Thrusting forward: Caplins offer UVA a new theater

onarch-caplintheater-aA rendering of UVA's new Ruth Caplin Theatre.
Willam Rawn Associates

Last month, UVA held a ceremonial ground-breaking at the future site of the Ruth Caplin Theatre, a three hundred-seat, 20,500 square-foot "thrust stage" theater that will rise beside the Culbreth Theater on Culbreth Road–- courtesy of Ruth Caplin, 89, and husband, Mortimer Caplin, 94, who donated $4 million for the $13.5 million addition to the Drama Building and whose lives have been as drama-filled as the plays and films they hope to nurture.

UVA alum and former law school prof Mortimer Caplin is a legend in legal circles, a still-practicing tax lawyer who served as IRS Commissioner during the Kennedy Administration and briefly into the Johnson White House, during which time he made the cover of Time magazine. As a law prof at UVA, he taught future U.S. Senators Ted and Robert Kennedy. And he's a lover of the arts, it seems.

Indeed, back in his UVA student days in the 1930s Caplin was president of the Virginia Players, and appeared in a number of UVA productions, including the title role in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

"The theater will clearly advance artistic values cherished by UVA's founder, Thomas Jefferson–- music, dance, architecture, painting," said Caplin in remarks prepared for the October 21 event, which he attended with his wife. "It's our hope that it will enrich the studies of all University students, making the arts not only a part of their course work, but a part of their lives."

So what's a thrust theater? It has a stage that opens and extends into the audience, which allows theater-goers to watch the performance from three sides, allowing for more intimacy. In addition to theater productions, the facility will be used for dance performances, musical concerts, and film screenings.

Ruth and Mortimer Caplin.

UVA's Arts Grounds Complex has seen a spate of building over the past few years including a new studio art building, an arts commons, a still-rising 18,000 square-foot band rehearsal hall. There's even an expanded Drama Building lobby as part of the new theater construction, and an elaborate roof terrace made possible by a separate $1.6 million gift.

A tiered, amphitheater-like landscape in front of the Drama Building will also provide a unique setting for performances and special events. Design of the Ruth Caplin Theatre comes courtesy of Boston-based William Rawn Associates, with landscape design by the Olin studio out of Philadelphia.

onarch-caplintheater-2A thrust stage will thrust audiences into the action.
William Rawn Associates

Ruth Caplin, too, has a unique passion for the arts, which began when she worked as a fashion designer in New York City. However, in 2005, at the age of 85, she launched a new artistic career: screenwriter. In the 1970s, while grieving the loss of her daughter–- Mary Ellen Caplin, who died of pancreatic cancer–- Ruth Caplin immersed herself in a screen adaptation of British novelist Elizabeth Taylor's book Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which was eventually made into a 2005 film of the same name, starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend, and produced in part by the Caplins' son, Lee.

"I'm thrilled by the concept and design of the new thrust-stage theater available for dance, drama as well as film showings; and by its flexible sprung-floor stage so terribly important to dancers' feet and performance," said Ruth Caplin in her prepared remarks. "It will also answer the cry for more performance space for the University's exploding dance program."

"The new theater and the programs that will grow within it are the culminating events of a great love story," said former UVA president emeritus John Casteen, in his own prepared remarks. Casteen and his wife Betsy are the eponyms of the Arts Grounds.

Construction of the theatre is scheduled to begin in January.

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As a drama major who spent many hours in the shop and behind the scenes at Minor Hall, then later in a theater that shared the same 10-foot ceilings as the Va Players old home, I can only say that the greater the variety of experience that a progarm can offer, the better-prepared its graduates will be. Not every venue will be a proscenium stage with 60-foo fly space and electric winches. This new stage will present challenges to actors, directors, designers and epecially lighting designers that will prepare them for the real world. Thanks to the Caplins.

Teaching theater majors to take orders clockwise around the table starting at the top would probably be better preparation for the real world. Theory and practice of cash register operation might be handy too.