Theater in England: A New Perspective over Winter Break

Univ. Communications – Theater has long been a vibrant and visible element of students’ academic and extracurricular experience at the University of Rochester. Through the International Theater Program productions at Todd, classes in the English department, student groups like The Opposite Of People (TOOP), Drama House, and many other avenues, students here have the opportunity to engage in all levels of the production and research of drama and the performing arts. But perhaps the jewel in the school’s theatrical crown is the annual Theatre in England course which has, for the past twenty-one years, brought students to London over winter break for the ultimate theater-going experience.

The course, which has been taught by Professor Russell Peck since the late 1980s, combines a condensed study abroad experience with a four-credit workload and one to three play attendances per day. “The students sometimes feel lonely if they saw only one play that day,” said Peck with a laugh. This year, twenty-two students collectively attended thirty-five plays.

Each morning starts off with breakfast and a class at the Harlingford Hotel, which has been the London home base for Peck’s group for years. The previous day’s plays are discussed, scripts sometimes read, and performances are evaluated on everything from technical execution to metaphysical issues.

“It’s really nice to be in a room with thirty intellectual people who have all seen the show and to be able to have a multifaceted conversation about all the different aspects of it,” said Jessica Chinelli ’12, an English major with a concentration in theater. Chinelli was formerly the artistic director of TOOP and has worked on Todd productions in both a technical and performance capacity.

After class, the students have a few hours to relax and explore the city before the matinee performances begin. Peck schedules as many plays as he can, some mandatory for all students and many optional, providing a range of choices for each day. Seeing such a large number of plays can be overwhelming, but ultimately the program pushes students to make connections and develop perspective that cannot emerge from seeing just one play.

“The course really builds on itself,” Peck explained. “It’s always good to see several plays together, whether they have anything to do with each other or not.” Though he does not plan the program based on any particular theme or common element, the students quickly begin to weave the connecting threads on their own.

“I think that probably more than any course it helps people to see and to recognize how visually oriented their mental activity is,” Peck said. “They learn to see and judge things from different points of view.”

The students participating come from all academic backgrounds. This year, less than half were English majors. Some have been interested or involved in theater for years and others enter a theater for the first time in their lives when they arrive in London.

“It’s probably one of the greatest experiences that I will ever have in my life,” said Dongdong Han ’12, who is majoring in molecular genetics and had no knowledge of theater prior to the trip. “I know that the theater majors that went, and the folks who are interested in theater really got a lot out of it, but for somebody like me it was a tremendous learning experience.”

Though he plans to pursue graduate school and a further career in research, Han believes that it is vital for scientists to develop interests beyond the lab. “I know a lot of my science and engineering friends have a thing, kind of this unnatural fear for the humanities and I think this is the best way to get someone into theater with no background and it’s one of the best ways to learn,” he explained. “I’ve always believed that the scientific field itself is not meant to stand in isolation. In other words, if you look at all of the top scientists, all of them cultivate [an interest for] something that’s not in the sciences.”

For chemistry major Jonathan Raybin ’12, the program was such a fruitful experience in his freshman year that he went this year for a second time. Since the program of plays is different every year, the course has the advantage of offering a unique experience to every group of students. Raybin has always loved theater but his major curriculum afforded little time to become more academically involved. Nevertheless, he finds that theater enriches his scientific studies. “The analytical skills you use watching are completely applicable. It’s also just…it can be a relief to not be thinking about science!”

“It teaches people how to read and to assess their reading, whether they’re science people or brain and cognitive people, or linguists, and it teaches them how to look,” Peck explained. “As long as they’re alive and people [this is something] that will have bearing on them.”

The group attends performances in a wide range of venues from black box theaters, to small fringe auditoriums, to the world’s most technically advanced Olivier Theater, which is part of the National Theater complex. There, the students even got a backstage tour.

The trip also includes a visit to the legendary Stratford-upon-Avon to view Shakespearean plays in their original setting and attendance to the New Year’s Eve mass at Westminster Abbey. Students sit in the choir and observe the performance of religious rites which are at the root of modern English and French theatrical traditions.

Besides the abundant number of theaters and acting companies in London, another advantage to conducting the program there is the affordability of the experience of British theater. For example, plays at the National Theater are LE12.50 (about $20). “In New York for that play, if it comes to New York, we’d be paying between $100 and $125,” said Peck.

Students do pay for their own air fare but since the class counts as an overload of credits for the fall semester and students sign up in the fall, financial aid packages apply to the cost of the credit hours. Some limited financial aid also is available to cover the $2,750 fee for housing and play tickets. “I’ve been saving for this program since I heard abut it as a freshman,” said Chinelli. “But I made it and Professor Peck was really great about scholarships.”

She added enthusiastically: “It’s a once in a lifetime experience and it will change the way that you view things. [For the University] it’s not a financial investment, it’s an investment in the students, and that should tell you what it is worth.”

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Article written by Maya Dukmasova, a Take 5 Scholar at the University of Rochester and an intern at University Communications. She majored in philosophy and religion and focused her Take 5 year on researching the way American media covers current events in the Muslim world. An aspiring journalist, Dukmasova has freelanced for Rochester Magazine, the Phoenix New Times, and the Daily News Egypt in Cairo. She also maintains two blogs, one devoted to culture and society in Russia ( and the other to photography (