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.