Although the Saint Louis University Theatre Department was not formally established as a separate academic division until 1946, training in the dramatic arts was a signficant aspect of Jesuit education at SLU well prior to that time. The earliest recorded student-led dramatic performance took place at the University’s second annual commencement in 1831. From that time until approximately 1917, a play was produced at the end of each school year, with a number of productions performed during the school years on an irregular schedule.
Beginning in 1917, the famed “Hollywood Priest” Daniel Lord, SJ, directed the first of many musical productions at SLU, thus invigorating the campus interest in theatre. The first steps toward a formalized theatre program were taken in November 1926, with the addition of a class in dramatic arts to the curriculum and the creation of an extracurricular organization called the Playhouse Club. The Playhouse Club, intially named the Dramatic Club but rechristened shortly after its inception, performed a number of one-act and experimental plays before giving its first major production, a play called Grumpy by Horace Hodge and T. Wigney Percival, on 16 February 1927.
The Playhouse Club was initially directed by an instructor in public speaking named J.B. Gifford, though between 1926 and 1946 five different faculty members led the Club and taught courses in the dramatic arts. Playhouse Club members were also involved in performing radio plays over SLU’s radio station, WEW. Ultimately the purpose of the organization at this time was the “development among the members of qualities which will serve them in any sphere in which they might become active.”
A major milestone in the development of the University Theatre occurred in 1946. The influx of new students after World War II led the University to establish the Department of Speech and to name Robert A. Johnston, SJ as its chairman. From this point forward a much more professional approach was taken toward the instruction and performance of theatre, which led directly to the University Theatre as it is known today.
With the establishment of the Speech Department came a more formal play production schedule. From 1946 to the present at least four major productions have been performed by the University Theatre each academic year. Although the subject matter of the plays initially skewed heavily religious, as would be expected of a Catholic University, the department also began to experiment with more secular and popular productions as the program developed. This decision led to great growth in the popularity of the University Theatre both within the SLU community and in the Saint Louis region, and it also opened the door for additional experimentation with the theatrical form.
Initially, the Department of Speech was administratively housed within the English Department, but became an independent department in 1950. The Speech Department was originally comprised of programs in communications, communication disorders and theatre. Under the dedicated leadership of Fr. Johnston, each of these programs grew considerably, and at the time of Johnston’s retirement in 1976 they were separated into three independent departments: Speech, Language and Hearing (now Communication Disorders), Fine and Performing Arts (under which the Theatre Department is currently housed, along with the Music, Art History, and Fine Art Departments), and Communication.
In 1962 the Theatre graduate program was established, with six degree-seeking students initially enrolled. With the creation of this program SLU became the first Catholic institution in the Midwest to grant a master’s degree in Theatre.
In 1969 a Department of Fine Arts was established at SLU. The department originally consisted of art history, music theory, and music history units, but would eventually be combined with the Theatre Department to create the Department of Fine and Performing Arts.
After the retirement of Fr. Johnston and the establishment of Theatre as a separate department from Communciations, the University Theatre continued to develop and to diversify its activities. In addition to the 4-6 major productions put on by the Saint Louis University Theatre Department each year, a variety of experimental and other smaller-scale theatrical productions have been organized by the students and faculty of the department. In addition to the summer productions, workshops, children’s and high school performances/touring companies, nun’s performances, alumni productions, guest productions, mime troupes, and touring productions that were common to the theatre program during the 1950s and 1960s, Fr. Johnston and the directors who replaced him established the following experimental, student-run, or otherwise non-traditional theatrical programs:
Kaleidoscope Theatre: late 1950s-1970s; modernistic theatre
Back Door Theatre: 1970s; experimental and exploratory theatre
Dinner Theatre: 1970s-1980s
Laclede Theatre: 1970s: experimental and student-run workshop productions
Lunch Bag Theatre: 1980s
Little Theatre: 1980s
Studio Theatre: 1990s-present; student-run performances
For much of the University Theatre’s existence plays were performed in the O’Neil Hall Auditorium (then home of the Law School) at 3642 Lindell Boulevard. Prior to the 1976-1977 season, also the academic year that Fr. Johnston retired and Theatre was officially established as a department, the theatre was moved to Xavier Hall (a former high school that closed in 1974 and was purchased by SLU), 3733 West Pine Boulevard. Experimental productions were performed at the Laclede Theatre during the 1970s, until it was torn down in 1979-1980 to build the Laclede Parking Garage. As of 2015, all University Theatre mainstage productions are performed in the Xavier Hall auditorium, though smaller productions may take place elsewhere, and students sometimes perform at other venues as well.
The 2015-2016 season marks the 70th consecutive year of University Theatre mainstage productions!