The Growth of Student-Initiated Theatre Productions at Smith
The Theatre Department at Smith College, while now quite developed and independent, is in fact a relatively recent development in the history of the college. Dramatic productions have always been a significant part of life at Smith, and while the department was only established in 1949, since the beginning, students have taken an interest in performing, whether putting on a famous work of Shakespeare, performing an original, or parodying a classic.
Much of the dramatic activity in the early years of Smith had its root in the Senior Dramatics, performances given each year at Commencement by the graduating class, beginning with the class of 1883 and their performance of the original operetta, The Gallant Garrotter, written by a member of the class. The following year, the tradition received official recognition at commencement and the 1884 play was performed in the gymnasium. As the performances became more elaborate, the productions began to exceed the space available, and in 1891, the senior play, The Spanish Gypsy was given at the Academy of Music in Northampton, immediately prompting an announcement that all further senior plays must stay on campus (1).
Though off-limits to the senior dramatics, the Academy of Music, a short walk from College Hall, served other dramatic groups very well, such as the Dramatics Association of 1919. This activity fell under the category of a student organization—members had the task of “selecting, casting, staging, and financing two long plays and two short plays annually”, and participated for no academic credit (2). The productions offered by the DA supplemented earlier efforts of dramatic activity, and the students worked hard: “each play presented to a college audience represents hours of careful practice on the part of the cast and many moments of painstaking study on the part of the costume, staging, and property committees to see that settings are historically accurate” (3). Before the creation of the DA, the individual residential houses of Smith College would form dramatic groups and perform short plays as a house throughout the year. These house societies began with the formation of the Alpha Society in 1878 by the residents of Hatfield House, performing in the wooden gymnasium in Lily Hall. A second society, Phi Kappa Psi, was formed in 1896 by 5 seniors in the Alpha Society; later the two societies merged (4). Soon to follow were Washburn House with Olla Podrida and Hubbard House with Tertium Quid (5). The house dramatics were thus organized until the year 1908, when the student body became too large to keep up with distinct dramatic groups in each house (there were fifteen at this point). To replace the old system, the students were divided alphabetically into four groups: Group A. Cap and Bells, B. Sock and Buskin, C. Players, and D. Mummers. Though the change was intended to dispense with the confusion of fifteen different societies, the alphabetical divide caused some isolation on part of the students, many of whom were now separated from their house-mates (6). In the spring of 1919, under the direction of Professor Samuel A. Eliot, the Smith College Dramatic Association was founded. The appeal of yet another dramatic organization was quite evident; a contemporary article on the DA reads, “every woman feels certain that if given the chance she could be a great actress, not just an interpreter of light parts but a tragedian who could make men weep as well as laugh” (7). In addition to the regular activities of the DA and their two annual productions, students could take classes in play writing and production in the Department of Spoken English, offered by Professor Eliot (8).
After thirty years as an organization, the Smith College Dramatic Association was absorbed by the newly formed Theatre Department in 1949, thus ending its role as a student run group. Among the reasons cited for the disbanding were rising expenses, lack of interest/responsibility, better opportunities for learning, the growth of the department, and greater flexibility in casting male roles (9).
In addition to a well-developed Theatre Department, Smith today supports theatrical student groups such as Leading Ladies (musical theatre), and SIKOS (improv), among others (10).
1. Smith College Archives, Box 3030 Index, folder 3: History 2. Ibid 3. Ibid, folder 1; “Drama Appeals to Smith Girls” 4. Ibid, folder 3, History 5. SCA, Box 3031. 6. SCA, Box 3030, folder 3, History 7. Ibid, folder 1, “Drama Appeals to Smith Girls” 8. Ibid 9. Ibid, folder 3. 10. “Smith College Clubs and Organizations”, Smith College, <http://www.smith.edu/stud_clubs.php>.