Fresno State theatre celebrates 100 years of production

Near the corner of McKinley and Wishon Avenues, a small ensemble of Fresno State students gathered for the school’s first ever theatrical production. It was 1912, and the Fresno State Normal School’s Dramatic Club was to perform its first play.

At the time, theatre was not a recognized academic component of the school. In fact, it wasn’t until 1928 that the drama program was officially considered an element of the college’s Department of English.

When it comes to academically recognizing theatre and other arts programs, J. Daniel Herring, professor of children’s theatre and theatre education at Fresno State, said that this belated acceptance of the program is normal.

“Arts sometimes suffer at any institution,” Herring said, noting that the arts are oftentimes thought of as the “added bonus” to academics.

Suffering from lack of academic accreditation didn’t hinder the dramatic club’s presence at Fresno State. During the years, the club was little more than an extra-curricular or “added bonus”  for the school. Plays were still produced. As the school developed its first bachelor’s degrees and changed its name to Fresno State Teachers College, the role of theatre progressed. In 1928, the first children’s theatre production, “A Little Pilgrim’s Progress,” was produced.

For students interested in this progression of theatre and in pursuing drama as more than an extra-curricular, the future was bright. In 1931, the speech-drama major was approved by the State Board of Education.

Minute changes slowly isolated theatre and drama from the general speech major. In 1950, theatre became one of five options in the speech major. Nine years after that the division of speech arts gave the subject its own degree, the theatre major.

According to Fresno State junior Carlos Torres, theatre definitely deserves its own major.

“There’s so much people can learn from it,” the 20-year-old theatre arts student said.

Herring agrees.

“It’s integral to a well-rounded education,” he said. “The arts teach you about who you are… and about the world you’re in.”

Around the time the major was developed, audiences stopped attending the college’s productions near McKinley and Wishon Avenues,  which became solely Fresno City College’s campus when the school officially moved to its current location on Shaw Avenue in 1956.

For almost two decades following, after the title of “theatre major” became the “Drama Department,” plays were continually produced at Fresno State College. In 1972, when the college’s name changed to its current title of Fresno State, the department’s name also changed again to theatre arts.

“Department organizations change to match the way the professional fields change,” Melissa Gibson, Chair of the Fresno State Department of Theatre Arts, said.

But one thing she says hasn’t changed over the years is a commitment to “teaching critical thinking, communication skills, teamwork and personal responsibility.”

This continual commitment was evident. In 1980, the theatre arts option was added in the speech master of arts degree. Additionally, programs which still exist within the Theatre Arts Department were created for dedicated students, including the Theatre for Young Audiences, where Fresno State students tour Valley elementary schools performing plays. The Experimental Theatre Company, a student-generated group laboratory experience, and University Dance Theatre, which offers a supportive and challenging dance-based environment for students performs them.

The progress continued into the 1990s and later the 2000s, when groundbreaking performances, including “Indulgences in the Louisville Harem” and “Sun Yat Sen In the Mouth of the Dragon,” at Fresno State led to the honoring of several theatre arts students by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival and the American College Dance Festival.

“While winning is fun,” Gibson says that is not the “real purpose” of these festivals. Rather, she said they allow students to interact with peers, gain experience in auditioning and presenting portfolios and be involved in a professional setting.

Herring agrees that “our students get a lot more hands-on, integrated experience.”

“It’s a lot of work, but very rewarding,” Gibson continued.

The rewards the department has earned over time are evident. The Fresno State theatres now seat 600 people. The department is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre. Additionally, the university continues to deliver plays, with several productions to be put out this year, including a contemporary dance ensemble and plays titled “Bronte” and “Assassins.”

“The world is a very different place than it was in 1912,” Gibson said. A century has gone by since then, when the Normal School’s Dramatic Club produced its first play, and while major titles and department names have changed, the inherent role of the theatre to educate and entertain at Fresno State is the same.

For the future, this role is likely to stay in place.

It’s important to continue to provide a “well-rounded and balanced education for students,” Herring said.

Gibson adds that the plan for the Theatre Arts Department is also to continue a “strong record” of providing entertaining plays.

Regardless, “as long as we keep that quality and the standard high,” Herring said, “we can continue to do what we’re doing.”

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