By Marion K. Stocking
When in 1954 I told my colleagues at the University of Colorado that I was accepting a position in the English department at Beloit College, I got a strong response. "Wait till you see their Mimbres pottery," exclaimed Hugo Rodick, the director of the university museum. "Wow! That's where the Beloit Poetry Journal is," said one of my English colleagues. And Bob Hethmon in the theatre department pointed out an article in the current Theater Arts about Kirk Denmark's dynamite theatre program there.
Kirk was indeed dynamite. A small man, clad always in a jump suit, he ran a strong enterprise, including a summer Court Theatre (in the round, in the court of the Wright Art Center) with equity actors and local talent. His theatre in Scoville Hall was small and ill-equipped, but it had the thrust stage he insisted on, and he did strong plays, especially favoring Moliere where he could appear in the cast. But the only performances I remember were a dazzling Cabaret with Jean MacNeil as Sally Bowles and—on the down side of the spectrum—Euripides' Trojan Women, in which each character tried to outshout the others—a disaster in that small theatre. Aesthetic distance was not one of Kirk's priorities, nor was voice training. Otherwise he was a success by his own standards: He was training potential professionals. I always worried that training (however professional) should not substitute for education. He blocked every inch of a show, told each actor how to interpret every line. And the list of professionals who graduated from his training is impressive. One of my students, Amy Wright'71, has gone on to a memorable career in film and on Broadway.
And Kirk's student Al Barraclough'47 succeeded Kirk in the department and after 1974 had the Neese Theatre with its thrust stage Kirk had proposed. I recall waiting for the lights to come up when some sort of disturbance was going on in the curving pit below the stage. As the lights began to come up we saw a fight in progress between two helmeted soldiers in Greek battle dress. Swords clashed as they swung and maneuvered, violently convincing. I whispered to my husband Dave, "Gee, I thought they were doing A Midsummer Night's Dream. What is this?" Then one sword stroke knocked off a helmet, and a great mantle of red-gold hair cascaded down the back of the loser. We realized that this was what "sets the stage" for that play—the victory of Theseus over Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, the passion of the battle leading to her love for him and for the marriage that the play celebrates. I have to say that when one has witnessed the violent engagement that precedes the action of the comedy, one sees and hears everything in the play at an altered intensity. Splendid acting following brilliant theatrical imagination on the part of the director, Al Barraclough.
But in the '60s, Kirk Denmark was king, and not all students appreciated his authoritarian approach. And under the direction of Bob Arnebeck'69, extraordinary "underground" theatre exploded on campus. Here is my personal remembrance of that otherwise unrecorded period in Beloit's theatre history.
If the best of our '60s students were
rarely passive, often opinionated,
sometimes arrogant, they were also
activists and actors.
Let me say a word about Bob. In my Romantic Revolution course, he did straight B work (in those days, "B" was an honors grade; "A's" were rare). But he gave my husband Dave a hard time because Bob was an Ezra Pound aficionado, and in his contemporary poetry course Dave did teach Pound, but not the Cantos. (David Stocking was a professor of English from 1948 to 1984.) Passionate about poetry, Bob had a column in the Round Table, "The Politics of Poetry," always challenging received opinion. When we had Stephen Spender on campus for a week of readings and lectures, Bob stood up at the end of the poetry reading in the chapel and asked, "Mr. Spender, how does it feel to be a has-been?" When Charles Olson was on campus for a similar week, he started his chapel reading, stopped, gazed out at the audience, and quietly said, "Bob, I can't go on with you sitting there smirking. Would you be so kind as to leave." Bob left.
|Beloit College Archives
|Beloit's 1976 production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream featured "splendid acting following brilliant theatrical imagination on the part of the director, Al Barraclough'47."
If the best of our '60s students were rarely passive, often opinionated, sometimes arrogant, they were also activists and actors. Bob Arnebeck and company (including Bobby Coffey'69, an actor with a splendid speaking voice) didn't formally protest the Scoville program. They simply went out and created their own theatre. The first performance I remember was a staging of Pound's Cantos in the chapel basement. This was a dark cellar, distinguished only by the pillars that held up the building. We reached it by creeping down a flight of narrow stairs. Bob and crew had organized a performance space around the walls, down four aisles to the center, with four blocks of seats facing the small central acting arena. The cast, in various costumes, approached the drama of the poem in various ways: sometimes acting out a scene, using all the spaces not filled with audience; sometimes singing, solo and choral; sometimes using mime in connection with a reading of the poetry. Almost 40 years later, I can remember the shifting scenes, the music of it all, the spell-binding dramatic force of Pound's work. Having attended two years of the Edinburgh Festival's Fringe Theatre, I recognized this as a cut above anything I'd seen there. I told Bob they should take the show on the road—Chicago at least, and regional colleges. But no. It was a once-only production, with no printed program, no written record that I know of.
I was in England when they produced Samuel Beckett's End Game, with Bobby Coffey, outdoors among the Indian mounds. I heard later that it was riveting.
| They faced each other, exchanged
threatening gestures, maneuvered
for advantage, and launched into an
energetic round of rock/paper/scissors.
The next performance in the chapel basement was Aristophanes' Lysistrata—war protest as a battle of the sexes. Remember that this was during the Vietnam War. They seated men on one side of the basement, women on the other. It was a vigorous, hilarious production. I'm sure that no one there will forget the climax. The antagonists—men vs. women—chose their heroes to settle the affair in single combat. On came George Garner, the huge hulking sculpture professor, and opposite him, small wiry professor of mathematics Charlie Seguin. Both were bearded, as I remember, and both in exaggerated Greek battle costume, with massive helmets and shields, and both with foot-and-a-half-long erect phalluses. They faced each other, exchanged threatening gestures, maneuvered for advantage, and launched into an energetic round of rock/paper/scissors. As we rose to leave, we found that each side of the "auditorium" had been supplied with a deep bin of tired and retired vegetables, salvaged from the area's grocery stores, which we were invited to hurl at the opposing side. I remember Barbara Seguin, who had worn a new lemon-colored linen dress to see her husband in his heroic role, looking with dismay at the streaks of over-ripe veggies on her skirt. She must have been the only person leaving who was not laughing.
Then someone alerted the town fire department that performances were being held in a fire trap—a confined space with only one exit—up those narrow stairs. I understand that the area has since been remodeled to higher standards, but there was to be no more "underground" theatre down there.
The last performance I recall was in Pearsons, just after the science people had abandoned it for Chamberlin. Bob and crew staged Christopher Marlow's Tamberlaine the Great—that grand sprawling episodic feast of magniloquent poetry. There were no seats. We stood or sat around the edges of the scene. As each scene moved to a different empty lab, the audience tagged along. I remember especially a throne-room scene, where from a spot high above the throne paper streamers in many colors fanned out to a semicircle of spots on the ceiling, where they were attached and allowed to drop to the floor, creating a wonderfully glamorous enclosure for the action, but one that did not interfere with our seeing all. Bob and his crew well understood Antonin Artaud's definition of a theatre as "a space to be filled."
Bob Arnebeck graduated in 1969, and the last I heard went on to a career as a free-lance writer. In the '70s and '80s, the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games had attracted an undergraduate subculture, from which several Beloiters went on to have careers in that rapidly expanding field of theatrical imagination. On campus, it has evolved into the Beloit Science Fiction and Fantasy Association (BSSFA), with their own dorm space and an active program of traditional and original events. I am delighted to hear that alternative theatre is still very much alive at Beloit.
Marion Kingston Stocking, professor emerita of English (1954-1984), is an honorary alumna of Beloit College and longtime editor of the esteemed
Beloit Poetry Journal. She is writing her memoirs and working on a collection of many of her reviews from her home in Maine.
Creative Spirit Finds Expression in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Club
Nearly 30 years ago, a group of Phi Psi fraternity members formed a science fiction and fantasy literature club called the Beloit Science Fiction and Fantasy Association—commonly known as BSFFA (BISS-fa).
Role-playing games, similar to improvisational acting but with more structured plots and rules, have become one of the club's central activities. These are essentially story-telling games in which no one wins or loses; the point is to construct and interact within an imaginary world. Success is determined by how well a player performs his or her role and relates within the world of the game.
Most begin with one or more game masters who verbally (and sometimes with the aid of props) set a scene and create a living world. Any number of players take characters created by the game master and construct their interactions within the universe of the game. Players sit around a table and describe their actions, unaided by anything but occasional gestures or small drawings.
Games can last from three to four hours and range from standard adventure stories with knights on quests to the world of superspies. One of the oldest and best-known role-playing games is Dungeons and Dragons, an example of a high-action game in which the players roll dice to determine what their character will do next.
Branching off from role-playing games, some club members participate in live-action role-playing. Instead of sitting around a table describing things, players act out what their character is doing, often wearing costumes and using props.
Although members decided to end it in 2005, the Dairyland Gaming Convention, also known as Kublicon, was a major annual event at Beloit for many years. Started in the early 1990s, the convention was advertised all over the country and brought gamers and people from the gaming and science fiction and fantasy industries to Beloit. People attending the convention gathered to play games, talk about sci-fi, meet people with similar interests, and buy or trade merchandise.
According to Beloit's student government, BSFFA club members held an average of three campaigns (game sequences) per day, and around 23 games each week last year. For the past 10 years, club membership has remained steady at about 100 people, with a core group of active members ranging from 45 to 65. It has an email list-serve of more than 200 students and alumni and has consistently been the largest club on campus.
The club holds discussions and war re-enactment board games and maintains a library of more than 1,000 science fiction and fantasy books for members to borrow.
"We are your stereotypical geeks without the bad habits," says active club member Genghis Philip'07, Oak Lawn, Ill. "If it's something a geek would do, you can probably find it at BSFFA."
— Lisa Johnston'06