Arts & Culture

Memorabilia in NCT tell dramatic story

4 min read

The New College Theatre has yet to see its first performance, but already the building seems to echo with audience laughter and the pleasant dissonance of a tuning orchestra. In the lobby, one can almost hear a whisper of “break a leg” or the clink of glasses at a postproduction fête rising faintly from the polished wooden floorboards. More than 100 years of theatrical history live on in the New College Theatre, and a special exhibition now on display throughout the building will help to preserve that legacy.

From the lobby to the lower lounge, the brand-new building is awash in posters, rehearsal photographs, audition fliers, and commemorative plaques. The images serve as both décor and exhibit — a visual testimony to more than 100 years of Harvard theater.

“These images show how historically important the theater arts have been to Harvard students,” explains Matt Weinberg, special projects consultant for the Office for the Arts (OfA) and curator of the exhibit.

The exhibit includes material from the late 1880s to the present, and traces the history of Harvard theater from early Hasty Pudding productions to the current Learning From Performers series produced by the Office for the Arts.

“There is such a rich tradition of performance at Harvard,” says Richard Brown ’60, who composed the music for the 1960 Hasty Pudding Show “Run for the Money” and helped select materials for display. “When you walk into this exhibit … it brings the past alive.”

In one corner of the lobby, a group of 1947 Pudding actors peer intently at a dressing room mirror as they apply costume makeup for the evening’s show. On another wall, actresses from the 1909 Radcliffe Idler Club enact a scene from “The Merchant of Venice.” Next to the box office door, John Lithgow ’67 takes the stage in a production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe.” Nearby, a group of live horses prance across the Harvard Stadium in a 1906 Class Day production of “Agamemnon” by Aeschylus.

“Harvard has a unique theatrical history among the world’s universities, and by means of this exhibition it is possible to give some idea of the many traditions and events that have contributed to this history,” says Fredric Wilson, curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection in the Houghton Library.

The blue-green walls of the lobby not only provide a startling backdrop for the display, but also add their own voice to the narrative of Harvard theater. The color used here, “peacock blue,” is the same as the color used for the walls in 1888. Leers Weinzapfel Associates, the architectural firm handling the reconstruction, scraped through layers of old paint to find and reproduce the original hue.

The exhibit continues throughout the building. Near the lounge, a silk-screen poster advertises “The Rockets’ Red Blare,” a 1972 pop opera written by James Yannatos, conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. Near the black box rehearsal space, photographs of stage rehearsals dating back to 1939 remind current students that the tradition of long hours and late nights has very deep roots.

A large collection of photographs traces the history of the Learning From Performers series, an initiative that allows undergraduates to work closely with luminaries in the arts. From Neil Simon to the Blue Man Group, the photographs demonstrate Harvard’s commitment to providing learning opportunities for young artists.

“The New College Theatre encourages student organizations and groups to achieve the highest level of learning and performance, but it also highlights the connection that Harvard has to the wider theatrical community,” Weinberg says.

The Harvard Krokodiloes and the Radcliffe Pitches, two of Harvard’s oldest a cappella groups, are also featured in a special display. Both organizations maintain offices in the New College Theatre. Highlights of the display include an image of the Krokodiloes performing with Ella Fitzgerald, and a copy of an original work by Leonard Bernstein ’39 written specially for the Krokodiloes.

Most of the images on display are high-quality reproductions of material found in the Harvard Theatre Collection and the Harvard Archives. Jane Knowles, librarian at the Schlesinger Library, provided images from the Radcliffe College Archives.

Officers of the Harvard Krokodiloes, the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club all contributed original materials or provided counsel on the exhibit.

Weinberg, Wilson, and Brown collaborated with a special committee of the Office for the Arts to select the final pieces for display, and Harvard Imaging Services managed the printing process.