UVM theater veterans honored by students

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(Host) For nearly 40 years, two Vermonters held center stage in theater at the University of Vermont. This year and last, both have been honored for their contributions to cultural life in Vermont.

VPR’s Betty Smith has more:

(Smith) Ten years ago on a small Vermont stage, a packed house beheld the majesty and misery of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It was the much anticipated performance by Ed Feidner, one of the two longtime forces in UVM theater, because this would be Feidner’s last performance before retirement.

(Feidner as Lear) “Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower!
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever.”

(Smith) Feidner played Lear with the same unique brand of dramatic energy that he had invested in UVM’s theater department for 35 years. Mark Allen Gordon directed the production. Earlier this year Gordon attended a retirement reception for Bill Schenk, an associate of Feidner’s at UVM for 29 years. At the reception, Gordon recalled the special qualities that Feidner brought to King Lear.

(Gordon) He knocked it off it’s pedestal. There wasn’t a person who came in here to watch that show that did not see a man, not a king, not a great Shakespearean tragedy. No, people came in here and got very, very empathetic with a path through that show. Not a person sat here and said, ‘Oh, that fool.’ Everyone sat here and said, ‘Oh dear God, don’t… don’t.’ He brought such an awareness of the man’s humanity to it.”

(Smith) The technical designer for this production of Lear was Bill Schenk. While Feidner generally ran the business of producing, directing and acting, Schenk was the master of the backstage, presiding over lighting, scene design and stage managing. Together, they guided theater at UVM from a two person program in the basement of the Fleming Museum to a full-fledged department.

During the Feidner-Schenk era the Champlain Shakespeare Festival was born. For 30 years, the professional summer repertory company performed both traditional and adventurous interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays.

Together Feidner and Schenk teamed up on more than 120 productions. The moment when all the elements come together is still exciting to Schenk.

(Schenk) “It’s that thing that you can’t name, that you can’t identify, that you can hardly describe, that happens between an audience and an actor on a stage when everything is just right. That’s it. You don’t have theater without an audience. So the lights are good, scenery’s good, costumes are good, sound is good, props are good, but the essence is the actor, the audience and that communication thing that happens across the little space or the great big space.”

(Smith) Both men worked fairly quietly behind the scenes, but when Schenk retired this year there were thank yous and congratulations all around.

(Student) “Bill, in lighting class you taught us all what a source four was. And I now know that you are the source four of this department because you’re a source for knowledge, you’re a source for encouragement, and you’re a source for inspiration. Thank you very much for believing in students and working so hard for them.”

(Smith) And last year Feidner, who retired in 1994, received an honorary degree.

(Colodny) “Edward Feidner, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the board of trustees of the University of Vermont, I hereby confer upon you….”

(Smith) Beyond the memories of great theater moments is a bricks and mortar project: the creation the Royall Tyler Theater. In the 1950s and 60s, theater at UVM was housed in the Arena Theater in the basement of the Fleming Museum. The space was limited to only 200 seats, and the expense of building a new theater from scratch was prohibitive. So Feidner turned his attention to UVM’s distinctive old gymnasium, built in 1901.

Feidner and Schenk worked closely with the architects on renovating the building and the new Royall Tyler Theater opened in 1974. Royall Tyler was a Bostonian who wrote “The Contrast” in 1787 and later moved to Vermont to practice law, eventually serving on the Vermont Supreme Court. “The Contrast” was the earliest American comedy to be produced professionally. A musical version with vigorous performances of patriotic songs was the inaugural production in the new building.

(Sound of song, “Yankee Doodle.”) The play illustrates the contrast between European manners and the emerging American identity.

Schenk’s production design was strongly Federalist in character. And in typically robust Feidner style, red, white and blue balloons cascaded onto the stage during the finale.

For it’s size, the UVM theater department has produced a surprising number of graduates working in theater around the country. And many of those actively engaged in Vermont’s lively theater scene this summer – on stage and off, and sitting in the audience – got their first taste of theater thanks to the efforts of Ed Feidner and Bill Schenk, and others like them.

For VPR Backstage, I’m Betty Smith.

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