Charles M. Getchell Award: The Backstory

by Todd Wm. Ristau

SETC has a more than 70-year history of nurturing new plays and playwrights. A 1949 proposal to “try out new scripts” became in 1957 the New Play Project, which continues today as the Charles M. Getchell New Play Contest under the auspices of the Playwriting Committee. One winning play is selected each year to receive the Charles M. Getchell New Play Award.

But who is Charles M. Getchell? And how did the award come to be named for him?

Born August 22, 1909 in Gardiner, ME, Charles Munro Getchell (right) used to say that he “had theatre in his blood.” He attended Hallowell High School, followed by the University of Maine at Orono, where he earned a BA in 1930 and an MA in 1938. During those years, he developed a passion for the theatre. His yearbook describes Getchell as an English major but mentions “reading theatre magazines” kept him “pretty busy.” This is likely good-natured ribbing, as he did a lot more than read about theatre. He performed in plays, worked backstage, hung lights and painted scenery. When World War II broke out, Getchell served stateside in the Navy, and then pursued his studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he served as an actor, technician and director for the Wisconsin Players and received a PhD in English in 1946.

That same year, he applied for what he thought would be the perfect job: chair of the Speech and Theatre Department at the University of Mississippi. This would be his one and only university position after finishing college, and he devoted his life to building up the theatre program at Ole Miss, bringing it (and himself) to national prominence. He championed including musicals in the university season planning, and rumor has it he “sealed the deal” by choosing Carousel as the first spring musical because it was a “great favorite” with the chair of the Music Department. His students adored him and frequently remarked, “Dr. G taught me everything I know about theatre.”

In 1963, Charles was elected President of SETC and, two weeks later, died unexpectedly from a heart attack. His sudden death was a shock to everyone. As a testimonial to Getchell’s devotion and service to the arts, SETC passed a resolution that its New Play Project would forever include the words “in memory of Charles M. Getchell,” naming its centerpiece contest after him.

Getchell was married to Irene M. Getchell (1915-2001). Their children, Ellen G. Bierlein and Charles M. Getchell Jr., contributed memories and archival material for this article.

For more history on the award: Read the article by Chip Egan in the Winter-Spring 1999 Southern Theatre online at www.setc.org/setc-playwriting-history.

Todd Wm. Ristau is the founder and program director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University in Virginia. He is a past chair of SETC’s Charles M. Getchell New Play Contest and its Playwriting Committee.

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