Earlier this semester, it was announced that the Theatre and Dance Department would be going through a major shake-up. Longtime director of design and technical theatre Curtis Dretsch, tap instructor Shelley Oliver, and director of theatre Charlie Richter all announced that they would be retiring at the end of this school year.
Both Dretsch and Richter have been with the department for over 40 years, with Richter being the first full-time theatre professor hired by the college. In fact, when Richter was first hired in 1978, his position was technically still part of the English department. At the time, the three different student-run theatre groups of the time, the Muhlenberg Experimental Theatre Association, Mask and Dagger, and the Muhlenberg Musical Theatre Association had just merged into the Muhlenberg Theatre Association. Richter was hired to teach all of the theatre courses, including various acting and theatre history courses.
The first production that Richter directed at Muhlenberg was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which he chose both because it is a great play and because there were no designers to make scenery for the production, and Our Town does not require any scenery. The play was performed in the Empie Theatre and was quite successful. The first musical Richter directed at Muhlenberg was Anything Goes, which will actually have been his last musical as well, as he directed the musical as part of the Summer Music Theatre series in 2019. A decision Richter made that was a major shift from the student-run musicals that came before him was to hire a professional orchestra. Previously, the pit orchestra had been made up of student musicians, and this decision from Richter was met with major pushback from the student body, with picketing protestors even showing up at opening night. However, this decision was the first step in improving the quality of Muhlenberg’s production.
This increase in quality only grew when the department hired Dretsch the following year, and the two began to collaborate on the college’s productions. As Muhlenberg’s reputation for theatrical productions improved, Richter and Dretsch, along with Jeremy Slavin, who was the director of vocal performance at the time, decided to start the Summer Music Theatre in 1981. The summer seasons would allow Muhlenberg to appeal to its growing community audience, which it has continued to do ever since.
In his teaching, Richter wanted to make sure that students would be able to “understand how theatre is relevant to the wider world and can be socially relevant.” This goal was achieved largely by choosing to put on productions of plays that address social issues and can have an impact on the community. For example, in 1981, he directed a production of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, which is one of his favorite productions he has worked on at Muhlenberg because the college was able to engage with the community through seminars and was able to present such an important play.
Richter’s impact on the department is indelible, and any theatre student that has gotten the chance to work with him has felt the positive impact he has had. The Weekly got the chance to interview two senior theatre majors, Marin Diddams ’21, who has gotten to work with Richter on several productions and is currently in his directing class, and Kaelyn Kappes ’21, who is also in his current directing class and has worked with him on auditioning students for Muhlenberg in California.
Both Diddams and Kappes emphasized how much thought and time Richter puts into all aspects of theatre, both as a director and as a professor. Diddams noted that “Charlie understands how to make a musical magical. […] He knows those details, he knows how to bring it out of people, and he knows how to create it on stage.” This was the case for even massive ensemble numbers where every little detail of each cast member is important in making the scene or song possible.
Kappes added that “He doesn’t see productions as big and small. One of the first times I ever interacted with him was freshman year, I was in a Red Door, and the students who directed it and wrote it were in one of his classes, and they asked him to come. He attended this Red Door production, and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe the head of the department is coming to this measly Red Door. […] The students who wrote and directed it were older, but the cast was mostly freshman, so I was just shocked that he would attend that and give it his time and honestly give feedback on it, when he didn’t need to do that at all. […] He takes time to watch his students’ work and give honest and genuine feedback. […](rather than directing departmental shows and teach some classes) He puts in the time to make it count for anyone who is trying to do theatre, no matter if they are on the Broadway track, a senior about to do showcase, or a freshman who has never done theatre before and asks him to come to their quick performance in Arts Marathon or something. He gives everything equal attention because he knows any part of theatre is important to support.”After being a part of the theatre department for so long, it seems impossible to imagine Muhlenberg’s Theatre Department without Charlie Richter. But he has faith in the future of the department: “The most important thing is that the department continues to train artists and caring and empathetic human beings.” This sentiment epitomizes Richter’s impact on Muhlenberg’s Theatre and Dance Department, where the development of the students professionally as artists and as people are equally important, whether it be on a production or in a class.