There is no club in Happy Valley with more history than the Penn State Thespians.
In the midst of its 120th season, Thespians is the oldest continually-active student organization at Penn State and just selected the cast for its 210th show, “Beauty and the Beast.”
Dating back to its first performance on February 14, 1898 — “The Rivals” — Thespians has had many students grace the stage. Between the large alumni base it’s created and the club’s long-time link to Schwab Auditorium, where it’s held performances since 1903, Thespians has created a legacy for itself.
“Beauty and the Beast” director Max Levine knows there is something special about having that legacy to live up to and hopes to maintain that high standard into the future.
“When you perform for Thespians, it’s performing for the general public,” Levine said. “But a lot of Thespians, at least in my eyes, is also performing for the people who have gone before you and living up to the high bar that they’ve set in the past.”
Thespians holds main-stage shows each semester, which serve as a chance for the many performers of the past to see the organization they’ve built. For the cast, it’s also an opportunity to connect and get support from those who created their current opportunity.
“It’s really strong alumni-based,” Josh Brown, who’s playing Lumière in “Beauty and the Beast,” said. “It’s really cool whenever we do a show and you see all of the alumni come back. Some of them are older as opposed to newer clubs where it’s just recent people who have graduated.”
For Thespians to be in a position to put one of these productions on the stage, however, is far from an overnight process.
Levine was hired to direct “Beauty and the Beast” in November following his performance as a cast member in “Rock of Ages.” He started preliminary preparations with producer Matt Schiffman and technical director Andrew Bean last semester.
Auditions were held from January 11-13 and the cast was hired last week. Now, the club practices hours each week to be ready for opening night on March 23.
For somewhat of a short turnaround after “Rock of Ages,” one of the keys to the Thespians’ success is the group’s large return of students from the previous show and the chemistry that’s already built-in for the cast members.
“Especially in production, it helps to have a lot of people who have been through this rodeo before,” Levine said. “The carryover comes in terms of talent of people who have done our shows before and really enjoy it, where they come back to do another. It comes in terms of the sets. Sometimes we have sets from previous shows that help us get a head start on building a new set.”
Another key for the Thespians’ success in recent years has to do with the relatively new theatre group, No Refund Theatre.
NRT formed in the mid-1990s and focused on a different type of production than Thespians. This club holds performances for free each week in 111 Forum. There’s no rivalry between the two groups, but a different focus that allows performers to gain different experiences.
“No Refund Theatre is cool because it’s something that’s setting a precedent because, it’s been around for a bit, but only since the 90s,” Levine said. “For Thespians, it’s doing some things that have been around for over 100 years.”
With the amount of crossover between the two productions, Levine views NRT as a positive both for Thespians and performing arts on campus as a whole.
“There’s a lot more inter-connectivity now between the two clubs than there used to be,” Levine said. “It helps people diversify their interests in theatre. You get these grandiose, main stage productions in Thespians where you can be part of this huge production that really looks good on stage. Then with NRT, you have these smaller, more intimate productions where you really bond with the people you work with.”
No matter the changes to performing arts in the last century, Thespians is still going strong. With tons of history in the past, it’s set up to continue its success on the stage at Schwab Auditorium for the foreseeable future.