Now in its 25th season, Swine Palace still holds dear its mission to provide a training ground to LSU’s Department of Theatre and a platform for socially conscious productions.
Established in 1992 under Barry Kyle, the theater company is celebrating its anniversary season this academic year, wrapping up in the spring with “The Seagull” and “Stupid F***ing Bird,” which will rotate through a March 22 to April 7 run.
It was Kyle who came up with the theater company's name, Swine Palace, taken from his idea to turn an old livestock pavilion on the south side of campus into a theater. His dream came true between 1999 and 2000 when the pavilion was renovated into the Reilly Theatre.
Kyle had come to Baton Rouge after 20 years as a leading director for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. Why, The Advocate's art critic Anne Price wondered at the time.
"His answer is simple," she wrote. "He finds the cultural riches of this state unequaled in the world. And he believes a professional theater company, using only Louisiana talent, can be a world-class attraction, bringing people from all over the nation and the world to Louisiana."
Amid controversy with LSU and the theater company's board, Kyle resigned in the early 2000s.
This 25th season is "high impact and ambitious," said Kristin Sosnowsky, the company's managing director and chair of the theater department.
In particular, the upcoming alternating performances will prove a real testing ground for the company, she said.
While "The Seagull" and "Stupid F***ing Bird" have different directors, many of the same actors will perform in both shows.
The two productions complement each other. Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is a well-known piece important for the students’ training, Sosnowsky said, while “Stupid F***ing Bird” is a popular contemporary take on the story.
“The idea is that there’s sort of two views of the same story," Sosnowsky said, "and we’re hoping that patrons will come and see both shows."
Tackling edgy, relevant themes in its productions and challenging students is something Sosnowsky has seen a lot of in her 15 years in the theater department.
The company's most socially conscious and controversial production was 2014's "Spill," which is about the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, Sosnowsky said. The play explored the environmental disaster and stories of those who survived and those who died.
And then there are shows that are just pure entertainment.
One of the theater company's healthiest box offices came in 2004 with "Always … Patsy Cline," which returned for another run in 2006, Sosnowsky said, adding that fans still ask to bring it back.
In addition to providing theater-loving audiences with another local outlet, the company provides a unique experience to drama students with its professional-meets-academic environment.
“It (gives) students access to working alongside professionals,” Sosnowsky said.
Students involved in its productions are usually working on their master of fine arts degrees.
In May, Lance Rasmussen expects to complete his Master of Fine Arts in acting. By the time he graduates, the fledgling actor says he will have performed in seven Swine Palace shows under six directors. He says networking and performance opportunities are what differentiates Swine Palace from other Master of Fine Arts programs.
Some acting programs, Rasmussen said, employ a showcase in a major city like New York or Los Angeles to give exposure to students. Each young actor gets about 2 to 5 minutes to perform in a half-hour to hourlong show staged before an audience of casting agents or their assistants who may not be paying close attention or know the student’s name.
With Swine Palace, Rasmussen said he works between 120 and 140 hours rehearsing a show with professional actors, directors and others involved in the production. That's a lot of time to network. Directors, stage managers and cast members “see your work ethic, see your talent level, see what you’re capable of,” he said.
He said Swine Palace also is an equity house, meaning it allows him to acquire equity points toward the 50 needed for membership in the Actors’ Equity Association, the professional union for actors and stage managers in the U.S.
Typically, Swine Palace works in seven-week contracts for shows, allowing students to earn about seven points a show. Many students come close to obtaining all of their points by graduation.
“You have worked professionally as an actor,” said Todd Henry, an LSU graduate who currently serves as executive director of Playmakers of Baton Rouge, a nonprofit professional company that performs for young audiences.
The company has shared the Reilly Theatre with Swine Palace since 2011. Henry said LSU students occasionally are involved in Playmakers productions, which gives them more professional experience.
He says he thinks Swine Palace brings a high caliber of artists to the city and allows the master's students to network while working toward becoming a union member.