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Timeliness and timelessness

UA Theater Arts Department celebrates 60 years with a fresh look at a classic play

By Leigh E. Rich

Though many are unaware of its legacy, the UA Theatre Arts department was born 60 years ago in the midst of New Deals, impending war, and religious and ethnic intolerance. Although it was an era remembered mostly for its tumult and turmoil, the Arizona Repertory Theatre celebrates the department’s prosperity with a revival of the classic American comedy and 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, “You Can’t Take It With You.”

And according to ART Artistic Director Harold Dixon, there is much to commemorate.

The UA Theatre Arts Department is “one of the oldest free-standing theater departments in the country,” says Dixon. A member of the UA faculty since 1979, Dixon attributes the department’s success to its dedication to training students.

“The Arizona Repertory Theatre is a resident professional company of actors in training,” he says. “It’s a different kind of mission [than most other theater departments]. It makes a stronger commitment to the actors and their development.”

Dixon states, “The work we’re doing is acknowledged on a national level. … We want to be one of the major players in the country … that’s the league we want to play in.

“The main reason we exist is to train students; we’re there for the development of the students.”

This is especially true for ART’s summer production, which is meant to be a training vehicle for those working towards a B.F.A. or M.F.A. Kaufman and Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You” was chosen for this year’s production because of its timeliness (it was selected for “The Best Plays of 1936-1937”) and timelessness.

The play itself presents the eccentricities of the Sycamore household, inhabited by three generations of family members who once might have passed for asylum in-patients. According to Dixon, “The theme really is about individuality … which is kind of a radical theme for the 1930s. A lot of things the characters do seemed a lot more shocking then. We’re much more exposed to weirdness.”

Still, Dixon concedes, “After all these years, there’s still pressure to conform … there’s very little tolerance” for behaviors and thoughts that push the norm.”

It is perhaps because of Hart and Kaufman’s appreciation of different perspectives that Dixon has directed “You Can’t Take It With You” in the round. “When you’re in the round,” explains Dixon, “you see the play—depending on where you sit—from a different perspective [than other audience members]. You’re not seeing one picture.”

This also feeds one of Dixon’s other goals as well—the “reimagination of classic works.” Instead of reenacting classical theater pieces “museum style,” Dixon seeks “to reimagine the plays, to take a fresh look at them … a fresh take while still being true to the period. There’s that revival issue—taking a fresh look and hoping that it has a new meaning for today’s audience.”

And while Kaufman and Hart probably hadn’t realized their play’s thematic longevity, Dixon believes “You Can’t Take It With You” will create lasting memories for today’s audience members, many of whom have no prior knowledge of these American writers who were once household names.

“[The play] is very funny and very enjoyable without being stupid and trivial … there’s comedy but there’s still some substance to it. All 17 characters are fully developed, and each has his moment of focus. There’s not one character who is merely a foil for the main character.”

For Dixon, theater exists only in the moment, and all that remains are the memories.

“The most memorable thing will be the characters themselves. I hope people enjoy the play on its own merits … but also take a moment to [find that] connection. All you have is the memory.”

Rich, L. E. (1996, June 12). UA Theater Arts Department celebrates 60 years with a fresh look at a classic play. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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