75 Years in the SpotlightMasquers Set the Stage at Armstrong
The Masquers theatre group is one of Armstrong’s oldest traditions. As the university celebrates the troupe’s 75th anniversary, take a look at the passionate, forward-thinking directors who stood behind their students and laid the foundations for the culturally rich and well-respected program the Masquers is today. From poignant productions to a controversial theatre conference, these men and women challenged societal norms, using the world to set the stage in Jenkins Hall.
Stacy Keach, Armstrong’s first director, responded to World War II’s beginnings with his production of Paths of Glory, a play based on Humphrey Cobb’s novel about World War I soldiers who mutiny their glory-seeking general after falling under fire. “I know of nothing we could do that is more timely than Paths of Glory,” Keach told the Savannah Morning News in 1940.
Years later, Jack Porter, who took over Armstrong’s Masquers in 1952, volunteered to host the 1954 Southeastern Theatre Conference, an integrated event, in Savannah. He recalled the difficulties of finding accommodations for the racially mixed conference luncheon, finally securing St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church on Bull Street as the venue, after being turned down by other organizations. He also chose to produce Shakespeare’s Othello as the conference showcase piece, with faculty member Joseph Killorin in the lead role. “I really was not quite conscious that we were out on the cutting edge of a momentous issue,” he said. “There was never any doubt in my mind, or, I am sure, in Shakespeare’s, that Othello was a black man.”
In1966, Frank Chew came on the scene. Looking more like a student than a director,
Chew brought with him a knack for modernizing classic theatre pieces and connecting with the college-age community. He presented what he called “our unique production of The Bacchae by Euripides.” In keeping with the antiestablishment and prorock-n-roll sentiments of the 60’s, Chew substituted hippies for Dionysus’ worshippers, used psychedelic lighting techniques and replaced choral odes with electric guitars. While The Bacchae broke boundaries, Chew’s greatest controversy came with a production of Sam Shepard’s Chicago, a play that pushed hard against the edge of Savannah community standards.
The recent history of the Masquers stars the largest cast to date, with now-retired director Roger Miller; current Masquers’ director Pete Mellen; Pamela Sears, Armstrong’s first female theatre faculty member; and Elizabeth Desnoyers-Colas, Armstrong’s first African-American female theatre faculty member.
Today’s directors carry forward the tradition of guiding Armstrong students to rethink their views on current events and allow history to engage the university. “We do a lot of shows that raise social issues,” Mellen said. “And one of the things that I find interesting is that a lot of these plays are not necessarily new.”