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In the spotlight

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Houseman Award honors UD's Sandy Robbins for career in theatre

Sandy Robbins

Sandy Robbins directs at least one production each year at UD, with the range of plays including the 2010 performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream, 2016s To Kill a Mockingbird and last springs Inherit the Wind.

The University of Delawares Sanford (Sandy) Robbins will be recognized for his three decades of work in the theatre with The Acting Companys 2019 John Houseman Award an honor so prestigious that Robbins describes himself as probably the least famous person to ever receive it.

Robbins, professor and chair of the Department of Theatre and the founder and producing artistic director of UDs Resident Ensemble Players (REP) professional theatre company, previously founded and was director of training for the Universitys Professional Theatre Training Program, which concluded in 2011.

The award honors individuals who have extended the legacy of The Acting Company founder John Housemans profound commitment to the development of American classical actors and cultivation of a new audience for the theatre, the famed repertory company said in announcing Robbins selection. Previous Houseman Award recipients include actors Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline and legendary theatrical producer Joseph Papp, among many other respected and influential artists.

At UD and throughout his career, the company said, Robbins has been committed to training young actors and continues to inspire audiences with productions created and performed by some of the nations foremost artists.

Robbins, who said the possibility of winning the award was not even on my radar until The Acting Company notified him, was pleased to be recognized for his work both in developing actors and in directing.

At the REP, he oversees each seasons schedule, chooses the resident and nonresident actors and directs at least one production a year, in addition to leading outreach activities to engage the community and expand the audience. With a mission of creating lifelong theatre-goers, the REP performs at least two shows each season that are studied in the UD curriculum and offers matinee performances and classroom visits for middle school and high school audiences.

Although he does less teaching now than in the past, Robbins continues to offer some master classes and to coach actors in classic plays. One of his specialties is voice coaching for actors in Shakespearean productions.

You may be a very talented actor, but if youve never done Shakespeare, you may need some additional coaching because it takes some special skills, he said. 

Shakespeares sentences, for example, are very long compared to modern works, and actors must pay attention to their breathing and their phrasing to avoid interrupting the flow of the verse. Proper phrasing also makes the meaning of the words clear to the audience, Robbins said.

Audiences are self-deprecating, he said. Theyre quick to say that if they didnt understand a Shakespeare play, it must be their fault. But its really on the actor; if its well spoken, the meaning is clear.

Robbins agreed that the professional training program he founded first offered at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and then moved to UD has had a major influence in developing talented actors. But, he said, most of the graduates work on stage and so may not be household names outside the theatre community.

If you ran a play for 20 years, you wouldnt be seen by as many people as you would on TV for one night, he said.

Still, live theatre and especially the classics are powerful and inspiring, he said. Just as classical productions are the focus of The Acting Company, they remain Robbins favorites as well.

Those plays stood the test of time, he said. They spoke to us through the ages with beautiful language and form, and they continue to do that.

In addition to his directing work at the REP, Robbins directs one or two outside plays a year. Hes well known for his work with Sam Shepard plays and has directed a number of their premieres overseas.

I like directing, because I like being an audience member, he said. As a director, you not only get to see the play but you get to make it the kind of play you want to see.

About the Houseman Award and The Acting Company

Founded in 1972 by director/producer John Houseman and Margot Harley with members of the first graduating class of the Juilliard Drama Division, The Acting Company develops the best young American actors by giving them an opportunity to practice their craft in a repertory of classic and new plays.

The company also works to build a discerning audience for the theatre by producing plays for diverse audiences and educating students in communities with limited access to the arts. 

The company has performed 148 productions reaching more than 4 million people. More than 400 actors began their careers on stage with the company.

At its 2019 Fall Gala, to be held Oct. 28 in New York, the company will present the John Houseman Award to Robbins. It will also honor business leader Richard C. Yancey with the Joan Warburg Award for philanthropy in the arts.

Article by Ann Manser; photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Published Sept. 24, 2019

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In the spotlight