The New York Times
July 28, 1985

   Theater Students Earn Equity Points at Vassar This Summer

Written by Nan Robertson

The burning subject at Vassar this summer is theater.

The Double Image Theater, an Off Off Broadway company, has begun its first season of summer repertory here in an idyllic, unpressured setting, polishing and presenting a classic and two new plays at the Hallie Flanagan Davis Powerhouse Theater.  The new plays will be taken to New York City in the fall.  In exchange, Double Image's professionals and members of Vassar's drama faculty are teaching theater arts to 31 apprentices picked during auditions last spring.

The theater students from colleges throughout the United States and Canada are earning both college credits and Actors Equity points toward union membership.  In addition, they are getting on-the-job training from professional actors, directors, playwrights and stage managers who, one student said, seemed as ''distant as gods'' before.  The cost of all of this for each apprentice, including room and board, is $2,300 for seven weeks.

Vassar is footing half the projected production deficit of $60,000 and lending its underused facilities, from the theater to dormitories and carpenter shops.  Earned income, including theater tickets, will make up the rest of the $130,000 summer repertory budget.  "It would be much more difficult to accomplish this alone," said Leslie Urdang, Double Image's managing director.

The professionals say they are energized by all the eager neophytes.  The head of Vassar's drama department, Evert Sprinchorn, who has taught dramatic literature "from the Greeks to Pinter" to such Vassar alumnae as Meryl Streep and Frances Sternhagen, is impressed by the apprentices.  He calls them ''bolder and more focused'' than his typical Vassar student.

"I can't really pinpoint yet what I'm learning, but I'm learning a lot," said Catherine McNally, a graduate of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.  Stephen Weser, from Incarnate Word College in San Antonio, says the Vassar experience "is all about watching."  Many feel that simply getting to know the professionals, observing them onstage and backstage as well as listening to them in class, seems more immediately valuable than what they are learning from Vassar's professors.  "We're all in college anyhow," explained Marsha Carlson of the University of Pittsburgh, who prefers to be called by her nickname, George.

The apprentices' pet teacher appears to be Mary McDonnell, an intense and affectionate actress who originated the role of Shelly in Sam Shepard's ''Buried Child.''

The trainees agreed that their most direct, practical and widespread involvement had come earlier this month with Double Image's inaugural play at Vassar's Powerhouse theater - Giradoux's classic "Ondine."  Directed by Andrei Belgrader and starring Erica Gimpel and Joseph Siravo, it was an elaborate production with a cast of 24 in 35 roles.

Eighteen apprentices performed and the crew of 22 included 16 apprentices.  (Some of the neophyte actors also doubled on crew.)  In addition, in three original cabaret shows and three staged readings, students are acting, designing, directing, building sets, making costumes and hanging lights alongside the professionals.

The new plays being presented at Vassar's Powerhouse Theater are "Savage in Limbo" by John Patrick Shanley - whose "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" was presented Off Broadway last year - and "Filthy Rich" by George F. Walker, directed by Max Mayer.  Mr. Mayer is Double Image's artistic director and the son of its founder and executive director, the former Broadway actress Helen Waren Mayer.  The last performance of "Savage" is at 7 P.M. today.  "Filthy Rich" opens Wednesday at 8 P.M. and runs for six performances, through next Sunday.

A few apprentices said they had never heard of "some of the names dropped" during auditions by Carol Ostrow, a Vassar drama graduate who is the Powerhouse Theater's producing director.  "But," one said, "Now we do."  They have become acquainted, for instance, with the reputation of Mark Linn-Baker.  Mr. Linn-Baker, the director of "Savage in Limbo," appeared on Broadway in "Doonesbury," played the young Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth's TV adaptation of his own novel "The Ghost Writer," and starred with Peter O'Toole in the film "My Favorite Year."

Double Image will take the two plays back to New York with casts, sets and costumes all honed and ready to open in September at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, 304 West 47th Street.

Both the apprentices and the professionals say that living and working together for all these weeks has formed tight and intense relationships within each group.  "It's much less competitive than school," said Lauryn Axelrod of Bennington College in Vermont.

"Nobody here wants anybody to fail," added Mary-Louise Gemmill of Bellevue College in Seattle.  "And we are getting experience.  I've been an apprentice before, and I never got past picking up cigarette butts in the theater parking lot."