Cast of “A Society Racket” (1903)

Though the department wasn’t founded until 1984, its roots stretch back to the earliest days of the College. Training in public speaking was part of the curriculum; rhetoric and elocution were required courses for every Colby student for more than 100 years.

The earliest recorded dramatic production was She Stoops to Conquer, a benefit for “athletic interests” directed by Instructor of Elocution and Gymnastics William Battis in 1890. Eight years later students founded the Dramatics Society, which for the next two decades produced plays for the town and campus communities with the help of drama coach Exerene Flood of Waterville.

By 1926 the Dramatics Society, under the guidance of Prof. Cecil A. Rollins’17, had become Powder & Wig, which merged with the women’s drama club, Masque, a few years later. In 1933 Rollins began to teach a workshop that sought to give students “training in the arts of the theater.” It was a very unusual course for its day because applied arts were not yet regarded as a legitimate area of study.

Eugene Jellison ’49, Rollins’s successor and theater director during the 1950s, brought a new energy and creativity to theater at Colby and laid the groundwork for Irving Suss, generally regarded as the founder of the College’s modern Performance, Theater, and Dance Department.

Dido and Aeneas, 1976

The Performing Arts Center in the Ninetta M. Runnals Union opened in 1976 and provided a new way for theater and dance to thrive. The first show in the newly renovated facilities was Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. That same year, a new collection of courses, under the banner “Performing Arts” (offered by the departments of English, Music, and Physical Education) brought together many of the people who would go on to establish this department: Patrick Brancaccio, Howard Koonce, Tina Mitchell-Wentzel, Dick Sewell, and Steve Woody.

A major in Performing Arts was first offered in 1984 with requirements that included interdepartmental courses in Art, Classics, English, or Music. Five years later, a minor was added to the list of student degree options.

In 2000 we were officially upgraded from being an “interdisciplinary program” to the status of “department”. This coincided with a substantial revision to the requirements for both the major and minor, striving to meet an even balance between the theoretical and practical elements of the curriculum and to better ally itself with the rest of Colby’s degrees of study. As part of the revision, the department name was changed to Theater & Dance, which more accurately reflected the courses offered.

A Theater and Dance Interdisciplinary Computation major was added in 2010, which is a stage design-based program focusing on the relationship between computation and performance scenography and the multiple applications of software technologies to stage design.

Gross Indecency, Fall 2021. Photo by Melissa Blackall

Reflecting contemporary trends in performance and pedagogy, including an emphasis on performance studies, the major and minor were again significantly revised in 2022. Centered around four core values: collaboration, leadership, community reciprocity, and justice, this improvement revisits the principle of interdisciplinary study from our original major, but expands the idea to include allied courses from any other department on campus. Additionally, the department name was changed to Performance, Theater, and Dance to best reflect the many perspectives on collaborative performance-making we now offer.

In the fall of 2023, the department will be moving into the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, a brand new facility, which will include the first purpose-built theater and dance performance venues in the history of the college. We are excited about the enormous opportunities for expanded collaboration as the Gordon Center will also serve as the new home for the Music Department and the Cinema Studies Program, all housed under one roof in the largest academic building on campus. In addition to a spacious performance hall, able to seat over 300 people, there will be three flexible performance studios, each with a unique “personality”. All four of these venues are designed to well-serve the needs of cinema, dance, music, and theater events by means of variable acoustics, automated lighting, room darkening shades, or other features. This new building will also include a 48-seat film screening room, video production, and audio recording studios, a video editing suite, rehearsal and practice rooms, four shops for costumes, properties, and scenery, flexible dressing rooms on two of the three floors, and a collection of seminar and lecture-style classrooms (one of which will double as a large green room). In the center of the building, there is an exciting “arts incubator” lab where all three departments can teach design/technology-driven topics and students can work collaboratively across the disciplines. The arts incubator spills out into an all-glass forum, which overlooks the main road through campus.

Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, opening in the fall of 2023.

This is a very exciting time to be at Colby!