Seated under the posters of past productions, the Second Stage staff gather in the ’92 Theater green room every Monday to plan the semester’s schedule of student-run productions.
This staff of 14 helps student directors carry out their vision—coordinating the location, the sets, the lighting, the costumes, and ensuring that each show runs safely and smoothly. Second Stage has been the behind-the-scenes force of the University’s student theater for 36 years, making it the longest-running student theater group in the country and one with a storied history.
“To be able to have a resource on campus of 14 producers who will give you a 1000 dollars to do whatever you want and give you the space to do it, it’s very unique,” said Second Stage member Ross Shenker ’11. “Very few colleges in the U.S. have completely autonomous student productions of theater.”
Student-run since its conception and staffed by a team of volunteers—except for three students who are employed as Managing, Building and Maintenance, and Lights and Riggings Liaisons—Second Stage is unique in that it only deals with production and does not interfere artistically with the content of each performance. A director comes to Second Stage with a script and a proposal and if approved, which is often the case, the organization helps coordinate the space, the props, and the costumes, all of which are in the basement of the ’92.
In the past, Second Stage has both hosted original student shows and obtained the rights to produce shows written by David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams, and other theater luminaries.
In her senior honors thesis, “Under Our Auspices: The Changing Identity of Wesleyan’s Second Stage 1973-present,” Jacqueline Chapman ’08 chronicled the history of Second Stage. Chapman also created the Second Stage archives in University Special Collections and Archives. While working on her thesis, Chapman came to appreciate the significant contribution Second Stage has made to campus life.
“Having student run theater on campus is very important,” Chapman said. “Being able to do something a little less professional, a little more off the cuff, shorter and in locations like graveyards and people’s kitchens, allows for a lot of experimentation. We’re doing a show a weekend if not three or four. You can’t actually see them all in one weekend. As a student, I think that’s amazing.”
Act One: Growing And Experimenting
While Second Stage might be a powerful force on campus now, the group had a humble beginning. In the fall of her senior year Jan Eliasberg ’74 decided that the University needed more theater outside of faculty productions; an alternative venue where students could be more relaxed and test out their own ideas. She sought to showcase the creativity and experimental nature of Wesleyan students in a lunchtime art series.
“A bring-your-lunch entertainment program including theater, music and poetry is being carried on three days a week in Wesleyan University’s ’92 Theater for the balance of the fall semester,” announced a University news release from Oct. 17, 1973. “The idea is both to entertain and to give students a chance to perform before live audiences. The program is open to the whole community.”
Elisaberg and her friend Samuel Miller ’74 got initial backing from the theater department and the College Body Committee—the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s predecessor (the WSA as we know it was formed in 1978). Second Stage now receives a substantial portion of Student Budgetary Committee funds, and aside from a memorial scholarship, operates solely on those funds. Its shows are always free of charge.
Second Stage began with a burst of student enthusiasm, and the group mostly hosted noontime shows at the ’92. Students brought their lunch and came to watch short plays, poetry readings, dance, and improv. The noontime shows were characterized by their exuberance and experimentation—the shows were less polished and less formal, like one-act plays and script readings.
Kim Borden ’79, the managing director of Second Stage from 1977-1979, is quoted in a 1979 Argus article entitled, “2nd Stage: Growing and Experimenting,” which celebrates the initial spirit of Second Stage.
“The initial purpose of Second Stage was noontime theatre, a lot of experimental stuff, a lot of original plays, a lot of poetry readings and music concerts—because the CFA Theatre opened in 1973, and it was thought that mainstream shows would go there with the department,” Borden wrote in her article.
In its 1976 manual, Second Stage described itself as the destination for experimental theater: “[Second Stage] is a testing ground for new talent as well as a workshop for experienced performers.”
Act Two: Finding A Home
Second Stage began to take its current form when it moved into the ’92 Theater. In 1973, the Center for the Arts (CFA) was finally completed, and the theater department moved its operations from the ’92 Theater to the new state of the art, CFA Theater. The result of this move was that the ’92 Theater was underutilized for a time, according to Chapman.
“However, in the excitement over the newly-constructed CFA, the ’92 was abandoned by audiences; with no intention of utilizing the space in its former function, the Department consigned the theater to classroom space,” Chapman wrote in her thesis. “It is no wonder that when, finally, in the fall of 1973, the Theater Department moved into the new high-capacity, high-tech CFA Theater, it all but abandoned the ’92.”
The theater department founder and chair Ralph Pendleton comically described the department’s outgrowth of the ’92 and the frantic move to the CFA in the 1973 year-end theater department report.
“The academic year 1972-1973 has strongly resembled (if my memory is accurate) those last days on the Ark,” Pendleton wrote. “Too many bodies, too many activities, competing for room in quarters which seemed to grow smaller each day. Nerves getting as taut as zither strings, tempers beginning to flicker, frustrations all over the deck. And in the distance, above the troubled waters, the summit of Mount-Center-for-the-Arts-Ararat becoming more enticing every day.”
In the same report, Pendleton noted a growing interest in theater on campus.
“For many years the audience for productions in the ’92 Theater consisted primarily of faculty members and members of the Middletown community; student attendance, with rare exceptions, was relatively small,” Pendleton wrote. “Today that situation has reversed itself completely; the audience for this year’s productions in both theater and dance has consisted primarily of students. Furthermore, there is a growing interest in productions sponsored, directed and acted by students for student audiences.”
Second Stage stepped up to fill the void in student productions. The theater department allowed the group to reside in the ’92 Theater, a beneficial arrangement that has since been upheld. The theater department’s move to the CFA with up-to-date facilities, and Second Stage’s exciting, freewheeling productions rejuvenated the theater scene on campus.
Act Three: Movin’ On Up
By the late 1970s, the noontime shows began to die out and were replaced with more traditional, and increasingly theater-focused, performances. The Second Stage scene had moved away from its spirit of cooperative, alternative pieces as theater became more popular and directors approached the performances as a way to show off their skills. Second Stage member Mark Ginsberg ’79 commented on this change in the aforementioned 1979 Argus article.
“Two or three years ago, there was a real sense of community in theatre here, which may have generated the idea that there was a ‘theatre clique,’” Ginsberg wrote. “Now, with the closeness of schedules, shows sometimes look at each other as competition—not so much in terms of popularity so much as competition for actors and technical people, with directors saying ‘I want the good people.’”
The student body had shed the relaxed lunchtime shows for more professional performances. Second Stage offered fewer poetry readings and more polished theater performances. In her thesis, Chapman speculated that although current members of Second Stage might float the idea of bringing back noontime shows (as members did in decades past), students are now too busy and frantic to sit down for a show at the ’92 during lunch.
Act Four: Off Campus And On To Broadway
Second Stage has had many success stories over the years, but its greatest legacy may be Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02. In the fall of his sophomore year Miranda produced a play titled “7 Minutes in Heaven,” based on the infamous middle school party game. The following semester Miranda’s “In The Heights” was performed in its first iteration on April 27, 2000 in the ’92 Theater.
Miranda, in his Second Stage sponsorship application, described the show.
“‘In the Heights’ is a musical exploration of gender roles and relationships in Latino culture and society, and the effects of male-female archetypes upon the interpersonal struggles of a family dynamic,” Miranda wrote. “Wowza, that was some pretentious hooey. Okay, here’s what it’s really about. The play concerns two friends: Benny, and Lincoln, and their approaches to the opposite sex….”
This “pretentious hooey” went on to become an Off-Broadway production in 2007, and in 2008 moved on to Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The show has enjoyed massive critical and popular success, and Universal has purchased the movie rights.
Although Miranda and other alumni may have moved on to Broadway, the ’92 Theater in which they had their humble beginnings still plays host to Second Stage productions, as well as weekly staff meetings. At the beginning of each meeting in the green room, every member states, “Second Stage is…” echoing the same questions and identity crises of Second Stage in decades past.