Drama students paved way at College

This article is the first in a two-part series about female students’ impact on the arts at the College leading up to and just after coeducation. 

Before Dartmouth became coeducational in fall 1972, a handful of pioneering transfer students in the theater department helped to pave the path for women to follow. The women had participated in the Congregation of the Arts, a summer arts program on campus from 1963-1969 that brought together musicians, composers, actors and dancers from various colleges.

Dartmouth’s theater department was outstanding but lacked talented female leads — prior to the transfer students’ arrival, faculty wives, Hanover high school students and local women played female parts. In summer 1968, female students attending the summer program could apply to a year-long transfer to Dartmouth to study theater. They would take other classes as well, but could not receive a Dartmouth degree.

Seven women were accepted through the program, including Nanalee Raphael, who recalled how the drama department allowed students to perform and use their creative talents.

“Being in the theater department, the guys there were just guys,” she said. “We were on even footing — we had rehearsals together, we hung out together. So it was exceedingly normal.”

Within the theater department, the female transfer students said they felt part of a community. Women also joined the Dartmouth Players, a theater performance group, Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and the Foley House, whose members included many theater majors.

Outside the theater department, women were a novelty, referred to as “the drama coeds.” They lived together in apartments in downtown Hanover.

Theater major Arthur Fergenson ’69 said the female students made a positive impact on campus, in and out of the classroom.

“They were not just there to do theater,” he said. “It made a big difference to have them as part of the college experience.”

At the time, Rod Alexander chaired the drama department, Errol Hill taught in the department and Alicia Annas served as the costume designer.

Transfer student Carol Dudley described the department as having “a great balance” of professional experience and styles. She noted Alexander’s strength as a director and Hill’s extensive classical training, which included time at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

While at Dartmouth, Hill organized lunchtime one-act play productions called “12:30 Rep.” The productions were popular with students, and performers decked out in period costumes for the shows, which included “Les Precieuses Ridicules” by Moliere.

“It was all new plays, and it was also a great way of getting people who didn’t normally go to the main stage productions, which were much more conventional, to come to the theater,” Dudley said.

Female students also participated in interfraternity play competitions, which featured original works written, directed and acted by students, and the Frost Play Contest, an annual contest started by former theater professor Henry Williams to encourage students to write and produce experimental plays.

Transfer student Geri Silk called her peers “spoiled” for having so many classical and modern performance opportunities.

“There were great parts,” Silk said. “There was great choreography.”

Male and female theater students were “like a tight little band of actors and singers and dancers,” Silk said. Outside class, students would often hang out together at the Top of the Hop or in the stage area, practicing or improvising, she said.

The department’s costumes were particularly excellent, Dudley said, as Annas made period pieces for student productions, including corsets, by hand.

“The level workmanship and quality was on a professional level,” she said.

At the time, Dartmouth’s theater department, hoping to attract a broader audience to its shows, incorporated more modern works into its repertoire, like W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “Patience,” a comic opera.

Moliere’s “The Miser” was the department’s most successful show of the 1968-69 season and toured local playhouses and schools. The production included several female transfer students in leading roles and as stage managers.

Fergenson recalled the group’s tour as one of his favorite Dartmouth experiences.

“We had two station wagons, and we did it in St. Johnsbury, in Manchester, in Nashua, in Concord, in Salem — I think a total of eight one-night stands,” he said. “We worked together. We acted together. We were together.”

Outside of the theater department, some women faced difficulty interacting with male students. They were isolated at their apartment in town and lacked advisors to help them navigate the school.

Raphael remembers feeling some hostility from non-theater students. Men were hesitant to approach or even acknowledge the female students in their classes, she said, perhaps because they had attended all-male high schools and planned to study at an all-male college.

“Nobody ever insulted me, but it was a very interesting experiment,” she said. “I intentionally would sit in a very obvious place in the classroom, and nobody would sit near me. Not one guy ever got close to me even to say, ‘Hi’ or ‘Are you one of the girls?’”

Virginia Feingold said she remembers enjoying her classes but was frustrated that the 1968-69 play season did not offer more roles for women. Feingold said she participated in anti-war political demonstrations on campus.

Dudley described most men as awkward, not vindictive, when interacting with the female students.

“A lot of [the guys] were too afraid to come up and talk to you, and the others wanted to kind of jump your bones with no preliminary,” she said.

Dartmouth admitted 53 female transfer students to join the College for the 1969-70 academic year, 68 for 1970-71 and 110 for 1971-72. Though the women could not receive degrees from Dartmouth, they were adopted to the Class of 1969 at its 40th reunion celebration.

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