To Her, Caltech’s a Stage, Students, Faculty the Cast

Times Staff Writer

With the student production of “Oliver!” in February, Caltech will have its 12th continuous year of major musicals and director Shirley Marneus could have her umpteenth roaring success.

That much seems certain, where little else is.

Marneus, Caltech’s one-person version of a theater arts department, chooses and directs two or three shows a year--usually without ever having seen them. She never knows who will show up to audition, even for the leads. She casts some of Caltech’s illustrious faculty in special roles, never sure if they will be around to perform. She has no idea if there will be enough musicians and dancers or exactly how much a show will cost to produce.

The results, however, are always the same: a cast of multi-talented students and world-renowned scientists in cameo performances, playing to full houses.


“I trust the right people will walk through the door to audition and they do,” Marneus said. “The trick in casting is to see characteristics of the role in the person auditioning and not try to meet some preconceived idea of a character.”

Among the results: A Korean student starred in “Fiorello,” a black was “The Music Man,” National Medal of Science winner Harry Gray was crap-shooting Harry the Horse in “Guys and Dolls” and Al Hibbs, spokesman for many of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s biggest projects in space, has been in many roles.

Hibbs’ performances range from Creon in “Antigone” to a song-and-dance comic in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in February.

“I was told there was somebody famous who played bongos, but I didn’t know who he was,” Marneus said, referring to Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman.

Feynman made his Caltech stage debut several years ago wearing a feathered South Sea costume for virtuoso bongo performances in “South Pacific” and, like Hibbs, has taken a wide variety of other roles.

Marneus said she first thought of asking administrators and faculty to take bit parts when she decided to stage “Guys and Dolls” about 10 years ago. The first scene called for 25 extras.

Asking some of the most famous scientists in the world to be in a student play has never been a problem for Marneus, who has made their appearances something of a tradition. “I could never see how anyone wouldn’t want to do it,” she said.

Type Casting

Gray, who won the National Medal of Science in 1986 and is director of Caltech’s Beckman Institute, said Marneus and students asked him to try out for the role of Harry the Horse in “Guys and Dolls” since he had once donned a horse’s head for a lecture on Halloween Day and already had the nickname.

“It’s a terrific way to get to know the students,” Gray said. “Here we are all equal. Except Shirley, who yells and screams and reduces everyone to nothing and everyone loves her.”

He called Marneus “a tremendous leader.”

Hibbs, who appeared on many educational television shows as a spokesman for JPL, said he initially asked Marneus for a small part in a musical and has continued to perform ever since.

Sudden Departure

Marneus faces the constant hazard of having the giants of science called away for more important work. After casting “Two Gentlemen of Verona” a few years ago, the lead was suddenly called to deliver a scientific paper in Rome. He barely made it back in time for dress rehearsals and the show was terrific, Marneus said.

Nine years ago when Marvin Goldberger arrived to become Caltech’s president, Marneus asked him and his wife, Mildred, to take cameo roles in “The Music Man.” They appeared as the farmer and wife in Grant Wood’s famous painting, “American Gothic,” framed by a pool table.

“The show stopped. People were just blown away. It was mad applause all five performances,” Marneus said.

Goldberger, who left last month to head Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, got the first small grant for what became Theater Arts of California Institute of Technology (TACIT). Until that time, Marneus had been volunteering her services as director of a few Caltech student shows. Since then, TACIT has become an affiliate of the school and Marneus is on the Caltech staff.

Once a professional in the theater, Marneus worked in a number of positions for Pasadena Playhouse and the National Broadcasting Co. Wanting a more secure and quiet life, 18 years ago she took a job in Caltech’s public affairs reading room. She and another theater enthusiast at Caltech produced some shows with professional actors, and in 1974, students asked her to direct them in “Kiss Me, Kate.”

Now Marneus calls TACIT and the shows “a parallel universe” for scientists.

‘Another Time Frame’

“People all slip into another time frame” when they work in the theater, she said. “This is one place where students and teachers are equal, where they work together in different relationships.”

Caltech students, who are scholastically in the top 1% in the country and are almost all gifted in science, create unique situations for Marneus.

“They can never work without using their minds,” she said. “They have such curiosity and desire to excel. My God, their intelligence is staggering.

“Many have said that being in a play, with its opening night and a closing, gives them tremendous satisfaction. Here, they get to attack something that is finite and they get to use their emotions. It’s a complete break from the kind of endless, intellectual projects that research can be.”

She prefers them to professional actors, Marneus said, because “these people are much more reliable and willing to try anything. Their egos are invested in science. Once in awhile they’ll goof off, but then I yell about the sacredness of the stage and they shape up very fast.”

Marneus reaches outside the campus to get some performers, if the student body and faculty do not provide characters for a role that must be filled. These people might be alumni, relatives of Caltech people or employees at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“But I want this to be primarily for the benefit of students,” Marneus said.

She chooses plays and musicals on the basis of their importance in the theater, usually scheduling a Greek drama and Shakespeare on alternate years and often a more current play, such as Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which Marneus considers one of the best she’s directed at Caltech.

‘Life in Theater’

This year will begin with David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theater,” opening on Oct. 23. In the leading roles will be Hibbs and David Stevens, who as a freshman was the lead in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

“Oliver!” will be this school year’s musical, followed by “The Merchant of Venice.”

In “How to Succeed,” Marneus achieved a record number of guest cameo appearances, featuring Gray, Feynman, Pasadena Mayor John C. Crowley, Police Chief James Robenson and a number of scientists, including Alan Dressler, an astronomer making his stage debut--and who had to dash off in mid-rehearsal to work at a telescope in Chile for two weeks.

Dressler said one of Marneus’ talents is “a tremendous ability to cast. She gets people who are perfect.”

Marneus said, “I think I may be the only director in the world who makes Nobel winners sit around in a dark auditorium.”

“I think scientists are perceived as unreachable and unapproachable in their ivory towers. When people see them this way, it’s something of a revelation.”

During rehearsals, she bellows, smokes heavily and talks in a kind of shorthand that stage crews seem to understand.

“How to Succeed” was chaos two nights before it opened, with students and Marneus coming up with last-minute changes and inspirations.

“I ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” Marneus recalled. “My God, I could have been a nun.”

The opening was polished. Audiences roared their approval.

“I’m just like the kids,” Marneus said. “You hear all that laughter and applause and you wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”