John Miller Stephany wasn’t ready to abandon ship. He is directing the last production scheduled for the University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat, which is expected to be shuttered this fall.
“Under the Gaslight,” which opens Friday at Harriet Island in St. Paul, concludes a tradition that began in 1958 with university students and staff producing summer melodramas on the boat. The university announced its decision this spring but Miller Stephany said he had just begun to fight.
“I am extremely distressed that this is the showboat’s farewell season,” the director said. “It is a major mistake by the College of Liberal Arts and the Theatre Department. The showboat distinguished the department from others and I believe it to be unique and special.”
The school has blamed a decline in ticket sales and indicated an interest in shifting resources to more contemporary work.
Miller Stephany said he understands money is tight but that the showboat is the university’s best theatrical brand.
“It would be like the Guthrie not doing ‘Christmas Carol,’ ” said Miller Stephany, who was associate artistic director under Joe Dowling at the Guthrie.
Dozens of actors who work both in the Twin Cities and nationally have gone through the showboat. The program offered prospective students something they rarely get in college — a chance to work in a long run (60 performances this summer) and get paid for doing it.
“It’s a unique training opportunity,” said Lance Brockman, the former department head who helped build and open a new boat in 2002, after the original burned during a rehab effort.
The new boat sold out the first two seasons and attendance leveled at 85 percent for many years, Brockman said.
“In the first three years we were able to, above expenses, pay off $250,000 in debt,” Brockman said.
Recent years have been rougher. Flooding washed out much of the 2014 season, and the following year finances were blamed for a decision to again not produce.
When the 2015 season cancellation was announced, current department head Marcus Dilliard said, “Showboat losses have a significant impact on the department’s ability to create performance opportunities for our students in our West Bank facilities.”
Who’s on latrine duty?
“Doc” Frank Whiting, the legendary department head, brought the old J.M. Newton showboat upriver and established a 200-seat theater on the east bank of the Mississippi River. The boat opened in 1958 with, appropriately enough for this season, “Under the Gaslight.”
Shirley Venard, a longtime actor and voice talent in the Twin Cities, was in that cast.
“We did 106 performances and we took the boat down to Red Wing and Winona,” Venard said. “In Red Wing, people lined up at the dock to welcome us. We were not just actors, we were emissaries.”
The boat ran on sweat equity. Venard helped clean a greasy engine and she and Bain Boehlke had latrine duty. And she loved it.
“Those times were magical,” said Venard. “I was so happy then.”
The department was nationally regarded, with Whiting’s colleagues Bob Moulton, Arthur Ballet, Charles Nolte, Wendell Josal and Lee Adey.
“The showboat was Doc’s first heaven,” said Venard. “He was not easy to work with but his wisdom was expert.”
Against the current
University productions were reviewed routinely in those days as there was little professional theater (other than the Old Log). Whiting, the story is often told, was critical in getting Tyrone Guthrie here in 1963 and the rest is history.
The showboat’s brand is melodrama and olios. Moulton originally directed the olios — quick, delightful musical numbers from Americana.
“The olios were everything,” Brockman said.
The question for the university is whether the boat represents a time that hasn’t caught up to the 21st century.
Miller Stephany wasn’t taking any prisoners there, either.
“People who dismiss melodramas are elitist,” he said. “Most of the work today is plot-driven rather than character-driven, and that’s what melodrama is — plot.”