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Ernie Zulia and Todd Ristau, founders of the Hollins Playwright's Lab.
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Hollins will host the February 4-10, 2014, Region IV Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and co-hosted by Mill Mountain Theatre at Center In The Square.
It’s been 10 years since Ernie Zulia left a career in professional theater to take over the Hollins University theater department. Three years later, Todd Ristau did the same and joined Zulia to found the Playwright’s Lab.
Their collaboration recently landed 613-student Hollins in the Top 20 nationally among college theater departments in the country (Princeton Review, No. 18) It also led to a $3 million infusion into the theater facilities. The program has also seen a student play by Meredith Levy win a Kennedy Center national student award (among eight Kennedy Center awards for the program, including four for an original production of Bellocq’s Ophelia based on the poetry of grad Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer winner.)
Another result: Hollins will host the February 4-10, 2014, Region IV Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and co-hosted by Mill Mountain Theatre at Center In The Square. The department also brings in national theater figures on a regular basis to teach master classes and hang with students.
Hollins Theater has emerged as the region’s standard for productions and it actually reached that status, according to those who know such things, before Roanoke’s professional Mill Mountain Theatre closed a couple of years ago (it has re-opened). Zulia was with MMT for years before touring nationally. Broadway-like productions of “9,” “Chicago” and “Cabaret” raised the bar. Levy’s “Decision Height” last year kept it high and in 2014 it will rise again. The theater will produce Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” as a play (she’s an alum, one of four Pulitzer winners, and was once married to R.H.W. Dillard, the long-time head of the writing program). The Playwright’s Lab, headed by Ristau, will hold a Festival of New Works and there is a wide variety of other events scheduled, several in conjunction with MMT.
Collaboration with the community has been at the heart of the Hollins Theater growth, says Zulia. “There’s a lot of support for these bridges,” he says.
“When you’re training kids,” says Ristau, “you want to reach wider audiences” and that has been accomplished consistently. “We approach this like we would a small theater company.”
All of this has been done, says Zulia, with “the same budget” he started with. “We’ve redistributed it.”