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  October 12, 2004

Katter Theatre Provides New Venue For Performing Arts

The Nafe Katter Theatre, the latest addition to the University's stock of production theaters, adds another platform for aspiring student actors and professional actors working with the Connecticut Repertory Theatre to ply their trade.

Q & A With Nafe Katter
Image: Nafe Katter

Nafe Katter, professor emeritus of dramatic arts, poses for a portrait in the new theater that bears his name. The theater opened with a production of Julius Caesar.
Photo by Peter Morenus

The $4.5 million building, which bridges structures housing the School of Fine Arts and the Department of Dramatic Arts, is a 229-seat, 11,795-square-foot edifice. Featuring stadium seating on three sides of the stage - hence the term "thrust" to describe it - the theater also is the first major building on campus to be designed by a UConn employee.

The theatre officially opened Oct. 7 with much fanfare and a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Following the show, there was a discussion hosted by Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theatre in San Francisco's East Bay, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, and an authority on Shakespeare's plays. In addition to Moscone, members of the cast, design team, and director Gary English joined the discussion.

Funding for the building came through UConn 2000 ($3.5 million), and from Professor Emeritus Nafe Katter - a longtime drama professor who retired in 1997 - who donated $1 million toward the project.

Joe Leone, a registered architect who works in architectural and engineering services, led the in-house construction effort, which included two other employees from the same department - Suresh Amin and Michael Rocchetti. Amin, an electrical engineer, coordinated the layout of the building's electrical systems, and Rocchetti, a mechanical engineer, plotted the structure's mechanical systems.

The theatre's thrust stage configuration provides an intimate atmosphere, bringing the actors directly into the audience. The set-up is ideal for classical plays - such as the current production of Julius Caesar - and small contemporary productions.

UConn actors also work on the stage of the 493-seat Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre and the 116-seat Studio Theatre.

The Connecticut Repertory Theatre, part of the School of Fine Arts, is the professional producing arm of the Department of Dramatic Arts. CRT stages a variety of theater, from classic plays and musicals to premieres of the latest contemporary works, featuring some of the nation's top theater professionals on stage with the department's most promising students.

The CRT opened the doors on the theatre Thursday, with a contemporary production of Shakespeare's greatest political play, Julius Caesar. Directed by Gary M. English, CRT's artistic director and a professor of dramatic arts, this Julius Caesar is described as freshly interpreted from a contemporary human rights point of view. It features six Actors' Equity guest artists, including three alumni of UConn's master of fine arts acting program who are now successful professional actors.

Performances run through Oct. 17, Wednesday through Sunday. The Wednesday and Thursday evening performances start at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m.

Tickets and information are available at the Box Office at 860.486.4226.

Q & A With Nafe Katter

Nafe Katter, professor emeritus of dramatic arts, donated $1 million toward the construction of the new theater, named in his honor, that was dedicated last weekend. Skye Dent interviewed him earlier this year for the Advance.

Image: Nafe Katter Theatre

The Nafe Katter Theatre
Photo by Peter Morenus

Q. Will you talk a bit about your theatrical training?
A. I trained at the University of Michigan. I got a Ph.D. in theater there. I came to UConn to teach because I wanted to work every day in the theater and I felt that was the best way to do that.

Q. What was your first job here as a professor?
A. My first job was in the arts department, only at that time, it was speech and drama. We were in the College of Arts and Sciences [the forerunner to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences]. A few years after I came here, speech and drama split off from arts and sciences and joined the School of Fine Arts, with music and art. The School of Fine Arts did not exist at first. I came in 1957, and in 1961 the School of Fine Arts was founded, and we then became a department. I taught a whole variety of courses, stage makeup, acting, history of theater, and a range of voice and diction courses, and I directed four productions a year.

Q. You took on a lot of responsibility.
A. Well, we were a small department. There were only five of us. We were housed in temporary Quonset huts. Over the next 10 years, we expanded significantly.

Q. What kept you here all those years?
A. I kept thinking, I'm here on the ground floor, building a program from scratch. And I thought, if I were to go anywhere else, it would have to be somewhere that would be as challenging and as potentially exciting. And the fact that we were a professionally -oriented school was very appealing because it meant that I could go off and do professional gigs. So I went to Miami to the Coconut Grove playhouse to direct a show there. I went to Indiana Rep in Indianapolis to do Thomas Beckett in Murder in the Cathedral. And I worked in the Nutmeg for 10 years as a professional director and actor, working with some of the best actors in the professional world. It was an exciting time. I had everything I wanted. Why go elsewhere?

Q. What does that mean, that the drama program is professionally-oriented?
A. Here in the School of Fine Arts, in the Department of Dramatic Arts, we are encouraged to do professional work, because that is the equivalent of publishing in other fields. So, rather than writing a book, we are allowed to go out and do professional productions, as designers, as actors, as directors, because that keeps our professional hands in and we are, as a result, more critical to our students working in the profession. And I think it adds to the University's stature as well, that there are artists who are working professionals teaching. It's a real attraction for recruitment and for training.

Q. Is there a community outside of UConn that appreciates the performances?
A. On the ground, it doesn't seem like it is heavily populated because it's a rural area. But if you go up in the air about a thousand feet and look down, you can see that there are a lot of towns in the area besides Hartford, not to mention the 11,000 people who live on campus. So, the theater program services them, as well as people from outlying cities and towns.

Q. Why did you decide to give a million dollars to build a theater?
A. I wanted to encourage other people to think about theater as contributors, as benefactors. Oftentimes, the theater is the last institution to get that kind of support. I thought by making my contribution, I could get the pot boiling. Also, it's a thrust stage, which means it stands out into the audience. The audience sits around it on three sides. So, it is a much more intimate venue. We have not had that kind of space. Over the past 25 years, this thrust style, which alters the actor-audience relationship, has become very popular. So most of the wonderful new resident theaters, like the Godfrey in Minneapolis and so many others, are built as thrust theaters. I wanted our actors to have that kind of experience.

Q. A million dollars is a lot of money. How can an actor, who is not a Hollywood star, realize his or her acting dreams and make that kind of money?
A. Acquire property. That was the key. In 1977, I bought a flat in London in South Kensington, a very nice area. I bought it very inexpensively. And when I sold it a couple of years ago, it had appreciated enormously. I sold a condo in Florida that I had. And I sold a cottage that my father left me in Michigan on Lake Huron. So, selling all these properties, I was able to put that money together.

Q. Do you have any second thoughts about selling those properties?
A. I never really wanted to own anything more than I could carry around in my bag.

Q. How much input did you have in the design of the theater?
A. There were only two things I insisted on. One was having a trap under the stage so that actors could come up from below the stage. That's very important, especially in the classics and in Shakespeare. And the other thing I insisted on was dressing rooms in the theater, connected to the theater. It would have been a long walk indeed, especially in the cold, for the actors to walk to a dressing room from a separate building.

Q. Do you ever think about coming back and teaching?
A. I miss the students enormously. I miss the teaching. I miss my colleagues. But I did it for 40 years. That's enough. I think it's time for someone else.