Stanford’s Summer Theater celebrates a milestone with its 15th anniversary

When Rush Rehm first embarked on an opportunity to begin a theatre festival at Stanford University, he did not plan to see that festival celebrating its 15th birthday this year.

“We didn’t have money for 15 years of anything,” said Rehm, the artistic director and founder. “We had money for one summer.”

Stanford Summer Theater is long past making it to year number two. It is a cultural mainstay on the idyllic Palo Alto campus, the brainchild of Rehm and what he calls an “article of faith.”

This year’s festival, entitled “He’s Funny That Way,” features the works of Irish dramatists Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. In addition to the full productions of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Beckett’s “Happy Days,” there is a film festival on “apocalyptic comedy,” a community symposium on both playwrights, and a class through the continuing studies program taught by Rehm.

Cecily (Jessica Waldman and Gwendolen (Ruth Marks) try to make sense out of the chaos in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Stanford Summer Theater. (Photo by  Stefanie Okuda)
Cecily (Jessica Waldman) and Gwendolen (Ruth Marks) try to make sense out of the chaos in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Stanford Summer Theater. (Photo by Stefanie Okuda)
Rush Rehm
Rush Rehm

The festival’s humble beginnings date back to 1997, when Rehm, a professor of Drama and Classics, was in search of another cultural opportunity for the campus in addition to the jazz festival that was already in full swing. Rehm’s hope was to create not just another series of plays, but a festival with intellectual content. A festival that allowed for actors to be paid and students to get invaluable professional experience was the mission.

The festival has been extremely eclectic in its themes, starting with that first festival, which featured the works of Anton Chekhov. The centerpiece of that festival was a full production of “Uncle Vanya,”where Rehm played Doctor Mikhail Lvovich Astrov.

Subsequent festivals have featured many classic playwrights, including Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco and Lorraine Hansberry. Ancient Greek playwrights have also received top billing in past festivals.

One thing the festival does not attempt to do is showcase new works. With the countless amount of great plays that have already been written, Rehm does not find a need to use the festival to launch a playwright’s career.

“We tend not to go looking for the new great American play or musical,” said Rehm. “We try to find classic playwrights or plays that are not done that often, and try to be innovative and intelligent in our programming.”

While some years were skipped in the early years, it wasn’t until 2002 where Rehm felt the festival had the momentum to sustain itself annually and for the foreseeable future.

“Stanford didn’t initially support it,” said Rehm. “There was no one on campus during the summer, but I felt we had a chance to bring a professional profile to Stanford.”

That confirmation was further solidified in 2005, when Rehm was able to get the support of the Vice-provost of undergraduate education. In addition to the actors being compensated, this allowed Rehm to fund students to handle all aspects of the festival. Add this to the support of Stanford’s continuing education program, and the pieces for long-term sustainability were finally, firmly in place.

“For the past ten years those departments have been ongoing supporters, and without them we just couldn’t work,” said Rehm. “

While the festival is on solid ground, it doesn’t mean that funding is a breeze. Rehm admits there is no possibility for corporate sponsorships, or even grants. So Rehm has to go out and find money, often asking for it in little and big dollops.

Still, Rehm is extremely proud of all the great work that has been done on the Stanford campus. He estimates that the festival attracts about 4,000 people each year throughout the various events.

Even though there is always the possibility of it all going away, Rehm is confident that every year at the end of the summer, he can certainly start working on the next festival.

“Everything has its own challenges, yet we have a small sense of accomplishment because we have survived and are sort of thriving,” said Rehm. “For me, this festival is more of an ongoing love with theatre that’s been going since college.

“In theatre, you start from scratch again and again, and then you find out what’s there and make it work.”


Stanford Summer Theater Festival presents “He’s Funny That Way”

Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”
July 18th – Aug. 11th
Pigott Theater

Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days”
Aug. 15th – Aug. 25th
Nitery Theater, Old Union
Tickets range from $15 to $25

For tickets and more information on scheduled events, call (650) 725-5838 or visit the festival’s official website.

Rush Rehm discusses the Electra Festival in 2009

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