History of the Department
Vassar has a long and distinguished history in drama, dating back to the early 1900s. We were the first among what were once called the “Seven Sisters” colleges to establish a formal Department of Drama. It was created through the efforts of Gertrude Buck, who started the Vassar Dramatic Workshop in 1916; Winifred Smith, who established the Division of Drama in 1938; and Hallie Flanagan Davis, who began producing plays in 1927 for the Experimental Theater of Vassar College. Davis is an especially important member of this early group of distinguished faculty. She was a dynamic and talented woman who became famous in the 1930’s for her “Living Newspaper” productions. While teaching at Vassar, Davis was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to direct the Federal Theater Project as part of the WPA. The Department of Drama carries on the innovative work of these pioneering women and still produces productions as the Experimental Theater of Vassar College. The Department's academic strength is evident in its liberal arts approach to the study of drama, integrating areas of history and literature, with an expectation that both students and faculty will produce powerful and vigorously experimental works.
While at Vassar, Davis used the stage that had been constructed in 1918 in Avery Hall, a building that had originally been built as the Calisthenium and college Riding Academy in 1866. Avery Hall had served as the Department of Drama's primary residence until its recent extensive renovation in 2003. Cesar Pelli’s design for the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film is a bold architectural exercise, and accomplishing it required exceptional planning and execution. While the bulk of the original building, in somewhat precarious condition, was carefully demolished and excavation for a larger building was completed, the original front section—Second Empire towers and Lombard Romanesque façade—was stabilized and painstakingly restored. The result, in the new building’s interior, is a commodious and graceful lobby for the new 330-seat proscenium theater; outside, the new building turns the dialogue between 19th century architectural styles into a three-way conversation reflective, according to the architect, of the "state of the performing arts today."
From the very beginning, the Department of Drama has been graced with talented, creative, and energetic students who have become dedicated theater artists. Edna St. Vincent Millay began her playwriting career at Vassar, and talented actors like Meryl Streep, Frances Sternhagen, Lisa Kudrow, and John Tenny are among the college's graduates. Many other recent graduates are enjoying successful careers as actors, directors, designers, and writers and several have formed their own theater companies that continue to produce exciting, innovative, and inspiring theatrical work.