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The History of the Rice Players and Neil “Sandy” Havens ’56

The Rice Players, established in 1951, is the oldest student-run theatre troupe in Houston and a fixture of Rice’s celebrated theatre tradition, which spans an array of professional quality performances in the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts, as well as popular college theatre productions. We invited Mitra Miller Roehr ’92, a Rice Player herself, to share the story of the group and its legendary former director.  

Most alumni know that Neil “Sandy” Havens ’56, a Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History at Rice, and the Rice Players were inextricably linked for the 36 years he served as the troupe’s director. But his involvement actually began when he was an undergrad at Rice. Sandy joined as a freshman in the second year of the Players’ existence and went on to serve as one of the student coordinators until he graduated in 1956. After graduation, he pursued his academic, acting and directing careers for brief period of time and returned to Rice in the fall of 1964 as the first professional director of the Rice Players. 

With Sandy’s arrival, the Rice Players entered an era of artistic ambition. There was very little theatre in Houston in the 60s and 70s, so both Rice and the University of Houston played significant roles in building the local theater scene. For many years, Sandy and the Players were known as one of the top companies as they staged Houston premieres of innovative works by playwrights like Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee and Berthold Brecht. 

One of Sandy’s most riveting stories is about the controversial play “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Peal Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade” (aka, “Marat/Sade”) by Peter Weiss.  This production became legendary when it coincided with one the most turbulent events in Rice’s history: the four-day presidency of William H. Masterson in 1969.

“The Masterson Crisis” transpired when the Board of Governors appointed a new Rice president without input from the faculty or the students, which caused extensive campus protests and a hastily-organized referendum (read more here). In the middle of this tumult, Rice Players put the finishing touches on their politically-charged production about the French Revolution. Opening just hours after the referendum to standing-room-only, the audiences, including several newspaper reporters, marveled at the speed with which Sandy and Rice Players were able to capture campus sentiment. In actuality, the play had been in production for several months, which could be viewed as artistic prescience by the Players who chose it. 

Sandy describes putting on four shows each year, with an ever-changing mix of cast and crew, “a bit like being in combat.” A team comes together and spends hundreds of hours working to create something meaningful — when, he notes wryly, “you probably ought to be doing something else.” He recalls the constant energy of working towards a very real and immovable deadline, opening night, with “no excuses and no incompletes.” 

According to Sandy, what makes Rice Players unique, both then and now, is the incredible diversity of its participants. Players come from every academic discipline on campus, including engineering, science, social sciences, humanities, music and architecture.  Faculty and staff also are invited to join productions, and many have done so over the years. Like residential college theater productions, notably the still active Baker Shakespeare and Wiess Tabletop Theater, Players productions provide an artistic outlet for the most unlikely thespians. He notes with pride that many Players went on to win prestigious academic awards like “outstanding engineering student” at commencement. 

For those interested in learning more about the history of Rice Theater, Sandy gave a lecture in 2007 that is available here. Sandy continues to reside in Houston with his wife, Helen ’57.  

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