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Staging History

The story of the talented team that brought to life an original play to celebrate the college’s 150th anniversary.

by Steve Neumann

THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF URSINUS COLLEGE [ABRIDGED] by Domenick Scudera, M.F.A., Professor of Theater

CHARACTERS: RUBY and SAMUEL, students who are disengaged; they have not completed their homework to read about the history of Ursinus College, PROFESSOR

SCENE: a college classroom, present day.

A film about Ursinus College is abruptly ended, cutting short the full story of the college’s history.

PROFESSOR: Well, it looks like we’re out of time.

[PROFESSOR fiddles with the remote and technology unsuccessfully.]

SAMUEL [to Ruby]: That movie was actually pretty interesting, don’t you think?

RUBY [to SAMUEL]: Yeah. [to PROFESSOR]: Um, professor? Can we ask you a question?

PROFESSOR: Yes?

RUBY: What happens after that?

SAMUEL: In the story of the college?

PROFESSOR: Did you read your homework?

RUBY, SAMUEL: No.

PROFESSOR: Read it. You can discover the answers for yourselves.

RUBY: We know – [rolling her eyes]

SAMEUL: … the Ursinus Quest …

PROFESSOR: Ruby, Samuel, if you applied yourselves, you might discover that education is a conversation, and the best conversations start with real questions. Your friends might try to distract you from your studies—but I expect more from the two of you. I see potential in both of you. Ask some questions and then seek out the answers. It’s worth the effort, I promise.

[PROFESSOR exits.]

SAMUEL: Open the book. Let’s take a look.

Inspired and curious, RUBY and SAMUEL crack open the reading about the history of Ursinus that had been assigned for homework. As the book opens, the classroom disappears, and the history of Ursinus College unfolds as RUBY and SAMUEL ask questions to open their minds.

The Complete History of Ursinus College [Abridged] is a hilarious but respectful send-up of key events in the history of the college in celebration of its 150th anniversary this year.

The play is the brainchild of Professor of Theater Domenick Scudera, who has experience writing historical plays that are meant to be accessible, creative and, most importantly, entertaining.

The Complete History of Ursinus College [Abridged] even shares a title with a similarly tongue-in-cheek play Scudera directed three times for the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre a decade ago: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.

“That one takes all of Shakespeare's plays and puts them in a blender,” Scudera says. “And even though it's funny, you actually learn a lot about Shakespeare's plays and characters.”

Scudera was inspired by the way the writers of the Shakespeare play were able to have fun with established, historical material, and achieved the same effect with The Complete History of Ursinus College [Abridged]. Among the unique aspects of this play is that it’s infused with Ursinus’s Quest: Open Questions Open Minds Core Curriculum, which consists of four key questions: What should matter to me? How should we live together? How can we understand the world? What will I do? Scudera used these questions as a guide in choosing which aspects of Ursinus history he thought he should include.

Fittingly, Scudera’s play opens with a classroom scene. Unfortunately, the professor (played by a different Ursinus alum or employee each night) is droning on about Ursinus history, which the class finds really boring. Even after the professor shows them an informative, albeit over-the-top, film about the history of Ursinus (which Tommy Armstrong ’20 actually filmed over the summer with Ursinus faculty and staff), the class is still apathetic—except for two students who become intrigued when the film projector suddenly breaks just as the end-of-class bell rings.

As the professor is walking out, the two students ask her what happens next in the film. The professor tells them that they should do their homework if they want to find out, so they crack open the assigned reading (which they hadn’t done) just as the stage opens up to envelop them in the world of the play. The audience is then treated to a fast-moving and colorful romp through the history of Ursinus College that is cast entirely with Ursinus students, with the exception of the “actor” who stars in the cheesy film: Ursinus College President Brock Blomberg.

The play also makes use of a chorus of student actors who symbolize the Ursinus Quest, providing the answers to the lead characters’ questions as they morph into various figures of Ursinus College history.

Obviously, a lot happens in 150 years; and while a 90-minute play can’t possibly include everything in the college’s history, Scudera had free reign to pick and choose what would best fit his dramaturgical vision.

“I'm not stuck doing every facet of Ursinus history,” Scudera says. “I can just ask questions about things and tell quirky, interesting stories. And by doing that, hopefully you'll start to get a bigger picture of the school.”

The two lead characters who bring that bigger picture of Ursinus to life—the students who become interested in learning more about the history of the college—are named Samuel and Ruby. Conveniently, the actor who plays Ruby in the play is named Ruby in real life—Ruby Serafin, a senior double major in theater and media and communication studies who wants to be a screenwriter after graduation.

“The yearbook is named The Ruby,” Serafin says, “and the person who created it was a professor named Samuel Vernon Ruby. So Domenick broke up that name and Isaiah became Samuel, and I'm Ruby.”

Isaiah is Isaiah Braugher, a junior theater major who comes from a family of professional actors. His father, Andre, plays Captain Raymond Holt on the NBC comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and his mother, Ami, has appeared in numerous roles on Law & Order.

Both Braugher and Serafin not only enjoyed their roles in the play but were surprised by what they learned in the process of mastering the script.

“There's a part where they talk about the sycamore tree that used to be by the football field,” Serafin says. “I knew it had been moved, but I didn't know that part of the wood from the tree became the bear that's in the gym.”

“There’s definitely some hidden gems in there,” she says. “And I like that it’s telling the history of Ursinus in an entertaining way.”

“Something that I found interesting,” Braugher says, “was the formal dances they had, like the May Day festival where girls are dancing around a Maypole in the 1950s, and those traditions that somehow died away.”

Similarly, Tommy Armstrong, the senior English major who produced the tacky film that breaks down at the beginning of the play, discovered something he didn’t know when he was in the process of putting the film together.

“I thought it was interesting how the German Reformed Church split into two factions—the high churchmen and low churchmen—and how the low churchmen broke away,” Armstrong says.

In Ursinus history, the “high church” faction of the German Reformed Church established Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and the low church group established a school that would eventually become Ursinus College.

“That was part of the film I made for the play,” Armstrong says. “We had to show that the high churchmen were very strict and the low churchmen were more laid back.”

Armstrong initially wanted to have a scene with the low churchman smoking marijuana and getting busted by campus safety, but Scudera thought that might be pushing the envelope a little too far, even for a parody play.

“So, in the film, I had them all come together with flowers and hearts,” Armstrong says. “It was very sweet.”

Bringing 150 years of Ursinus history to the stage was a unique challenge for Megan Jones, a professional scenic designer and Ursinus’s technical director. She and a crew of students built the sets.

“There's a certain expectation of what the audience is going to get when they walk in and sit down,” Jones says. “For this play, it's going to feel like somewhat of an empty canvas—it’s just going to be a movie screen at the beginning. But it's going to take them in so many different directions, and they're going to feel fulfilled at the end.”

From initial auditions to numerous technical and dress rehearsals leading up to opening night, Jones is there every step of the away, working with her student-run scenery and deck crews to make sure the production hews as closely as possible to the original vision for the play.

So much has happened at Ursinus College since 1869. In fact, much has happened in the past few decades alone. When Scudera first came to Ursinus College, theater and dance weren’t even separate departments: theater was part of the communications department and dance was part of the exercise and sports science department.

The president at the time, John Strassburger, used to say that a liberal arts education is like a stool with three legs: one leg is academics, one is athletics, and the other should be the arts. So, he decided to pull theater and dance out of their respective departments, and Scudera actually wrote the proposal for the theater department as it stands today.

“Researching the history has been eye-opening because I'm learning all these things about the college.” he says. “I've been here for 22 years, but there are a lot of things I had no idea about, and it's been just fascinating to look through the old stuff.”

Scudera became intimately familiar with Ursinus history during hours of research in the college’s Ursinusiana archives room, where he tapped into the great institutional knowledge of archivist Carolyn Weigel.

“I have a little Rolodex that has questions that come up throughout the year,” Weigel says. “I can go to that and its highlighted as to where something can be found. It's very simple, but it works.”

“To me, the whole history of Ursinus is unique because it's a one-of-a-kind college,” she says. “It has a lot of wonderful people who've attended and who’ve gone on to achieve great things in the world—the faculty, the staff, the students—everyone contributes.”

Credits:

Jim Roese