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WRITTEN BY ROBERT ISENBERG

When Robert Morris University won accolades in the Kennedy Center’s College Theater Festival this year, it probably surprised a lot of people. but not Pittsburgh City Paper drama critic Robert Isenberg.

The Colonial Theatre, which brings its show on the road to major venues in Pittsburgh this year, has come a long way from its start as a shoestring operation set in an old barn on campus. But even then the productions were lively and drew decent crowds. The show-space enjoyed 30 years of dramas, comedies, and musicals. “People saw the theater as a destination,” says John Locke ’03, director of student activities and a stage veteran himself.

It was a good run, but then the barn burned down, the company’s director retired to Florida without a replacement, and while Locke and the drama club struggled to keep the spark alive in then-new Massey Hall’s 225-seat theater, the spotlights had dimmed considerably.

Enter Ken Gargaro, Ph.D. In 2003, Gargaro directed a production of “Godspell” for the Colonial Theatre. His budget was small and relied on the raw talent of interested undergrads. But Gargaro had a hit on his hands. “It was an overwhelming success,” he says. The house was packed, the student performers were enthusiastic, and the university decided to invest.

Within two years, Gargaro and his colleague, Barbara Burgess- Lefebvre, M.F.A., were full-time faculty producing a fourshow season. In the theater industry, musicals are by far the biggest challenge to produce because of the sheer number of people involved. Elaborate costumes and set design tend to rack up expenses and required manpower. And yet, since 2005, Gargaro has spearheaded four shows per academic year, most of which are musicals.

“It’s amazing,” says Locke, who has collaborated with Gargaro in the past as a production manager. “It’s exponential. This season really has been our biggest accomplishment.”

In January, RMU’s performance of “Rent” wowed audiences at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival’s Mid- Atlantic regionals, held at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The Colonial Theatre production was one of eight finalists picked to perform at the competition, out of 55 universities that entered. “We were definitely the largest production,” Gargaro says. “And we were clearly identified as a very talented group of individuals, especially in a school that is not particularly noted for this kind of activity. People know who we are now.”

This was no accident. In Pittsburgh, “Gargaro” is practically a synonym of “theater education.” He is the founding director of Pittsburgh Musical Theater, a nonprofit acting company and training program in the city’s West End. A legion of teenage students has trained in voice and dance with PMT’s staff, and many have gone on to perform for Broadway, Disney, cruise lines, TV, and film.

The university curriculum has expanded rapidly, and boasts a full roster of 15 classes, from Intro to Theater to Fundamentals of Acting, Stage Combat, Jazz Dance, and Acting for the Camera. At the moment, theater is offered as a concentration in a communication major. But the concentration has become a magnet; Fall 2010 classes are already booked solid, and about a dozen students are currently declared, triple the numbers from three years ago, Gargaro says.

Gargaro’s presence at RMU has also forged a collaborative relationship between the university and Pittsburgh Musical Theater. This past summer eight RMU students interned for PMT. Unlike many internships, which consist of filing and opening mail, the RMU interns train in singing and tap dance. Other students have been cast in big-budget PMT shows, performing at the illustrious Byham Theater in downtown Pittsburgh.

What began as an experiment has turned into a campus phenomenon. In due time, Gargaro hopes the university will support a full-fledged B.A. in theater arts. Meanwhile, Colonial Theatre has about 50 active members working in every capacity of live performance — as actors, technicians, stage managers, and house volunteers. They represent a wide range of majors, from nursing to education. “It’s an all-campus activity,” Gargaro says. “We’re building a real theater department.”