Looking for an audience

Photo courtesy of RIT Archive Collections

Production of Eh by the Drama Guild, January, 1970.

Since the founding of the Mechanic’s Institute in 1885, students with an interest in theater have formed groups to produce plays or even more informally, produce skits and shows for the amusement of their classmates and teachers. 

In 1912, the yearbook records a Dramatic Club and notes their staging of Pygmalion. An image shows 30 members in costumes. Drama clubs seemed to come and go, with announcements appearing every few years of new clubs with names like Gargoyles and Masquers Guild. All had basically the same goal—to provide an outlet for students with the interest, but also to give students the experience of working together to produce something as complex as a dramatic production, with the need for casting, stage setting, making costumes, lighting and the discipline to attend rehearsals. 

Faculty have been involved in many ways, advising students, directing, acting in plays and even providing the scripts. Faculty member Milton Bond, a well-known Rochester artist and member of RIT’s faculty for 30 years, also had a lifelong interest in the theater. In 1920, he directed the students in a play of his own. Then in 1966, Dane Gordon, professor of philosophy and author of RIT’s history, provided the 
script of his play Don’t Touch the Principle. 

In 1965, after another short hiatus, a group called the Drama Guild was formed. The comedy See How They Run had been staged by a group of students during RIT’s 1964 homecoming, and the effort was so successful the students were inspired to launch a permanent organization. In the spring of 1965 the club performed a series of one-act productions including Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden by Thornton Wilder and The Sandbox by Edward Albee. The following year, the organization began touring with several productions, travelling to local coffee houses, retirement homes and hospitals, and participating in the Theatre Festival Association’s annual competition in Corning, N.Y. The club welcomed other theatrically inclined students, announcing try-outs for a variety show between acts in 1966. Anyone with a vaudeville act was encouraged to give it a try.

The move to the new campus complicated the efforts of the group. Brochures 
in the archives note they were ready to “blast off” and realize all the potential of 
the RIT Drama Guild on the new campus. They had hoped to stage plays in the 
new Ingle Auditorium in the 1968-1969 school year, but because the building 
was not finished, they had to wait until April to present the musical comedy 
The Amorous Flea as the opening production. In 1969, the club was absorbed 
by the Cultural Affairs Committee of the College Union Board, and was replaced 
by the Brick City Players in the early 1970s.

In the 1970s, Bob Panara, NTID’s first deaf faculty member, began staging productions with students in NTID. Beginning as a club activity, their efforts grew into the extraordinary NTID performing arts programming that RIT now enjoys. All productions were open to hearing students, providing another outlet for the theatrically inclined.