Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 2002

You could call it trial by jury.

Anyone who seriously considers a career in theater has to develop thick skin. Theatermakers put their guts on the line with every venture, and the scrutiny is brutal — and very public. Anyone who’s too thin-skinned will never last. Beeb Salzer, design Professor in the Department of Theatre at San Diego State University, knows this all too well. So 19 years ago, he came up with an idea to stimulate creativity, simulate reality and build resilience.

When Salzer was a student at Yale Drama School, his roommate was an aspiring architect, whose work was frequently judged by a panel of experts. Salzer thought the idea was perfect for theater students. He instituted the Design/Performance Jury at SDSU, and it’s still the only one of its kind in the country.

Salzer gathers together a prestigious panel to judge the work of his students. Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee has participated 13 times. “He has a strong commitment to students,” says Salzer of the crusty playwright. “He loves to do the jury and always asks to be part of it. Everyone does. They love to come, because in their busy lives, they don’t get the chance to sit around and talk about theater as they do on this day.”

In addition to a playwright, Salzer invites a high-profile director, actor, scenic designer, costume designer and lighting designer. Such luminaries as director JoséQuintero, playwrights Emily Mann, Stephen Schwartz, Maria Irene Fornes and A.R. Gurney, internationally renowned set designer Ming Cho Lee and acclaimed locals like Jack O’Brien (Globe Theatres), Des McAnuff (La Jolla Playhouse) or Ian Campbell (San Diego Opera) have participated in the past.

This year’s jury coincides with a tribute to Edward Albee and SDSU alumna Marion Ross (best known for her TV roles on “Happy Days” and “Brooklyn Bridge”), who will be named Distinguished Visiting Artists at SDSU. Joining them on the jury will be scenic designer John Iacavelli, lighting designer York Kennedy and UCSD teacher/costume designer Judy Dolan, a Tony Award-winner for the Broadway revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

Although the theatre faculty typically picks the play, often inviting the living playwright, this year Salzer made the selection himself. It’s a Russian comedy, The Elder Son, by Alexander Vampilov, who, during his brief lifetime (1937-1972) was called “the young Chekhov.” He’s barely known in this country, but celebrated in his own. Says Salzer, “I chose this play because it was intriguing, because most of the characters are teens, and because we invited a Russian director to be on the jury, which makes it kind of special.”

The special guest is Efim Zvenyatski, director of the Maxim Gorky Theatre in Vladivostok. In 1992, the Russian was here as part of a Sister City delegation. Vladivostok, like San Diego, is the headquarters for its country’s Pacific Fleet. For years, the city had been closed, even to Russians. When it was re-opened, Blackfriars Theatre (a wonderfully inventive San Diego troupe, now unfortunately defunct) was the first theater company from America to visit, and designer Salzer went with them. They were received like royalty. Salzer and Zvenyatski have been back and forth several times since.

Once the play is chosen, the rest of the process kicks in. Scripts are sent to each of the jurors (this is the first time none of them has seen the play before, except for Zvenyatski who, by the way, speaks no English). The students volunteer to be involved as directors or designers, and three teams of participants meet for several months. They come up with a concept, which the designers translate into a model (for the set) or renderings (lighting, costumes) with supportive evidence of their background research (the costumer may show pictures from the era, in this case, pre-WWII, swatches of fabric, etc.).

Although faculty support is available, students only get as much faculty advice as they ask for. “We want them to feel ownership of this project,” says Salzer.

On the day of the jury, a free event to which the public is invited (March 15, 9-3:00 in the Experimental Theatre at SDSU), each of the three student groups gets a 90-minute time slot. The director stands up and explains the team’s overarching concept for the piece, then introduces the designers, who show and justify their plans. A scene is enacted, with no costumes or lighting, just the barest suggestion of props or set pieces. And then, for the next hour, the students get questioned and critiqued by the experts, and they have to defend their choices. It’s a thrill to watch this intense, educational exercise.

“It’s wonderful when the kids can really listen to the wisdom of these professionals, and not let their egos keep them from hearing what’s being said,” says Salzer.

“I always look forward to it. Some of our students are as good as any in the country. And I’m always sure I’m going to learn a lot from the panel. It’s fun. It’s like having a wonderful dinner party, with people you respect and admire, getting together and talking about the process of making theater. I do it for the students, of course, but to tell the truth, I really do it for myself.”

©2002 Patté Productions Inc.