Interview of Roy H. Bowen by Jeannette Sexton
Creators:Bowen, Roy H., 1912-
Subjects (LCSH):Ohio State University. Dept. of Theatre -- History
Theater -- Ohio -- Columbus -- History
Bowen, Roy H., 1912- -- Interviews
Ohio State University -- History -- Sources
Performing arts -- Ohio -- Columbus -- History
National Repertory Theatre
American Playwrights Theatre
MetadataShow full item record
Publisher:Ohio State University Archives
Series/Report no.:Ohio State University. University Archives Oral History Program. Ohio State University Oral History Project
Dr. Bowen, Professor of Theatre, and director of more than 140 productions, most of them at OSU, first discovered his interest in theatre and drama while a student at Canal Winchester High School. He pursued these interests more avidly at Otterbein College. After graduation he taught high school in Columbus until he was drafted during World War II; in fact, he was the first Columbus school teacher drafted. His five years in the army were a diversion from theatre, but under the GI Bill he decided to go to Ohio State to pursue a Ph.D. Here he was influenced by Dr. John McDowell, “a great teacher.” An even greater influence on his emerging career was Margo Jones, a key innovator in what was then considered a new concept, that of the Theatre-in-the-Round. At the time “the idea of people seated on four sides of a stage seemed strange, but it doesn’t seem strange at all now.” (p. 2). Dr. Bowen wrote his doctoral dissertation on audience response to theatre-in-the round. The Stadium Theatre opened in 1950 under Gate 10 of the Stadium. The first production was “The Silver Whistle.” The plays were usually presented before sold out houses during the eight-week summer season, despite the distractions of occasional rough weather, airplanes flying over, and the occasional flop. Sometimes actors were recruited from the outside community as from the Players Theatre. Among his favorite productions were “Of Mice and Men, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and “The King and I.” A local critic described the production of their first musical, “Of Thee I Sing” as “the worst disaster since the death of Mozart!” Later the summer theatre moved into a nice, air-conditioned theatre, but this seemed less exciting than the open air one at the stadium. Dr. Bowen replaced John Dietrich as Director of Theatre for several years, and also as Chairman of the Department. He chose to give up administrative duties when Theatre was moved to the College of the Arts, and to concentrate instead on directing plays. Dr. Novice Fawcett was very supportive, and attended most of the productions. Dr. Osborne Fuller, Dean of the Arts College, was also extremely helpful. One major disappointment was when the university refused to grant Bob Hope an honorary degree despite letters of support from Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson. The reason cited for the refusal was that Bob Hope didn’t have academic responsibility. Yet the next year SMU granted an honorary degree to Bob Hope who reciprocated when he built SMU a theatre. There was much collaboration with other departments, especially dance and music, when musicals were staged. It started with “South Pacific.” The second musical was “Show Boat” in the new Mershon Auditorium. It played there one night and six hours later the ceiling fell down. Many people would have been killed had the ceiling collapsed during the play. The first operetta was “Merry Widow.” Other musical productions were “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” and “West Side Story.” In general plays that had been hits on Broadway were the most popular and profitable, but plays of Shakespeare, Cheklov, and Moliere were also presented. “Tartuffe” was a huge success, as were also “The Imaginary Invalid” and “The Admirable Crichton.” Some of the graduates of the Ohio State Theatre program went on to successful careers in the academic world. These included Barry Witham, Reuben Silver, Charles Doddrill, Joe Garry, and Burt Russell. Dr. Bowen next discusses the impact of drama and theatre departments on academic life, especially at OSU. Successful productions require cooperation of the various participants both onstage and behind and this is sometimes difficult to achieve. Jealousies and rivalries intrude. Live theatre offers a sense of immediacy not seen in any other artistic venue. The “real vitality of American theatre,” once embodied by Broadway productions, “is not now in New York but in college campuses and resident theatres.” (p. 8). Today Broadway offers “nothing but “revivals.” Among the many outstanding regional or resident theatres now flourishing today include the Shakespeare Festival in Oregon, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Stratford Theatre in Canada. The Players Club which lasted for 70 years but is now disbanded, was important in Dr. Bowen’s career. He was there for ten years, and directed many of its productions, sometimes five a year plus others at OSU. The Players Club performed in a theatre on Franklin Avenue built for $25,000 in 1923 using bricks from torn-down Central High School. It began as a “little theatre,” but after 25 years it was converted into a “community theatre.” Its demise was a great disappointment. On campus Ohio State hosted a number of productions offered by the National Repertory Theatre. Many of these productions were in the formative or writing stages. The idea was to do try-outs at Ohio State and elsewhere and hopefully move on to Broadway. Unfortunately few of these productions did well on Broadway and eventually the whole thing failed. Some of the performers gave lectures or workshops while on campus at OSU, including Margaret Webster, Eva Le Gallienne, and Earth Kitt. The American Playwrights Theatre was a great success at Ohio State. Several distinguished playwrights, including Lawrence and Lee, Robert Anderson, and Paddy Chayevsky offered new plays. The greatest success was “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” which had over 140 productions in two years at Ohio State. For a time it was the most produced play in the world. [Bowen doesn’t say so, but I believe this was co-written by Lawrence and Lee. They may have been OSU graduates although again Bowen doesn’t say so.] As it happened this play was presented at the same time as the famous Kent State riots and shootings. Given that a major theme of the play was protest against governmental injustice it had an unexpected relevance. Burt Russell, an OSU graduate, offered one of his new plays [unfortunately not named] which got superb reviews. Memorably it “had one scene where a girl was topless and that was kind of revolutionary for Ohio’s taste.” Certainly the girl’s father, a retired general, thought so. It was discovered that “night after night about 10:00 there would be little faces at the window” as the girl rehearsed this scene. Eileen Heckart, another OSU graduate, did several plays at Ohio State from time to time, including “The Little Foxes” at the Stadium Theatre. Reuben Silver, another OSU graduate, was instrumental in founding Karama Theatre, the black theatre Cleveland. After fifteen very successful years, during which he directed many plays, he was fired. He was told “You’re a fine director, there’s no complaint about your work. But you have one fault. You’re white.” This was a “heart break” for Silver. But he continued his great career at Cleveland State University. Not surprisingly Dr. Bowen was recently honored for his “contributions to Ohio State University and the community for outstanding work in play directing” by having a theatre named for him, The Roy Bowen Theatre. [Evidently this theatre is located in Columbus although the transcript does not indicate its precise location.] Finally Dr. Bowen discusses the success of CATCO, the successor to Players Theatre, in Columbus. Dr. Bowen emphasizes his gratitude for a satisfying and long-lasting career at Ohio State.
John McDowell: "a great teacher," and founder of the OSU Theatre Program (p. 2) -- Margo Jones: "a great lady," originator of "Theatre in the Round" or "arena" theatre (p. 2) -- John Dietrich: Director of the OSU Theatre program before Roy Bowen (pp. 4-5) -- Novice Fawcett (p. 4) -- Osborne Fuller: Dean of the Arts College (p. 4) -- Bob Hope: entertainer who was refused an honorary degree by Ohio State (p. 5) -- Evan Whallon: conductor, who "taught me everything I know" about opera (p. 6) -- Barry Witham: OSU grad who taught theatre at University of Oregon (p. 6) -- Reuben and Dorothy Silver: OSU grads, actors and directors (pp. 6-7, 13) -- Charles Doddrill: OSU grad who "has done a great deal for Otterbein." (p. 7) -- Joe Garry: OSU grad and important in music circles in Cleveland (p. 7) -- Burt Russell: OSU grad, playwright, and a departmental chair (pp. 7, 10) -- Margaret Webster: director. Involved with National Repertory Theatre (p. 9) -- Eva Le Galliene: actress, who gave a few classes at OSU. "Difficult." (p. 9) -- Eartha Kitt: singer and performer, guest lecturer who used shocking language in lecture (p. 9) -- Lawrence, and Lee, playwrights (pp. 10-11) Woody Hayes: (pp. 10-11) -- Eileen Heckart: Distinguished actress, and OSU grad. (p. 12) -- Geoff Nelson: OSU grad, and manager of CATCO Theatre in Columbus (p. 14)
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