Women of USU: Then and Now, Women in Theater

Since its earliest days, women at Utah State University have had a huge impact on the cultural, scientific, economic, and social fabric of the institution. The Year of the Woman shares these critical voices simply because their stories matter.

The Fine Arts, including music and painting, took their place at the Utah Agricultural College (UAC) from the very beginning of the college. The dramatic arts were not far behind, making their debut in the January 1898 with the staging of the show “A Boy of Mondays.” While music and painting were part of the general college curriculum, the dramatic arts remained an organized extra-curricular club. 

During the early days of the “Drama Society,” later known as the Periwig Club, the group was primarily under the direction of the English Department and was eventually included within the Department of Speech. In 1903, the college employed Alfred H. Upham to help guide the drama club, and several productions were staged during his time. He was succeeded by Miss Sarah Huntsman in 1909, founded the Periwig Club in 1914 and distinguished herself through composing, staging, and directing the UAC Pageant in 1915. Many directors followed Alfred H. Upham and Sarah Huntsman, each one helping grow the drama club and create a distinguished name for UAC theater productions.

Drama, music, and the visual arts were finally consolidated into one department in 1956. With the dramatic arts growing in popularity and greater standing within the college, President Daryl Chase, Vice President Milton Merrill, and Professors Twain Tippetts and Floyd Morgan acquired and renovated the long vacant Lyric Theater. The Lyric Theater reopened in April 1961, offering facilities for theatrical productions and for the Fine Arts Department to develop a stronger relationship with the community. Professor W. Vosco Call (1927-2019) founded the popular Lyric Repertory Theatre in 1967.

Many Aggies have worked tirelessly over the years to develop theater at USU; unfortunately, several have gotten lost in the changing times or because their faces are hidden behind the scenes. We are spotlighting two, both “mistresses of the wardrobe:” Verna Pearl Bowman and Nancy Hills.

Then: Verna Pearl Bowman “Mistress of the Wardrobe” (1905) 

Verna Pearl Bowman entered Utah Agricultural College (UAC) as a student in 1903. While at UAC, Verna joined the ranks of the Sorosis Society, first as secretary and later as president. She was also a member of the Student Life staff. She was also extremely active in UAC’s theater arts. While she did not frequent center stage, as she had a tendency to forget her lines, Verna was known as the “Mistress of the Wardrobe,” costuming the shows “As You Like It” and “She Stoops to Conquer.”

Verna graduated in 1905 with a major in English and immediately was employed as an instructor in the English Department. In this same year, she was a member of the UAC Woman’s Club and the secretary of the Alumni Association. Verna only taught one year because of ill health but returned in 1907 to assist in the English Department and in the Night School. She also obtained a degree in Domestic Science.

Verna went on to take charge of the Domestic Science Department at the University Branch Normal in Cedar City, Utah. 

Now: Nancy Hills, Professor (2020)

Nancy Hills, professor of Theater Arts and director of the Costume Design Shop, joined the USU faculty in 1989. 

Born in San Mateo, California, Hills has had an interest in costuming from a young age. In an interview with the USU Statesmen, she said “I would look at movies and connect it to old photos of my family I had seen. I could date movies by what they were wearing.” Hills took this interest in clothing and used it to create a career in costuming. 

Hills has worked as a costume designer in theaters all over the United States and her designs have been on display in several countries. The most recent shows Hill has designed for include: Pericles, Anna Karenina, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night for USU Theatre Arts; Streetlight Woodpecker, Winter, Fun Home, Silent Dancer for Salt Lake Acting Company; and Playboy of the Western World, Blithe Spirit, Next To Normal for the Artist Repertory Theatre, Portland Oregon.

In 2013, Hills received the Janet Arnold Award from the Society of Antiquaries in London which funded the development of patterns taken from two U.K. historic clothing collections. Using the recreated patterns, Hills, a freelance costumier, and some graduate students created white versions of the garments that have been shown in several exhibits in England and in the USU Eccles and Tippetts Galleries. The gowns demonstrate not only how fashion changed over time, but also women’s roles in society. 

Professor Hills’ TEDx talk on the impact of World War II on clothing, Make Do and Mend, is available here: https://research.usu.edu/tedxusu/portfolio-items/nancy-hills/.

Costume design in theater, then and now, requires deep knowledge of the script, the history of the period, and creativity to imbue the sketches and the final results so that the clothes and accessories contribute to the dramatic experience and help tell the story.

The success of theater is made possible by viewers and community members like you. Without your participation and support, the arts would not survive. We invite you to participate in local theater engagements when possible. With the 2020 anniversaries of women gaining the right to vote, many theater companies in Cache Valley are presenting shows with a focus on strong female protagonists. We invite you to engage with performances near you in this year-long celebration of women gaining the right to vote.

Whitney Schulte
UAC Graduate
Robert Parson