October 19, 2010 — Performers, crews and patrons alike will be the beneficiaries of the new $13.5 million addition to the Drama Building, which will house the Ruth Caplin Theatre. Before the doors open and curtains rise, the University of Virginia will hold a ceremonial, invitation-only groundbreaking on Oct. 21.
The event heralds the start of the latest structure to emerge on the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, vice provost for the arts, said. "It is an element of the University's master plan to embrace a comprehensive vision for providing improved facilities for fine and performing arts programs," she said. "The entire University and the community benefit from each addition to the Arts Grounds."
The scope of the project includes a 300-seat theater, dressing rooms and back-of-house support spaces, an expanded Drama Building lobby, expansion of the existing lobby restrooms and a roof terrace.
"The addition represents an important extension of the Drama Department's performance spaces and program offerings," said Meredith Jung-En Woo, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. "When they enter its doors, guests will immediately sense that they have arrived at a major center for the performing arts that takes seriously its twin missions of educating artists and engaging the local arts community."
A focus of the addition is the Ruth Caplin Theatre, named in honor of Ruth Sacks Caplin, wife of Mortimer Caplin, an alumnus of the College of Arts & Sciences and School of Law. Ruth Caplin is the screenwriter of the motion picture "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont." The award-winning film was produced by the Caplins' son, Lee, a member of U.Va.'s Law School class of 1972. It premiered at the 2005 Virginia Film Festival. The Caplins' two other sons are also University alumni. Michael graduated from the law school in 1976 and Jeremy earned a master of fine arts degree from the College in 1980.
University President Teresa A. Sullivan recognized the Caplins for "a lifetime of extraordinary dedication to furthering the goals of the University.
"The Caplins' gift is a reflection of their desire to assist the University in raising the profile of the performing arts here, as well as their great love of the fine and performing arts," she said.
Mortimer Caplin said the Ruth Caplin Theatre will advance the artistic values cherished by Thomas Jefferson. "It is 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," he said.
Caplin, a past member of the University's Board of Visitors and former professor of law at U.Va., is a founding partner of the law firm Caplin & Drysdale in Washington, D.C., and served as IRS commissioner during the Kennedy Administration. His interest in drama goes back to his student days in the 1930s, when he was president of the Virginia Players.
The Caplins are longtime University benefactors. In addition to generous contributions to the law school, they have funded numerous visiting artists over the years and gave $4 million to fund the theater, in which dance, film and drama will be presented. The Caplins' gift was matched by the Arts Grounds Challenge Fund, provided by an anonymous donor to help bring important aspects of the Arts Grounds to completion.
Passionate champions of the arts at U.Va., the Caplins together were instrumental in the creation of the University's Council for the Arts.
"Many donors bring powerful personal motives to their decisions to give," said John T. Casteen III, president emeritus of U.Va. "Together, the Caplins have backed drama, dance and the arts generally at the University and nationally. They know what excellence is, and they know what it takes to foster it."
He added, "The new theater and the programs that will grow within it are the culminating events of a great love story – the Caplins' affection for the arts and the University, and for arts in the University, their love for each other, and now Mort's determination to recognize Ruth by giving her name to this theater."
The Ruth Caplin Theatre will complement the Drama Department's current performance spaces, the 595-seat Culbreth Theater with its proscenium stage and the 200-seat Helms Theatre, a flexible performance space. The new theater is designed to be flexible for drama, dance and film and expands the capacities of the Drama Department.
The new performance space will feature a thrust stage, which will be surrounded on three sides by the audience. The thrust stage, with its open arrangement, draws the audience into the experience.
"I'm thrilled by the concept and design of the new thrust-stage theater available for dance, drama as well as film showings," Ruth Caplin said. "And its flexible sprung-floor stage is so terribly important to dancers' feet and performance. Happily, it will also answer the cry for more performance space for the University's exploding dance program."
Thomas Bloom, Drama Department chairman, said the theater will provide "a unique and dynamic performing arts space that will thrust our audiences into an intimate and engaging relationship with actors and dancers who will appear on that stage."
In addition to the thrust theater, the building's design includes the Laura and John Chadwick Rooftop Terrace, funded by a $1.6 million gift from drama alumna Laura Chadwick and her husband. It is envisioned as a sculpture garden that could be used for pre-event receptions. The David Weiss greenroom, made possible by a gift from Paul Junger Witt, a 1963 U.Va. alumnus and Hollywood producer, honors his former, now retired drama professor.
A new lobby space will serve the Caplin, Culbreth and Helms theaters and will integrate the new structure with the existing building.
A tiered landscape in front of the building will provide an amphitheater-like setting for outdoor gatherings and performances.
"The new theater and its roof terrace and expansive lobby will fit carefully into the enhanced arts commons," David Neuman, architect for the University, said. "When experienced in concert with the grassy terrace being developed next to the new Band Rehearsal Hall and the existing wooded slope below Campbell Hall, it will become one of U.Va.'s most special outdoor landscapes."
In addition to the Caplin, Chadwick and Witt gifts and the Arts Grounds Challenge, project funding is provided by the Betsy and John Casteen Challenge.
Construction is scheduled to begin in January, pending approval of the design by the Board of Visitors.