UTEP Dinner Theatre entertains audiences for 32 years

Amanda Guillen, Managing Editor

As the curtain rises, the UTEP Dinner Theatre prepares to finish up their production of “Mary Poppins” in their 32nd year.

“Mary Poppins” is among the many acclaimed musicals the UDT has produced.

As the only year-round full-time dinner theater on a college campus in the United States, the UDT has built an impressive resume of productions and reputation.

In 1983, Gregory Taylor, who majored in theater arts, was eager to direct a musical.

Taylor always had a strong interest in musical theater from a young age and knew that this was something he loved to do.

While attending a Thanksgiving luncheon with another fellow student in the Union building, Taylor imagined the space as the perfect location for staging a musical in a dinner theater setting.

From that moment Taylor approached the dean of students, who then pointed him in the direction of the director of the Union. Taylor was awarded $1,000 by the Special Programs and Activities Committee of the Student Programs Office and the rest is history.

Taylor was given the opportunity as a UTEP student to direct, and the show he chose was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

“When I started the dinner theatre as a student 32 years ago it was all by accident. I did not set out to found a new theater that would grow in to what we have today,” Taylor said. “We were just lucky that we had supportive administrations over the years and a large following that has enabled us to continue.”

With food prepared by Union Services and with the Union Ballroom as the venue, the show opened on March 10, 1983 and ran for three sold-out performances.

From that moment on, Taylor caught the show biz bug, which prompted him to approach the Student Programs Office for additional funding to produce a second show.

With approval from the office, “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened the following summer and garnered another sold-out crowd.

Taylor was offered a work-study position to keep the dinner theater running and soon began running a four-show season.

Now called the UTEP Dinner Theatre, Taylor is still at the head of thetheater, and many productions have had sold-out crowds.

In addition to a supportive administration, UDT has also gained the support of a famous lyrist and author, Sir Tim Rice.

Rice is best known for his work with Andrew Lloyd Webber in creating “Evita,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and is also known for his work for Disney with Alan Menken and Elton John.

In 2008, the UDT celebrated its 25th anniversary by hosting a concert celebrating the songs of Sir Tim Rice.

In a letter to Taylor, Rice said, “I can hardly believe that you have enjoyed 25 years of unparalleled uninterrupted triumph at UTEP…I know I shall enjoy my fifth visit to your town as much as I have the previous ones and it is more than kind of you to create an evening around my musical past. You inspire me to think about my musical future.”

Although the UDT has risen above expectations in all areas, Taylor said it is not without challenges.

“The main challenges are always financial. It costs a lot of money to do what we do and we are always searching for ways to save money,” he said. “Also the fact that our theater only seats 184 people at a time means we have to do so many performances to make our budget.”

Other challenges include limited performance space and technical equipment.

Associate director of the UDT, Beverly Kerbs-Ward, said  although there are financial challenges the theater is lucky to be a part of the university because there is no need to pay for rent or cleaning crews.

Kerbs-Ward goes on to say that working for the UDT has been a rewarding experience.

“We cater to a lot of older folks too, not just our students here at the university, but we have become a very special part of the El Paso community, and knowing that we have been able to keep going for so long it is a wonderful experience,” Kerbs-Ward said. “The beauty of entertainment, having someone come here and laugh or cry, being able to take someone out of their normal life and to just get away–we all need that.”

Taylor and Kerbs-Ward both emphasize the fact that the success of the UDT is largely due to the staff, most of whom have been around for more than 20 years.

When it comes to future plans for the growth or expansion of the theater Taylor said that it is all still up in the air.

“Three years ago there was mention of trying to get us a new facility, but I have not heard anything since then,” Taylor said. “We are always on the lookout for when the latest Broadway hit gets released so we can bring the show to our audience.”

The next UDT production will be “Pippin,” and auditions will take place at 7 p.m. on May 11 at the theater, located on the second floor of Union West.

Students do not have to be theater majors to be involved in the shows, whether as actors, technicians or musicians.

“We encourage all students to get involved,” Taylor said.

The UDT’s 32-year-journey is one that began with an idea from a student, who now is an associate professor and director of theater and dance at UTEP. His advice to students is simple and comes from experience.

“The university did believe in me and gave me a chance, so I would tell students that have a new idea to give it a shot, no matter what, because you never know what might happen.”

Amanda Guillen may be reached at [email protected]