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The Never-Ending Impact of Showboat

February 28, 2017

For over half a century, the Minnesota Centennial Showboat brought stunning performances to the Twin Cities community in a unique atmosphere. In honor of Minnesota's centennial in 1958, the University of Minnesota, at the urging of theatre department chair Frank Whiting, purchased The General John Newton, a sternwheeler used as a utility work boat and maritime courthouse, for only $1. The General John Newton would be remodeled into the University’s showboat and longtime theatre attraction.

The showboat traveled up and down the Mississippi for two seasons, bringing the student performed melodramas and comedies to small towns on the banks of the river, until it found its home on the east bank of the Mississippi just below Coffman Memorial Union. But long delayed renovations and repairs required the vessel to be drydocked at Harriet Island, and a welding spark ignited a fire, ultimately burning the boat down in 2000. However, in true theatre style, the show must go on. The University partnered with Padelford Packet Boat Company to continue the tradition of showboat theatre on a new boat, the Frank Whiting. The Minnesota Centennial Showboat completed its final season this summer by resurrecting its inaugural performance, Under the Gaslight.

Costume designer and professor Mathew LeFebvre led a team of costume design students for his fifth season of designing with showboat this summer; however, his relationship with the summer performance series spans decades. Like thousands of high school students, his first experience with the University's showboat theatre came from a field trip that was a part of Minnesota’s State 4-H Arts-In program that drew teenagers from all over the state of Minnesota to develop a short musical review that performs several times a day in the 4-H Building during the Minnesota State Fair. From a young age, Mathew recognized that this was a rare and unique style of performance, commenting, "Melodrama with musical olios interspersed between scenes: it's highly presentational and produced on an epic scale. It's difficult to do a spectacle on a stage the size of a postage stamp."

Portrait: Matt LeFebvre standing in front of a board with costume sketches
Matt LeFebvre

For set and costume design, the space allotted both onstage and backstage opened the door for creativity and innovation for the students. Due to that limited space and the nature of both melodramas and musical olios, the traditional approach for scenic design on the Showboat was to employ painted muslin drops on rollers to represent different locations. The level of detail in these drops was a hallmark of the Showboat from the very beginning but truly flourished under the guidance of C. Lance Brockman, a former colleague of Mathew’s who fostered countless scenic artists over his tenure at the University of Minnesota.

Typically theatrical productions have only a few locations or a repetition of locations; however, in this production of Under the Gaslight, there were 13 scenes without a single repetition, and each drop has to be hand painted. As a result, Mathew and his team got inventive by creating visually dynamic settings within the spatial restrictions and by utilizing the existing set drops through minor retouching to better serve the locations in this production. The added bonus was that it also served as a retrospective of the many years of scene painting excellence under the guidance of Professor Brockman.

Musical olios performed during set changes provided the actors an opportunity to experiment and showcase their diverse talents. "The olios showed the versatility of the performers. Yes, they were dramatic actors, but also singers and dancers," said Mathew. "It was also balanced well. Performers with smaller roles in the play often had a larger roles in the olios and vice versa." Regardless of their part, each student had an opportunity to experiment and diversify their stage experience in just a single summer.

Lastly, unique to showboats is a long run of performances. Each show ran from sixty to eighty times often with two performances a day. Typically within an academic year, college performances run for two to three weekends, so months of performing builds that professional stamina and experience for all students involved: set designers, costume designers, and performers alike.

Showboat may have come to an end, but that does not mean the University forgets about the rare opportunity gained in that summer paddlewheeler performance. The Department of Theatre Arts and Dance is committed to providing new and innovative ways for students to graduate with a foundation built in both a well-rounded education and meaningful experiences.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.