“The Senior Class having asked permission to give a play at Commencement, the faculty replied that they were coming to the conclusion that for a college under the direct control of the church amateur theatricals are hardly advisable as a form of entertainment…”
– [Faculty Minutes, 29 March 1898]
“It may be of interest to note that every play given at Davidson is illegal and always has been. The charter of this institution still contains the following provision: ‘It shall be unlawful for any person… to exhibit any sleight of hand, theatrical or equestrian performances, dramatic recitations, rope or wire dancing…’”
– [The Mask 1947]
Despite a Presbyterian disapproval of theatre, as early as 1893 the Davidson Monthly recalls “A Shakespearean Entertainment given by the senior class, assisted by the ladies of the town, was one of the most enjoyable occasions that it has been the lot of the Davidson people to attend for a long time.”
Organized theatre first appeared with the Red and Black Masquers. Founded in 1920 by a new English professor Edward Jones Edwin ’06, this local honorary fraternity was originally called the Davidson College Dramatic Club.
Their first play was the original “Wildcat Minstrels,” and they continued to perform both classic and original works. “[C]asts for all productions are always open to anyone… Those showing special talent in finished productions are bid to membership in the Masquers.” [Quips and Cranks 1948]
In 1944, the Iota Kappa chapter of Alpha Psi Omega was founded at Davidson College. The society honors men and women who distinguish themselves in college theatre productions.
The Cunningham Fine Arts Building was dedicated October 29, 1961. Named for John R. Cunningham and built on the site of Shearer Biblical Hall, construction of Cunningham cost approximately $650,000. Inside resided music, theatre, and art. The center featured “spacious exhibition halls, well-lit practice rooms and comfortable faculty office-studios…. The heart of the building is an intimate 300-seat theatre-concert hall [featuring] an ingenious, flexible proscenium and a new method of wagon stages to shift scenery horizontally rather than vertically! Best of all, the concert hall will benefit from a scientifically determined acoustical plan. Along with the rest of the building, it will have a completely modern lighting system and air-conditioned comfort for performers and audience alike. To enlarge the impact and influence of the arts at Davidson it will be wired for television and radio broadcasts.” [“A ‘Living Room’ For Davidsonians.”]
Dr. William Goodykoontz, the first dramatics instructor, began sponsoring the Summer Playhouse in 1962. The Playhouse was composed of workshops and productions for the general public.
In 1963, Davidson College initiated the Department of Drama and Speech, under Dr. Rupert Barber. This new department was responsible for developing a theatre curriculum that offered instruction in the general areas of appreciation, acting, directing, design, history, and criticism. At the same time, the department was responsible for producing several theatre performances a year and for organizing the annual Davidson College Drama Workshop. Until women were admitted, local women played female roles.
In 1965, the Davidson Community Players produced their first summer show, “Time of Harvest.” The Davidson College Drama Department also produced the Children’s Theatre Workshop, which offered local children the opportunity to enroll in drama workshops and to participate in local theatre productions.
Still, the Davidson Charter still contained it ban on theatricals; this ban was finally removed in 1968.
The theatre major was introduced in 1983. Previously, theatre classes counted towards an English major or, later, a theatre concentration.
By 1987, theatre, music, and art at Davidson had grown, and Cunningham Fine Arts Building was getting crowded. By 1987, many theatre department facultly offices were housed in Eu Hall.
By 1995, the Red and Black Masquers were absorbed into the growing theatre department.
In the 1990’s, the Art Department moved out of Cunningham (in 1998, they moved into the Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center). In 2002, the Music Department followed suit and moved into the Sloan Music Building.The theatre department had room to breathe in Cunningham Fine Arts Building, but the building (originally designed to hold three different departments) was unsuited to a large theatre department. The building was renovated in 2007-2008 and re-dedicated in November 2008.
By the 21st century, the Davidson College Theatre Department sponsored five productions a year: one “Main Stage” production a semester (performed in the Duke Family Performance Hall), one “Second Stage” production a semester, and a children’s play in conjugation with the Davidson Community Players. In addition to departmental offerings, Davidson students sometimes produced independent theatre productions on campus.
As of 2023, the Theatre Department offers 42 courses (nine of which are offered in the Fall of 2023), taught by four Theatre professors and students can major or minor in Theatre.
“A ‘Living Room’ For Davidsonians.” Pamphlet. Circa 1961. Buildings at Davidson College Cunningham Fine Arts Building Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
“Davidson College Theatre.” Pamphlet. 1987 Drama at Davidson History through 1999 Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
“Dedication of the John R. Cunningham Music and fine arts center.” Pamphlet. October 29, 1961. Buildings at Davidson College Cunningham Fine Arts Building Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Dick Banks. “$650,000 structure expected to be finished by late ’61.” Charlotte Observer. 22 May 1960.
Faculty Minutes, 29 March 1898. Drama at Davidson History through 1999 Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Finding aid. Record Group 3/5.19. Theatre Department. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
Grotjohn, Mark. “Cunningham Fine Arts Center.” Guide to Campus Buildings <http://www3.davidson.edu/cms/x17999.xml>.
Roberts, Charles. “Davidson theatre: an omission.” Davidson Journal. Fall 1994: 4.
Syme, John S. “A program comes of age.” Davidson Journal. Winter 2007: 4.
Sherbine, Lorraine. “Addicted to greasepaint.” Davidson Journal. Summer 1995: 12.
“The Mask.” Red and Black Masquers program, c. 1947. Drama at Davidson History through 1999 Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Author: Tammy Ivins
Date: October 2008
Cite as: Ivins, Tammy. “Theatre” Davidson Encyclopedia October 2008 <https://digitalprojects.davidson.edu/omeka/s/college-archives-davidson-encyclopedia/page/theatre>