Last year the UC San Diego drama department sorted through more than 300 applicants from the United States and abroad to fill a mere 20 openings in its graduate program. Not bad for a professional theater training program that is little more than 10 years old.

The department is one of 11 training organizations nationwide that belong to the prestigious League of Professional Training Programs. That puts the UCSD program in the company of such long-respected theater training centers as Yale University, Juilliard's Theatre Center and New York University--schools with the weight of history behind them.

But department chairman Richard Riddell, 35, believes that the graduate program has achieved a status among the top three, and he has no qualms about giving the La Jolla Playhouse's phenomenal rise to national attention a good share of the credit.

"I don't think there is any other place in the country where you have such a forward-looking theater (associated) with a forward-looking training program of a very high quality," Riddell said.

"We feed the Playhouse young talent, faculty and even ideas," he said. "We are kind of a research area that the Playhouse can tap into, whereas the Playhouse feeds the department their wonderful contacts with professional artists, so we're able to link up in very, I think, constructive ways--like (actor) Bill Irwin coming here (in March) to work with students."

That symbiotic relationship was in the plan all along. When the Playhouse was reborn in 1983, under an agreement that gives the professional theater use of the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts on campus during the summer months, a long-evolving vision came to fruition.

Given the university's commitment to research and development, it seemed logical that its theater program should be no different. Director Michael Langham began to forge that dream in the late '60s, eventually encouraging actor Eric Christmas to follow his own path from the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada to San Diego.

Riddell, who won a Tony Award last year for lighting design for "Big River," arrived in 1978, attracted by the promise of a place where teaching allows him to expand his own career in lighting in a way that makes his work with students much more meaningful for them.

The late Alan Schneider's name comes up most frequently as an individual who contributed considerable status and professionalism to the department, as do current faculty members like designer Robert Israel, director Walton Jones, playwright Adele Shank and acting program head Arthur Wagner, to name just a few.

With their own very active careers to consider, why do they spend their precious time teaching?

"I find that most of what I consider the really good, interesting, innovative, exciting and experimental artists in the theater have a strong interest in training on some level," Riddell said. "They're very anxious to be around younger artists who are committed to developing their craft or art. It's not coincidence that Bill Irwin, Des McAnuff, Robert Woodruff, John Hirsch--and there's a whole other list for next year--are anxious to come and work with the students."

New York director Anne Bogart is in residence, working with third-year acting students to develop a new piece, "1951," that explores the effects of the McCarthy era on American artists. Later this spring, John Hirsch, former artistic director of the Stratford Festival, will lead a series of seminars on Chekov, designed to coincide with the first-year students' work on "The Three Sisters Project."

"We're much more interested in finding out how you get somewhere, how do you explore Shakespeare as a student director?" Riddell said. "What are the questions that you ask about that, about the staging? And we focus in on that far more than we do on, well, what did you do? What did you create?" That's why nearly every production of the professional training program is termed a "project."

"It makes the students approach the work with different expectations," Riddell said. "If it's the 'Twelfth Night Project,' it frees them up, psychologically. They don't worry so much about opening night, with the result being that what they come up with on opening night is far more interesting, I think, for audiences to see."

Poetic realism is emphasized during the first year of the three-year program, verse drama the next year. But contemporary works are a constant concern.

Playwriting students are constantly writing, Riddell said. Those plays worthy of production eventually emerge in a full-blown production, like student Oana-Maria Hock's "East European Tetralogy," which will open Friday in the Warren Theatre.

"I'm very encouraged that the community is beginning to sort of 'go with' what we're doing," Riddell said of the program's leaning toward research and development.

"Something has happened in San Diego since I came here seven years ago," he said. "A whole group of people have sort of come out and said we like this kind of theater, we like questioning art, we like to go to the theater and be challenged and sort of prodded and entertained at the same time. I think that's what we offer to San Diego and San Diego is awake to it--and I'm very happy to know that.

"There's something about this place that allows for that kind of expansive thought. There's a lot possible here that isn't possible other places."

When students ask him why they should bother with graduate school, Riddell tells them: "You should go to graduate school instead of hanging around New York City or L.A. (because) you're going to be around your peers in other fields that are also looking for a way to express themselves in the theater. Out of that kind of creative stew, that sort of forum, ideas develop and relationships develop.

"That's really how future work in the theater comes about--through people working together."

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