The longtime head of the University of Delaware’s theatre department is retiring after his theater’s budget was cut more than 50%.
Sanford “Sandy” Robbins, who has been working at UD for 32 years, will lead the theater program through one more school year, leaving Aug. 31, 2022.
A driving force behind his announcement was the administration’s decision during the pandemic to cut his budget to $2 million from closer to $5 million, he said. That forced the lay off the majority of his 30-person theater staff, leaving only a handful of workers.
“You know I was thinking about retirement anyhow, but that kind of put the icing on the cake, so to speak,” Robbins said.
Those laid off included administrators, the entire costume shop, prop makers, lighting designers, set builders, front of office staff and more. Several staff members took early retirement rather than be laid off.
He had tried to help save jobs at the start of the pandemic by having costume, set and prop designers make face masks and face shields distributed to various groups. Ultimately, though, the University decided it couldn’t keep people on the payroll who were not doing the job for which they were hired.
“Now there’s no money to bring them back,” Robbins said.
The cuts mean the theater, which usually has a season of six or seven shows, will only have two to three shows a year, until the budget can be restored. In 2022, the indoor shows are expected to include a new play written by Theresa Rebeck. She has written four plays for the theater, including “O Beautiful,” “Fever,” “The Bells” and “Maritius.”
“We hope it’s going to build back over time,” Robbins said.
The budget cuts will mean that the theater can’t bring in the likes of directors Tracy Letts, who did “August: Osage Orange,” Ben Barnes, who did “The Seafarer,” or Maria Aitken, who did “Twelfth Night,” “Tartuffe” and “Heartbreak House.”
“For a period of time we will have to cut back on the outside talent we bring in, but I think that for the most part, although we’ll do many fewer plays, that the quality can be what it has,” Robbins said.
He is chair of UD’s Theatre Department and producing artistic director of the Resident Ensemble Players, a group of professional actors who teach and perform in season of top-notch productions.
Robbins also founded the university’s Professional Theatre Training Program, luring it from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to train actors, designers and back stage workers. Despite being consistently ranked among the 10 theatre training programs in America by U.S. News and World Report and one of the top 25 in the English-speaking world by Hollywood Reporter, that program was killed by former president Patrick Harker when he took office in 2007.
The REP Theater’s 13 seasons have included seven new adaptations of classic plays, five world premieres of plays written expressly for the REP, and, during the pandemic, seven new audio plays and a Zoom play. These productions have featured the REP’s resident actors, guest actors from the top tier of the profession, and some of the world’s foremost directors and designers.
Its productions have won awards and Robbins himself was awarded the 2019 John Houseman Award for contributions to the American theater.
One of the theatre’s goals was to expand audiences for live theatre by offering a variety of productions at low prices to enable attendance regardless of income. Tickets cost $25 to $40 a show.
Robbins said UD isn’t trying to end the theater program or Resident Ensemble Players season.
“The university doesn’t want to lose the REP. They want to have it. They’ve made that very, very clear and I believe them,” Robbins said. “They just want to have far less. Everybody would like to have a wonderful, wonderful theater and not have it cost much. But that’s a fantasy.”
He acknowledges that UD took a huge financial hit because of the pandemic, which officials have said was going to create a $250 million deficit. The university pulled $100 million out of its endowment to help make ends meet, and has received millions in federal and state COVID-19 relief.
“We’re clearly not the priority we would have liked to be,” Robbins said.
The actors who make up the REP troupe all teach a class as well as work in the theater. During the pandemic, when they couldn’t perform on stage, they all taught two classes while doing online fall productions. They will again offer four online productions this fall: “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Votetrickery: A Spoken Word Symphony” and “A Christmas Carol.”
Robbins said he didn’t think the world was ready for indoor shows in the fall, and that it’s too expensive to set up the lighting, sound and stage for outdoor productions.
Only one actor left the REP troupe, to seek most exposure on stage than one to three shows a season will allow, but the majority stayed.
“I’m thrilled about that because that group of actors is as good a group of actors as any in the country,” Robbins said. “They really are. They’re just outstanding. And they’re here, so I think that gives a cause for optimism.”
In addition to performing on stage, several in the troupe also write their own plays and direct shows.
Robbins said the theater cannot go out and raise money for its own programs. All development work is prioritized by the university, with focus set by the administration.
Even though he’s leaving, Robbins doesn’t plan to quit work.
“I’m only retiring from UD. I’m not retiring from the theater,” Robbins said. “I hope to direct players around the country. You know there are some theaters I’m confident would like to have my services and so I’m looking forward to being a freelance director.”
After he leaves the campus, he will be on a routine retirement leave from August 2023 until August 2024, a version of a sabbatical that he’s never taken.
Steve Tague, a founding member of the REP acting company, frequent REP director and Theatre Department faculty member will serve as interim producing artistic director of the REP and chair of the Theatre Department from 2022-23 as UD decides what it wants to do with the department and the theater.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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