in the spring,” Mellen says. ç
Continue to read Connect Savannah throughout the ‘06-’07 theatre season for in-depth looks at the Masquers 70th anniversary celebration. To comment, e-mail us at email@example.com