Theatre grads from UCF's early days hold reunion
On June 10, dozens of actors, directors, costume designers and other denizens of the theater descended onto a small party venue in Winter Springs to reunite with one another. Despite the vivid experiences they shared long ago, many of them hadn’t seen each other in more than 40 years.
The reunion brought together former members of the theatre program at FTU, or Florida Technological University as UCF was originally named. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, students from several disciplines across the university participated in plays and musicals, which were overseen by professors but often driven by students.
Although Theatre UCF now holds its performances in a converted science auditorium, the university’s performing arts pioneers put on plays in a tent for the first four years of the program’s existence.
“I will never forget wearing only a toga on freezing winter nights in a tent for FTU’s inaugural production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus,” said Richard Belcher, who graduated from FTU in 1970 with a communications degree. Belcher returned to FTU in 1972 and served as fine arts production manager until 1977.
Belcher, who went on to assist in the scenic design of two Broadway shows, credits the FTU theater program with giving him valuable experience.
“I think the key lesson is that obstacles can be overcome in spite of skimpy budgets and ridiculous deadlines,” Belcher said. “It is truly amazing what a small, dedicated group can accomplish.”
The theater venue wasn’t the only thing about the university that has changed since these alumni attended.
“There were sand parking lots, palmetto bushes everywhere,” said Tara Buckley Googins, who graduated from FTU in 1976 and played the titular role in Hedda Gabler, the first student-directed play at the university. “You could park directly behind the science auditorium. You need a pack mule to get there now.”
Working in theater at FTU in the 1970s was memorable and unique for other reasons as well.
“I wore, if you see pictures, big bell-bottom jeans and embossed shirts and no bra, that was my uniform,” said Julia Sargis Gagne, who graduated from FTU in 1976. “I think [the Vietnam War] influenced the show choices. We did this play called Journey’s End that took place in the front lines during World War I. It took place in a bunker with the soldiers in their day-to-day living. I just think we did that to remind everybody, here we are at war.”
Many of those who attended the reunion expressed a kind of surprised gratitude that so many of them moved on to have successful careers in theater. Mary Monroe, who lives in Rhode Island and wasn’t able to physically attend the reunion, said the education she and her peers received in the FTU theater program exceeded expectations.
“If you were to compare FTU theater graduates from the earliest days to the mid-70s with well-known college and university theater programs around the country of the same time frame, the percentage of FTU graduates who went on to have careers in the performing arts was probably equal to any of the other schools, whose facilities, size, budgets, courses and alumni far exceeded FTU’s,” Monroe said.
Kim Kisling Johnson, who eventually graduated in the early 1980s after a stint at Disney, said she worked as an event coordinator at the Orange County Convention Center for nine years and met President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Hillary Clinton during her time there.
The reunion attendees met on a Friday evening, reminiscing about old experiences and sharing recent developments around drinks and catered food. Those who couldn’t attend in person were present via Skype on various laptops the reunion-goers visited from time to time. They cherished the rare opportunity to meet with friends from long ago.
“We all shared an extraordinary time in our lives and it was a blessing to have an opportunity to reconnect,” said theater alumna Mary Edenfield. “Sadly, we lost one of our dear friends last year, and that added to the sense that we need to get together while we can.”
Richard Eberle, who graduated in the early 1980s, said he went to the reunion to “let the students going [to UCF] now know that, 40 years from now, they can still be earning a living in the profession they love so much.”
Many of the theater graduates who attended the reunion felt as if they were revisiting a sense of camaraderie frozen in time.
“A part of my heart is in that theater and with the people that I shared all those memorable experiences with,” said Sally McArthur, who was involved in theater as an actor, carpenter, electrician and props mistress and graduated from UCF in 1979. “This reunion is a chance to revisit that special time with these special people.”
Alex Storer is the Entertainment Editor of the Central Florida Future. You can reach him at AlexanderS@centralfloridafuture.com.