The Show Goes On

production of Godspell

DramaTech celebrates its 50th anniversary with a rousing performance and a promise of more to come.

By John Dunn
Photography by Gary Meek

Georgia Tech has established one of Atlanta's more unusual legacies--DramaTech, the city's oldest continuously operating theater company.

Unusual because it's not what you might expect from a tough-minded, hard-as-nails, no-nonsense technological university where coddling the humanities is an alien notion.

So, how did DramaTech happen?

It's a not-too-improbable storyline complete with a happy ending.

1947:  The Begger and the King It's a golden year for DramaTech--a milestone occasion," says James E. "Jim" Dull, vice president and dean of students emeritus, and an avid supporter of the theater group for four of its five decades.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Jim Dull has been sifting through boxes of photographs, playbills, feature articles and reviews stored at Georgia Tech's Information Center and Archives, reconstructing DramaTech's 50-year history. He has prepared a time line that chronicles all the DramaTech plays, directors and student-presidents. Now he is preparing a book on the history of drama at Georgia Tech.

No one is better suited to the task.

Since coming to Georgia Tech in 1957 as an assistant dean of students, Jim Dull has not only witnessed much of DramaTech's history, he's helped champion it.

He and his wife, Gay, have been attending performances for 40 years at DramaTech and have seen the vast majority of its 195 plays. They have been tireless supporters. In tribute, DramaTech's theater has been named for him and its scholarship fund has been named for her.

They were present for the Feb. 21 opening night performance when DramaTech launched its 50th season with Godspell, a joyous pop-musical based on the Gospel of St. Matthew.

"It was absolutely outstanding," says Dull, who acknowledges a bias for musicals. "It was just a lot of fun; the students are excellent. Of course, just about everything DramaTech does is exceptionally well done."

He would know.

"I don't think he has missed a play during the whole time I have been here," said Greg Abbott, who is in his 14th year as executive/artistic director of DramaTech and a faculty member in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture.

"Traditionally, we have enjoyed the most success with musicals and Shakespeare," Abbott says. "So for our anniversary season we opened with Godspell, and we'll close with Shakespeare's Henry V. We chose 1984 for the spring show. We want to see what we can do in terms of slides, live video, taped video, computer animation and perhaps some virtual scenery. Certainly there are some interesting things we can do in terms of sound effects and sound production.

"In the summer, we're doing an original script called Demons, which was written by Karla Jennings, who is a member of DramaTech. It fits nicely with what we are doing because we have three very solid, proven theater pieces and one brand new play that we think is very good but untested."

A major reason for DramaTech's historic success is that it got off to a solid start, Dull says. Many of the students who returned to campus after World War II were mature, self-assured, and not intimidated by adversity.

"They were performing in almost unforgiving facilities, yet they were doing these plays and doing them well," Dull says. "They had some faculty members right from the start who gave of their time and effort to make this go and it did go. And it just never stopped going.

"Jack Pompan was the gun behind getting DramaTech started," Dull says. Pompan, a Navy veteran, and other Tech students received a $30 appropriation from student government in the spring of 1947 to start a dramatics club. In the fall of 1947, the group adopted the name DramaTech.

Pompan, IM '48, who owns a consulting firm in Rockville Centre, N.Y., says, "It's one of the things I'm proudest of in my life."

The price of admission was 30 cents when the curtain was raised April 15, 1947, on the first production: three one-act plays--The Valiant, The Begger and the King, and The Medicine Show. Directed by Glenn C. James, the plays were performed in the YMCA Auditorium (now the Alumni/Faculty House).

The price of admission doubled to 60 cents for the second play, The Drunkard, also presented that spring in the YMCA auditorium under the direction of James. Pompan had the lead. The role of the "lovely daughter" of the penniless widow was played by Mary Nell Santacroce, destined to become DramaTech's most enduring director.

There have been times of instability. During its 50-year history, DramaTech has had 51 different directors. And the early years were nomadic.

The 1972 playbill observing DramaTech's 25th anniversary with the production of Auntie Mame refers to those years as an odyssey: "Since 1952, DramaTech has occupied the Crenshaw Field House, the Community Playhouse, Crenshaw again, and then DramaTech was literally dumped into our present location, the Georgia Tech Center for the Performing Arts, more affectionately known as the Old Church. These facilities are shared by DramaTech, the Tech band, Community Service offices and a certain friendly ghost left over from the previous occupants.

On April 13,1992, Georgia Tech dedicated the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts, a facility that includes a 200-seat black box theater with its own entrance, box office and dressing rooms, that serves as the permanent home for DramaTech.

Mary Nell Santacroce, the grand dame of Atlanta theater, will always be "Coach" to the hundreds of Georgia Tech students she directed during a 17-year period that shaped DramaTech from its bold beginning into a self-confident, nationally recognized acting troupe.

Santacroce claims no
favorites among the 47 plays she coached. "They instantly started calling me Coach," Santacroce says, shaking her head slightly and smiling. "I was always known as Coach."

DramaTech's first professional director was Santacroce's friend Zenas Sears, an Atlanta radio personality and graduate of Johns Hopkins University, who had performed summer-stock theater in Boston.

But after three plays, Sears found himself on the night shift at the radio station, and he resigned.

Santacroce, who had assisted Sears with some of the productions, agreed to fill in. But it quickly became apparent that she was the ideal director.

Santacroce coached DramaTech through 47 productions from 1949 to 1966. Under her tutelage, DramaTech was named one of the country's 100 outstanding amateur theatrical groups by the National Theater Arts Council.

A native of Atlanta, Santacroce attended Girl's High School and the University of Georgia, majoring in speech and English. She performed in every theatrical production she could at the University of Georgia at Athens and was voted the most outstanding senior.

After a stint in New York City, where she landed parts in several radio soap operas, she returned to Atlanta. A short time later, she married Hugh Ivey, Phys '48, MS Phys '51. Ivey, who died in 1967, was a physics instructor at Tech from 1948 until 1956. She had two children, Dana and John, by this marriage. In the late 1950s, she married Daniel Santacroce, Arch '54, and they had a son, Eric. During his student days, Daniel Santacroce had been a leading actor in DramaTech plays.

Santacroce began her tenure before women were admitted as students--something that didn't happen until 1952.

"Everybody wants to know what I did about females," Santacroce says with a sly twinkle in her eyes. "I hauled them in, of course. Girls liked to come to work at Tech--that wasn't a whole lot of trouble."

In the fall of 1950, the reigning Miss Atlanta, Tora Rhem, joined the DramaTech cast as the female lead in the zany comedy, See My Lawyer. The play was so much fun Rhem rejoined the cast in the winter 1951 production of Herman Wouk's drama, The Traitor.

Dean of Students Emeritus
Dull has been an avid supporter. In DramaTech's early days, Georgia Tech students were brazen propagandists, not above raiding another production's audience--such as the opera--and shifting the spotlight to DramaTech. The troupe became known for its opera gags, some of which provided fodder for Celestine Sibley's column in The Atlanta Constitution.

In 1956, when DramaTech was about to open The Road to Rome, three Georgia Tech students--Donald Filippelli, Ronald Zaldivar and Eddie Stern--arrived at the Metropolitan Opera's opening-night performance at the Fox Theater wearing Roman togas and sandals. They calmly explained to the formally attired, gawking and laughing opera aficionados that they were unabashedly promoting their own forthcoming DramaTech production.

Filling the female roles was no problem for the production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in the fall of 1960. DramaTech joined forces with the Agnes Scott Blackfriars to present Wilder's play, directed by Santacroce at the Atlanta Community Theater and at Agnes Scott. An Alumni Magazine article noted the play could not be performed at Tech because DramaTech's home, the Crenshaw Field House, had "died of old age."

A new Crenshaw Building was constructed for the 1961 fall season. The Pulitzer Prize winning play, Look Homeward, Angel, was selected as the inaugural production.

Newspaper columnist Celestine Sibley was invited to try out for a part. She declined but couldn't resist marveling at Santacroce's offer:

"You told me once that you'd always wanted to be an actress.... Well, we're casting Look Homeward, Angel. DramaTech is going to produce it this fall, and I thought you might like to read for the role of Ben's friend, Mrs. Pert."

"Mrs. Pert?" I said, trying to remember her.

"You know," explained Mary Nell, "the mature woman Ben called 'Fatty."'

"Oh," I said. "Mature ... Fatty."

There was a small silence into which Mrs. Santacroce moved very smoothly.

"Of course, we'll use some makeup and pad you," she said.

"Of course," I said hollowly, remembering lemon pie for lunch. "Of course."

Sibley excused herself--she just didn't have time to meet at Georgia Tech and rehearse three nights a week. But, she assured her readers, she'd be in the audience when the play opened. She couldn't imagine, she said, who Mary Nell might cast who would do justice to the role.

Opening night of the play, based on Thomas Wolfe's novel, grabbed the spotlight in its own right, but also because of a unique guest. Fred Wolfe, brother of the novelist and a Georgia Tech graduate who was portrayed in the autobiographical novel as the fictional Luke, attended the performance.

"Our family was a unique one, I think," Wolfe was quoted as saying, "for it produced one member with the spark of genius--that was Tom--and one that took 10 years to graduate from Tech--that was me."

Wolfe added, "This was the best presentation I have ever seen of the play, including some done by professional actors." The last surviving member of the Wolfe family, he used the occasion to thank Georgia Tech for letting "Luke come home again."

Santacroce claims no favorites among the 47 plays.

"Each one is special in its own way and temperamental in its own way," she says. "Every play is a little tiny lifetime that you spend in rehearsal and performance. And on the last night of a performance, you strike the set and get rid of it. One time I had tears coming down my face because we were tearing up this little world we had been living in. A psychology prof was standing by me. I said, 'I just hate to see them tear it all up.' And he said, 'Well, it's always that way, isn't it?' That was just a little lesson. We have to let go of things."

1988:  Exit the Body Santacroce's forte is drama and comedy; she didn't direct musicals.

"I'm not a musical person," she says. "Dramas are much easier to do than comedy, but not as box office popular. Comedy is harder because the timing is so important. But with comedy, if you get it right, everybody has a good time, and they think you are wonderful."

Acting is not as difficult as directing, Santacroce says. An actor must understand his character, but "a director has to see that everything looks right, sounds right and has to invest a little bit of him or herself in each of the characters. Acting is easier."

Santacroce has appeared in 14 motion pictures and 35 professional plays--one of which has a unique twist. Her daughter, Dana, was the original Miss Daisy of the New York production of Driving Miss Daisy. When the play was performed at Atlanta's Alliance Theater, the role went to Santacroce. "We've never heard of a mother stepping into a role the daughter had originated," she says pleased. "We made theatrical history."

Mother and daughter also made theatrical history at Georgia Tech. Ten years after embarking on a professional acting career, Dana Ivey followed in the footsteps of her mother and took a turn at coaching DramaTech in 1974 and 1975.

Dramatech is especially significant to Georgia Tech, Dana Ivey says, because it brings an important cultural dimension to the campus. But participation in DramaTech is a serious matter.

"It demands a certain amount of commitment and acceptance of responsibility--like a football team," Ivey told the alumni newspaper, Tech Topics. "Each person must play the position assigned to him and must fulfill the obligations of the part he is committed to."

DramaTech students not only star onstage, they are also backstage stars, she said. Their science and engineering interests make them technically creative when it comes to lighting, sound and special effects.

"Tech students are very literal-minded," former DramaTech director Fergus "Tad" Currie observed in a 1972 interview. "When you tell them the stage setting is a house, they build you a house--not just a fantasy representation of one."

Currie related that when he directed A Streetcar Named Desire, the kitchen scene was so authentic the sink had real running water.

In the production of Godspell, 21 actors performed on stage. But almost 90 students were involved in the production, working in set design, lighting, sound, props, costume design, box office, publicity, construction and the stage managers and backstage crew.

"We have students in architecture who design our sets," Greg Abbott says. "We have students in electrical engineering who work on lights and sound. We have students in computing or management who also design sets or work on lights and sound. For many students, DramaTech is their main extracurricular activity. Some of them devote a huge amount of time to it.

"DramaTech is very important for Georgia Tech," Abbott adds. "It is significant that we are the oldest theater company in the city. It says something about Tech and what Tech people want and need.

"We can't send our students out of here and say that they are well-educated if they don't have some exposure to William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, the Greeks and Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and so on. They get that exposure in the classroom, and they can see it on video.

"But it's not the same as being there and seeing it performed onstage."