Final Curtain Call for Strider Theater

Arts5 min. read

First opened in 1976, the beloved theater’s final production paid homage to its rich history

Cast at curtain call
Performers take a bow at the final dress rehearsal of Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl in Strider Theater. The performance was the last at the beloved Strider Theater on the weekend of the 46th anniversary of its dedication.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
May 8, 2023

The final production in Colby’s Strider Theater was at once a celebration, a reunion, and a farewell. As such, joy and jubilance—tinged with nostalgia and melancholy—prevailed. During the final curtain call, the cast savored its farewell bow and the audience rose in appreciation, tears cascading over smiling lips.

After 46 years, the era of Strider Theater had come to an end.

The last show beneath its classic proscenium arch was a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, a feminist retelling of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Seven alumni returned to Mayflower Hill and joined current students, Director John Ervin, and the Department of Performance, Theater, and Dance for two memorable performances April 28 and 29.

Ella Abisi ’25 and Lance Parker ’23 perform as Eurydice and Opheaus the opening scene of their final dress rehearsal.

From the cast to the artistic team to the commemorative playbill to special guests, the final show honored the history of the venerated on-campus theater, a venue for experimentation, self-expression, activism, and entertainment since 1976.

With Eurydice, Ervin wanted to tug at people’s heartstrings, “to find the catharsis lurking beneath the surface,” he said before the performance. “Everybody is coming here to say farewell.”

And come they did, filling both performances with an overwhelming desire to be a part of the historic moment. As excitement builds for this fall’s opening of the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, the weekend celebration of Strider Theater’s nearly half-century run shared the spotlight.

Welcome home

Alumni and former faculty and staff who contributed to the annals of Strider Theater filled the theater for Eurydice. Before the play began, Ervin acknowledged them. “To all who have ever performed, directed, or choreographed on this stage, or who have worked behind the scenes or designed for this venue, I want to say, ‘Welcome home.’”

In the front row sat Bill Strider, son of Helen and Colby President Robert E.L. Strider, longtime supporters of the arts for whom the theater was named on April 30, 1977. Ervin played a recording from the dedication from that night, the voice of Dean of Faculty Paul Jenson traveling across the decades.

Dean of Faculty Paul Jenson speaking during the dedication of Strider Theater on April 30, 1977.

“This space, as long as it exists, will remind those who enter of those unchanging values toward which Helen and Bob Strider have dedicated their lives, of truth, beauty, justice, compassion, and untiring efforts at making this world a more inhabitable and civilized place for all. What better way could we signal the honor, respect, and affection we feel for the Striders than by having their names given to this facility?

May all who perform on this stage, or participate as observers in this theater, find deeper meanings in their lives and be renewed in their commitment to those values which make being human worthwhile.”

President Bob Strider and his wife, Helen, in Strider Theater. On April 30, 1977, the theater was named in honor of the Striders, long champions of the arts at Colby and in Waterville.

Following Jenson’s dedication, theatergoers were treated to a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by Richard “Dick” Sewell, Colby’s revered adjunct associate professor of theater and dance, emeritus who directed productions at Colby from 1974 to 2003. Sewell, 88, returned to Strider Theater for Eurydice and spoke briefly. The moment he walked onstage, alumni stood and applauded, their affection for him apparent.

From gymnasium to theater

“In a real sense, this theater space created the Department of Theater and Dance,” said Sewell from the stage. “Music, dance, drama, and spectacle converged—the combination of arts that made theater in old Athens so compelling a part of life.”

Strider Theater occupied what was formerly Averill Gymnasium in the Ninetta M. Runnals Union, named in honor of Colby’s first dean of women. Built for Colby’s women students, Runnals Union housed sorority meeting rooms and the gymnasium, which had “an awkward, high, small stage” at the far end and “jarring acoustics.”

The makeover of Runnals Union began in 1975 following a push from Sewell and others to create a permanent home for theater and dance. By 1976 Averill Gymnasium had been transformed into the Performing Arts Center and was ready that fall for its first production, Dido and Aeneas, a Baroque opera by Henry Purcell presented jointly by Colby’s Glee Club and the Committee for Performing Arts.

An ambitious production, Dido and Aeneas included 13 actors, a ballet troupe, a small orchestra, and more than 40 singers. Kathy Quimby Johnson ’79 was one of those singers as a member of the Glee Club. They rehearsed in the Bixler Art and Music Center until blocking began in Strider Theater.

Johnson, then a sophomore, remembers coming into Runnals for the first time. “Everything was finished, but it had this feeling of emptiness. There wasn’t any accumulation of costumes or props,” she recalled. “There was an interesting feeling of … expectancy,” like an empty blackboard, she said.

Johnson, a freelance writer and editor in Cambridge, Vt., hasn’t forgotten the thrill of being among the first to perform in the theater. Attending subsequent performances during her junior and senior years instilled an appreciation of theater and made theatergoing a part of her life thereafter.

And that empty blackboard? By 2023, it would contain the names of upwards of 600 productions.

Eurydice’s Strider Theater

Ervin and his colleagues set out to involve alumni in the production in any way they could. Since many former students have gone on to careers in the theater, Ervin had a deep pool from which to draw. One of them was Zach Brewster-Geisz ’94.

“John emailed me and said, ‘We’re getting the band back together. It’s the final show in Strider,’” Brewster-Geisz recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yes, yes, sign me up.’ I wanted to see it one last time.”

Brewster-Geisz joined Eurydice’s artistic team as a sound designer, creating sound effects and composing original music from his home in Greenbelt, Md., where he’s an actor, filmmaker, and narrator of audiobooks.

Alumni working backstage included Assistant Director Kaylee Pomelow Book ’19 and Master Carpenter Kelsey Pomelow Book ’18, both former interns for Portland Stage; Lighting Designer Tayte Messman ’19; and Stagecraft Assistant Will Sideri ’20.

Jory Raphael ’02 and Glen Porter ’92 joined five current students onstage.

“It’s very surreal being back,” said actor and graphic designer Raphael during rehearsals. “It both feels like nothing has changed and everything has changed. I get up there and I’m spouting lines out, and John’s sitting in the audience giving me feedback. I’m like, ‘This feels like yesterday.’”

Though he often works in professional productions with Middlebury Actors Workshop and sketch comedy troupe Stealing from Work, Raphael initially felt “a ton of pressure” about his roles in Eurydice. Once the curtain rose, however, he gave an energetic performance as both the sneaky but suave Nasty Interesting Man and the sinister Lord of the Underworld.

Porter delivered a tender and convincing portrayal of the Father of Eurydice. Now the owner of a guest house in Ogunquit, Maine, Porter was formerly a junior high theater director in North Hollywood, Calif.

The Lord of the Underworld, played by Jory Raphael ’02, reacts when he first encounters Eurydice, played by Ella Abisi ’25.

Because Raphael and Porter could not be at Colby for the entire rehearsal period, Ervin cast Erica Loomis ’25 and Stephanie Smith ’26 in their roles to help create the staging and characterization. Loomis and Smith taught this work to their alumni partners once they arrived on campus a few weeks before opening night.

The alumni actors blended seamlessly with the student performers, Ella Grace Abisi ’25—who played Eurydice with suppleness, courageous yet vulnerable—and Lance/Bread Parker ’23, who proved his modern-day Orpheus every bit as charming as the mythical, musical bard.

Hidden gems

The ancient Orpheus was said to charm even stones with his musical abilities. In Eurydice, the stones were brought to life by Mariam Adegoke ’26, Tess Conroy ’26, and Ellery Kenyon ’23. The boisterous, humorous trio reinforced the rules of the underworld, often speaking in unison and popping up unexpectedly.

Unbeknownst to most, each Stone carried a special prop: a slingshot that Raphael used in The Skin of our Teeth in 1999; a slapstick built by Sewell for the 1990 production The Venetian Twins; and a stone thrown through a window in An Enemy of the People in 2006.

The Three Stones, left, confront Eurydice and her Father, played by Glen Porter ’92, in the underworld during the final dress rehearsal of Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl in Strider Theater.

Ervin added these hidden gems—and many others—as yet another way to incorporate the theater’s history into the final production.

In many ways, Eurydice was the production of a lifetime for Ervin, who has been the technical director of Strider Theater for 34 years. He has great affection and respect for the theater and the people who have made magic in it. 

“There are theaters around the world that just breathe theater,” he said. “You walk in and you’re immediately inspired by ideas. This is one of those spaces.”

Alumni involved in the production of Eurydice include (left to right) Sound Designer Zach Brewster-Geisz ’94, Actor Jory Raphael ’02, Actor Glen Porter ’92, Lighting Designer Tayte Messman ’19, and Assistant Director Kaylee Pomelow Book ’19. (Photo by Melissa Blackall)

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