One Department: Theatre

Blue Muse Magazine is proud to launch One Department, a new column featuring as-told stories from Central Connecticut State University’s faculty. Join us for a peek behind the curtain at Central’s Theatre Department.

Theater didn’t always exist as a major at CCSU. First, there were the Central Players, a student club on campus that produced their own shows. (One of the Central Players, James DeLaura, still works on campus!) As student interest grew, theater became integrated into the English Department’s curriculum, but only three classes were offered. Then, in 1970, the Department of Speech and Theatre was created. In 1971 the department was renamed the Department of Theatre. Finally, in 1974, the first CCSU students graduated with a BFA in Theatre.

The department currently puts on three shows a year, as well as an SGA funded musical every spring. According to their mission statement, “the education of Theatre students requires a comprehensive program of practical application of techniques and theory, plus personal awareness, in order to prepare students for productive participation in an increasingly diverse and multi-cultural world.”

Welcome to One Department.

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First Theater

When I was in high school, my sister started doing this theater troupe called the Young Performers Workshop, and she was gone every weekend and I just thought it was the dumbest thing. I was a football player. I used to rag on her about it. My parents forced me to go see a show, it was a musical called Singing in the Rain. I just remember detesting having to go and pitching a fit. I remember when I got there, all the smells, emotions and feelings were all very visceral. I’m very connected to it still because it was such a life changing experience for me. I just remember being very curious out in the lobby. Then they opened the doors to the theater and I walked in, and the smell of the theater, and just seeing the big red curtain— I was engaged right away. My feelings twenty minutes ago didn’t mean anything anymore. I was just blown away. I left knowing what I wanted to do. It was embarrassing to go to my parents and be like, “Hey I want to do this too,” right after I just threw this fit.

They said “Well listen, if you want to do this give it a year, and next year if you still want to do it, you can.” I saw every show that my sister was in at that time. I ended up performing myself and helped out with the scenery because I worked in the woodshop in high school. In two years I did close to twenty plays and musicals. It was crazy. I was captain of the football team in high school and I starred in the musical in the spring. Then I got into design and tech because I loved the theater, but I didn’t think my parents could handle another actor. A director of the Young Performer’s Workshop said to me in a gazebo, “You should get into design and tech because you’ll always have a job.” So I took those words, sold them to my family, and went to study theater. When I got into the theater in college, I found out that working there was like all of the team sports I had done up until that point. It’s not one single organism; it takes a community of people together to make a play, to make a musical, and that is what engaged me. This heartbeat of the making in order to get it done. That has been what has driven me ever since; meaningful collaborative relationships and making great art.

Training

I was based in New York while I was getting my master’s degree. While studying at Brooklyn College I was also the staff technical director at the college. With my graduate studies and my full time work schedule, it was a challenge to freelance; however I did do a number of gigs in New York. I currently mainly work in New England. I just did a job where I did scenic and lighting design for Endgame up in Northampton Mass.

I really appreciate and enjoy absurdist playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. I admire the work of Tennessee Williams and even the work of contemporaries like Susan Mary Parks and August Wilson, who is now deceased. I really like work that not only tells a personal story about a certain subject, but also weaves in these higher ideals, like these higher understandings. Ask the art to tell a part of that story visually, emotionally, through physicality. I’m not the kind of designer that thinks about storytelling in these big massive scenery events or these huge sets and budgets. I’m most interested in telling the story of a box, or telling the story of a garment through an embodiment of the actors, telling a story that connects emotionally, connects physically, connects spiritually. That’s my favorite kind of work.

CCSU

At the theater department, we connect theory and practice, and not only do we do it as professionals, we share it with the students. We say, “Student, take these classes and go down this track and you will have an opportunity to practice the theory that we are teaching in our classrooms right on our stage.” We do three department shows a year plus the SGA funded musical every spring, so we have four opportunities for students, on the design, tech, and performance end, to practice what they are learning. We aren’t bogged down by a graduate school, we aren’t bogged down by insane numbers of students, even though we’d like our enrollment to go up like everybody else. There’s enough competition and enough opportunity that there’s a nice balance, and Central, as far as administratively, supports that mission, and supports the arts.

We are supportive, but we also have that scrappy spirit. I don’t come from an Ivy or little Ivy, I come from scrappy state schools. In a lot of ways that kind of spirit is what the profession needs; we need to educate our next up-and-coming artists and technicians with the ability to think outside the box, and not turn toward the pile of money to solve the problem, but towards the empty space and the pile of chairs and the sticks outside.

Curtain Call

Technology has exploded, and not only in the producing end of it. It’s also in the process end of it too, the making of it. It’s not abnormal for me to freelance a job and not actually see a human or touch a hand. I’m on the internet Skyping and you know we never actually touch. I’ve worked some jobs where I’ve gotten paid and I’ve never even stepped foot in the theater. It’s what’s happening everywhere, it’s not just in theater. We’re learning how to adapt and also utilize that technology. We have these machines that are cutting edge that have been used in the industry for a while. Basically you drop a drawing you did on the computer into it and it cuts it out for you. It’s really cool. We have 3D printers, we have intelligent lighting, so on the technology end we are adapting.

There’s nothing in a theater production that’s there by accident. It’s there with purpose. From the pile of keys on the table, to the emotional lighting that occurs when “the thing” gets discovered, it’s all there on purpose. You can carefully craft all of that, but there’s still this spontaneity. You can’t get away from it. There’s no amount of editing that can change that. And so there’s this certain amount of feeling as an audience member that you get when you’re engaged in these environments. I’ve been to a lot of shows where I’ve been squirming out of my seat because something about it is moving me in different directions. You’re forced to deal with it. Just think about the climate that we’re in right now. What’s the best tool to share how people are feeling? It’s how movements are born. The theater is telling a story, it’s helping to educate the public.  

A study published in Champions of Change (1999) cites theatre arts, including performance classes, and participation in a drama club, as a source for “gains in reading proficiency, gains in self-concept and motivation, and higher levels of empathy and tolerance towards others” among youth of low socioeconomic status.

Source: The American Alliance for Theatre and Education http://www.aate.com/benefits-of-theatre-ed

Jan FixedFirst Theater

I grew up in Hawaii and there’s a low ceiling in every industry but particularly in the theater, there’s not a lot. There’s one professional theater and it’s a children’s theater. My parents never took me to the children’s theater, but starting at age eleven, they took me to the community theater. There’s some wonderfully talented people who live there.

I remember I was ten and my parents came home from seeing Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? To this day, my dad curses himself for not bringing us because he was afraid the material was too old for us. I’ve got a nine year old now. Would I take her to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff ? My dad was so impacted by the caliber and the quality of the performance and the show that even today he’s like: “I wished I had taken you.” So, starting at age 11, my parents took my twin brother and I to that theater. I don’t remember what the first show was but I remember it that vividly that they were like: “We should’ve taken you to see Edward Albee.”

I wanted to be a rock star and then found out I couldn’t sing. So, I was like, “OK, well, I just want to be on stage, I want to do theater, but I love performing.” I love the exchange in the moment between performers and audiences. You feel that exchange. For the performer, you get to take the journey of the character every night.

Training

I went to Emerson College. I didn’t really know how to dress. The first fall forty degrees was freezing, and of course, it went way lower than that. People told me to dress in layers and I was like okay, short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt? I didn’t really understand what that meant. I just had a calling for Boston. It was a culture shock, but I loved it.

I went to Emerson as an actor and second semester freshman year I was rooming with these upperclassmen women. One of them was graduating that semester with an acting degree and she was talking to her dad on the phone and saying, “Oh my God, I can’t get a job. They say I’m overqualified because I have a bachelors but I have an acting degree, I have no skills.” I was like: “Oh jeepers.” So, I changed my major to theater ed. They have a terrific theater ed program. I did some directing there and I knew I wanted to teach, but I didn’t want to teach kids. I wanted to teach adults at the college level, so I completed my degree, but I never did my certification.

After I had finished Emerson I was acting quite a bit and I did some film. What I really couldn’t stand about it was somebody else was in control so I gave my performance, I read the script, and said “Oh, this is what we’re doing.” And then later, when I went to the screening it was like “That scene was cut” or “This was changed” or you know through the editing. For me as a control freak, I want that control.

CCSU

I love the moment when students put ideas together in the classroom and I love taking students through the journey in terms of learning the craft of acting.  In my current acting class, I have a few students who’ve never done acting who came in really terrified every semester. The students I work with grow every semester. One student who was in my Acting 1 class was not a theater major and kind of got bitten by the bug and turned to acting. He has since gone to do internships at places like Williamstown, he’s taking class in NYC, and he’s done shows here. He’s just so excited about the work. So I love working with students and seeing them kind of catch on fire and grow.

The last show that was just done here, The Laramie Project, about half the cast had formerly been in my classes. I knew them at the Acting 1 level and now they’re juniors and seniors and to see the work they did and the growth from the Acting 1 classes till that show is just so rewarding. Just being able to grow and apply their classwork to the work on stage is so beautiful and really exciting.

Curtain Call

I just got hired to direct Tosca, an opera, in May here in Connecticut. I’m pretty excited because it will be a huge leap for me artistically. I will be working with a music director and there will be a whole orchestra and conductor and everything which isn’t sort of my purview at all. My interest has been in more straight plays, serious drama, comedy, and avant-garde plays and mostly before I started teaching my work was developing new plays with playwrights so working directly in the room with the playwright and helping them to shape their vision.

There’s been a change to embrace the theatrical nature in theater, so we can embrace magic and “what if.” A chair can become many things, and of course it’s still a chair, but just sort of the transforming of objects and the use of bodies in space. Theater is the only art form that can do it. My students created an ensemble piece the other day. The scene was Black Friday and two people saw something they wanted, and they started to get really aggressive with each other about the thing they wanted, and they turned into apes. You can’t do that on film, it’s not believable, it doesn’t work. But in theater, all of a sudden you can transform at a moment’s notice in a heartbeat and it’s magical.

I was teaching a lesson on Bertolt Brecht and he thinks that theater can change the world. He was a revolutionary, and he wanted to use the theater to change the world. Of course working at a time before we had so much media and when you think of how many people theater reaches versus say film or now the internet I think, actually, he’s right and it can change the world.

I think we can have a great impact and we can change the people we touch whether it’s opening them up emotionally or making them think. That’s the thing I love about the theater.

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First Theater

I have vague memories of seeing magicians and concerts at three and four years old and telling my parents I wanted to be a magician. Ironically, I’ve always been behind the scenes; I’ve never performed in a show. I started in middle school doing the follow spot for the talent shows. In high school, I directed the lighting and helped with wireless mics on the musical. It was during that time that I decided to go to school for lighting design. Though I joke it was the path of least resistance, theater has been a very difficult path for me.

Training

I was fresh out of high school when I started going to school at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. They had a great theater program, but they didn’t have any organization management. They would do 60 to 70 hours a week the entire semester to make sure the productions were up. Work took precedent over the academics. So, I decided to transfer. I planned to come to CCSU for a year. I really liked the program which lead to me stay. We interviewed Ken Mooney for a faculty position my first year at CCSU. Mooney ended up being the associate costume designer on Wicked. He talked about the project of opening up Wicked during the interview process and I thought, “Maybe I want to stick around and see what this guy can teach me.” The second or third semester he was here he went part time and was driving to NYC three times a week to work on Wicked. He took us down to a costume fitting for the show. The culture of what the CCSU faculty provided us and the life experiences were so different than what I had received in PA; which was just work, work, work, work. I think that’s why I stayed at CCSU; because of the experience of that one professor.

I received my master’s degree in Technical Direction from The University of Connecticut. Technical direction is like project management for theater. You’re using technology to design the production. It entails budget, time, labor, money, personal, creating a better stock, developing a shop that is reusable and expanding over time. You also have a vested interest in the theater. You’re someone who worries about the better good of everyone. You make sure that whatever we’re doing in the theater doesn’t destroy the theater. Alongside that you’re also a little bit of health and safety. When we did Metamorphosis we had to make sure that the water temperature was warm enough so that we didn’t give any of the actors hypothermia.

There are a lot of people in theater that I look up to. There’s so many niches in what we do so there’s not one person who’s career path I want to exactly follow. Professor wise I really look up to my graduate professor Jack Hardy. I was previously never organized on the computer before and now all of my files, everything, are in perfect order and he instilled that in me. He also said that if anyone ever asks the question: “Is it good enough?” they’re probably doubting themselves and to go back and keep working.

CCSU

This is my seventh school year teaching full-time at CCSU. The opportunities available to students is why I teach here. I was recruiting this weekend at Open House and I always tell the parents: “Look at what your students are going to get out of this program. This is a very competitive industry. You need experience. If you’re going to a school with a graduate program in theater you’re ultimately going to be competing with that graduate student for a job.” I tell them: “Look at schools like CCSU who don’t have graduate programs to compete with and then plan on going to graduate school somewhere else.” On top of a lack of graduate program to compete with, we also provide our students with a lot of employment opportunities. I started working at the Hartford Children’s Theater my senior year. The training that CCSU gave me allowed me to be employed immediately which is something that I valued. Theater isn’t just an art, it’s also a competitive business.

A lot has changed at Central since I started teaching here. We have better production organization and better budget management. Our technology has changed immensely. When I started seven years ago the drafting class was half hand drafting and half auto cad and now we don’t even teach hand drafting. We don’t have time to teach them a skill they’re not going to use. I have a hard time teaching a curriculum for nostalgic purposes. We have different lighting technology now. We’re starting to get LED’s. Sound is completely different. Chasing the technology has been difficult but necessary for us to keep up with the changing industry.

My job has proven to be extremely rewarding. When the productions are opening and the parents and family are coming to see the shows, the parents thank us for their students staying in school. It’s gratifying to hear back from our students as we see them maturing through their careers. Former students come back and say: “I’m opening a show. Here’s tickets for opening night.” They only get two tickets for opening night and the first person they ask to see the show is me.

Curtain Call

I worked on a production called Enter Laughing which was the life of Carl Reiner. Carl Reiner is a very famous stage actor from New York. He’s in his 90’s now and someone wrote a story about him. It did fairly well. The production received four workshops. When we workshop something we rehearse it, bring in the writers, the authors, the lyricists, everyone. Finally, they said we’d gone through enough workshops let’s do a full launch of the production. We dumped all sorts of money into it. Carl Reiner actually hired a film crew to come in and film it cause he didn’t want to fly from California to see the show cause he’s in his 90’s. Him and the director had kind of a misunderstanding of what happened at one point in Carl’s life and the director said: “Well this is good theater let’s just do it.” Carl said, “Yeah, but it’s not my life so I’m not going to fund it.” So, it was kind of bittersweet that we got to work on this awesome thing and then it was just over.

Theater is so important because it allows people to express themselves and not worry about other people’s opinions. Some theaters produce things knowing that people are going to be offended by it. You’re bound to see some weird abstract pieces in theater. Most of our storytelling is through the suspension of disbelief. You have to believe what you’re seeing on stage. Part of what we do on the technical side is allow the audience member to relate to what the actor is telling them which is why we do the scenery, the lights, the sound. It helps you get to that point of believing what you’re seeing.

In 2002, the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) conducted surveys in ten major metropolitan areas regarding the role of Performing Arts in their lives and communities. They discovered that at least ninety percent of respondents from each metropolitan area agreed or strongly agreed that the performing arts contribute to the education and development of children.

Source: The American Alliance for Theatre and Education http://www.aate.com/benefits-of-theatre-ed

Thom Clip

 First Theater

The first live show I remember seeing was Master Harold and The Boys at Hartford Stage Company. The Hartford Stage was the first to use what is called a three-quarter thrust. You could be looking at the back of an actor who was facing somebody from across the same space as you and behind them were audience members.The intensity of the actors was such that I felt like I was in the middle of something that was actually happening. In the show, Master Harold was the son of the owner of a restaurant, and was a really spoiled privileged white boy that was 19-20 years old. Everybody that worked in his restaurant was black and Harold treated them like they were not worth as much as he was. Despite the fact that Master Harold was a shit, there was still a couple of characters that had a genuine love for him because working in the restaurant Master Harold’s father owned had felt like family.  That paradox, that contrast, at fifteen years old, blew my mind.

Theater is important because it’s real, it’s live, and it’s an actual exchange between people. I feel like everyone changes when we all leave the theater. The world is different. It feels more real to me that it’s happening now and that we’re all sharing this interaction so that how the audience responds becomes apart of the art. It offers an opportunity for all of us to integrate ourselves in a way that is completely unique.

Training

As a CCSU student, I was in two plays in 1978, The Fantastics and You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. Both were performed in Torp. Our main theater in Maloney Hall is now a black box, which is a three-quarter thrust. It’s really cool to be working in the style that first inspired me. Way more tech savvy then when I was a student. They can accomplish way more than we could technically back then, and I feel like there is a greater range of material now. We really do cover the world canon, and in the stuff that we are attacking, the actors are finding a deeper connection to the material and the material has deeper relevance. Scott is a tremendous innovator figuring out how things work. Even if we don’t always have the money for cool special effects we are able to make some really exciting things.

I remember trying to make fake fire when I was a student here. It was a desk lamp underneath layers of gel that was being blown by a fan. It looked so cheesy, it was so pathetic. Today, there’s better problem-solving and integration of all the parts.

My first child was born the year after I graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s acting program. My wife and I decided San Francisco would be a city with a strong enough scene that we might pursue our careers, but would be laid back enough for a baby. We wound up working more than full time in the restaurant business. After three years, we were desperate for theater. We returned for our M.F.A. degrees, now with two children. Following the completion of those degrees we started a theater company. A production of our first season was a play called Academia Nut!. I had written the play in partial fulfillment of my MFA. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette named me “The Most Promising New Voice” for ’92/’93. I taught at several colleges and universities in the Pittsburgh area, and my work as a fight director got me gigs all over the state of Pennsylvania, as well as in Boston and New York City.

CCSU

I’ve been hanging around this campus since 1965, since my dad was a math teacher here, which is really weird. So much has changed. So much. The gym was in Davidson, the area where the registrar is used to be the gym. There was a street down the middle of campus. This long walkway that goes up to the gym was Wells Street. You had to wait for the light to change to be able to cross from here to there. When they first built the library and Copernicus with the big observatory on top, they were crazy innovations. It is so much more pleasing, aesthetically pleasing, and the faculty is way more accomplished. Great ambition here.

This is my nineteenth year teaching here at CCSU. It’s been awhile. Nineteen years has gone fast. I used to think being anywhere for three to four years was a long time, like to get your undergraduate degree.  Before this the longest I have worked anywhere was ten years. My teaching style is very interactive, very active. I don’t like to tell people how things are, I like to ask them a lot of questions. I like to try and encourage students to find things and discover things for themselves rather than telling them what to look for. They’re going to make their own discoveries because then they own it much more. I want them to keep learning, to keep discovering, consuming, and questioning and looking for new answers when they leave here. It’s not about knowledge so much as it is practice. We are up on our feet and inventing a lot.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller, is my favorite show because one of the things that I often talk about in my classes is that art, to really work well, has to be really personal. A lot of my students have a hard time with that, they rebel against that. They grew up thinking that acting was pretending, pretending to be somebody else and putting on masks, but what I’ve discovered, through my work, is that by taking off a mask completely, that is when the work is the most powerful. That comes from recognizing that I have all the possibility of human life inside of me. When I’m trying to understand a character, I’m not looking inside another person I’m looking inside myself.

The most rewarding part of my job is the creative collaboration. Being able to puzzle with someone else who loves to puzzle and then to see the results. Just before I accepted this job, I was in Pittsburgh working at my theater company. There were four of us that were significant in that theater and being able to get together with them and sometimes stay up all night puzzling and developing things together was so exciting, to say, “Okay we have this thing. What are we going to do? What do you see in this thing? What do you see in this thing? Ok, let’s get on our feet for a while and play and see what happens.”

For me the most important thing about theater is ensemble. The whole is more important than the sum of the parts. Each of us makes the group the most important thing and because of that each of us are elevated, and that’s something that I think the world could use more of.

Curtain Call

My Wife is my role model. She is supremely confident and works with great energy and authority. Passionately, she looks for what’s important, she cracks things open, and she has an amazing instinct about human beings. With human beings and visual pictures, she puts things together in such a way that you go like “ahh.” I’ve tried to understand how she does that. We were both acting students and she changed to directing almost as soon as we both finished our degrees. The guy who ran our program at that time, once a year, he would take someone aside that was an acting student and say, “You’re really good at this, you have a different way of looking at things, understanding things, not that you’re a bad actor, but maybe you should be a director.” Those people that he would pull aside, they would get to graduate with a master’s degree in a year because they already had four years of acting. He saw the two things as related and he wanted to get them into the profession quicker, so it was my wife that year. She’s just really gifted.

Some might say it’s a bit crazy to go into theater and to have a family. Maybe we are, but I feel like the world needs to remember that if you’re not serving your heart, then there may not be a point to what you are doing. Even crazier than that: we also, since we first began to know each other, have had a passion for colonial homes and the idea of living off the land. Somehow, as theatrical artists, we have successfully raised four kids and now live in a two hundred and thirty three year-old house on eighteen acres with organic gardens, goats and chickens. Two of our kids work for Lumosity in San Francisco, one is a Software Engineer in Minneapolis, and the youngest is in her sophomore year as a Professional Writing major at Champlain College. Our first granddaughter just turned a year old and we can’t wait to introduce her to the goats. We will probably get bees this summer.

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