Doing a play in New York? Priceless

A professor in Alabama applies grant money to helping his theater students with their resumes by staging a play off-off-Broadway.

Published August 7, 2006

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - It's not unusual for educators to dip into their own pockets to buy extra supplies, or stay after class to help a bewildered student understand a tricky theory or pesky equation.

So when University of Alabama theater professor Seth Panitch landed a $5,000 grant from the school's Research Advisory Committee, he thought nothing of using the money to help create a priceless opportunity for some aspiring actors, directors and set designers at the school.

Thanks to Panitch, a small group of past and present students will be in New York on Tuesday through Sunday to perform his play Dammit, Shakespeare! at the 74-seat off-off-Broadway Urban Stages near Manhattan's Penn Station.

It's not quite Broadway, but it's a whole lot closer than the school's Allen Bales Theater, where the group recently performed a sneak preview that sold out all three nights, prompting department officials to request an Aug. 29-Sept. 1 encore.

"It immediately looks lovely on a resume to say that you have worked in New York, since so few people get that opportunity," said actor Chris Hardin, a master's graduate who plays several roles in Dammit, including a hilarious portrayal of Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn.

Written by Panitch in 1996, Dammit, Shakespeare! centers on Shakespeare's relationship with Richard Burbage, the English actor who played many of his friend's major roles, including Richard III, Romeo, Macbeth and Lear.

Actors segue into monologues from Shakespeare's works, including passages from Romeo and Juliet, Othello and most notably Hamlet, which contains the dialogue for the crux of the play, the envy and insecurity Shakespeare and Burbage experience on each side of the pen.

The Tuscaloosa and New York runs are the sixth and seventh performances of the play, which has been professionally produced in Los Angeles; Whittier, Calif.; Seattle; and New York, Panitch said.

He has rewritten the script several times, and the current version is about 90 percent the same as the original, which contained about 70 percent Shakespeare and 30 percent Panitch.

"That was the original composition, but I didn't know how to write at that time, I didn't understand the structure of the story, and so the more I became confident with writing, the less I needed the other Shakespeare stuff," he said.