Another new beginning and a flashback

New Beginning-2

One thing I especially like about teaching college courses is that we start over every sixteen weeks or so. It’s usually the same courses, although I always revise things a bit because I’ve learned new techniques or ideas I like and want to include, but it’s a new set of students (hopefully) excited to start at the beginning and learn something about acting or improvisation.

This semester, I’ll be teaching Oral Interpretation of Literature for the first time. It’s a course that hasn’t been offered at SC4 for a few years, and I worked with our former department chair, David Korff, and the Curriculum Committee to bring it back, and to get it approved to meet the college’s Oral Competency graduation requirement. I’m excited to have it back on the schedule and to have two sections of it this winter.

Oral Interpretation was one of my favorite classes at Central Michigan University when I was there in the early 80s. Jill Taft-Kaufman was my professor, and I was influenced not just by her ideas of performance but also her caring teaching approach. She was funny and friendly and everything I try to be with my students today. So I’m extra geeked to be teaching the course myself starting tomorrow at SC4.

Thanks, Jill!

Lisa Sturtridge, theatre artist (1955-2011)

From the remarks I gave at the beginning of “A Celebration of the Art of Lisa Sturtridge” at St. Clair County Community College on Friday, October 28, 2011:

Our friend Lisa Sturtridge left us three weeks ago, but the “new normal” is taking a lot longer to get used to. I shared an office with Lisa for three years, but all of us shared the theatre, the classrooms, the hallways and the world with Lisa for much longer, 56 years in fact. When Lisa died on October 10th, she left behind hundreds of students she’d connected to over her years of teaching; many actors who understand that costuming and makeup is more than just clothes you put on and faces you paint on; many dozens of close friends and family all around the country, who shared one of her many passions: theatre (of course), photography, sports, 80’s hair bands, Broadway musicals, literature, and much more.

During our hours in our spacious luxury office suite, Lisa shared with me her many interests. I was never quite sure what music or talk program might be streaming over her internet connection. It was rarely the same thing twice… with the exception of listening to 97.1 The Ticket so she could mumble about the people who called in to the sports talk shows. She didn’t think much of them, but enjoyed listening to the hosts, another thing we agreed on.

I met Lisa in November of 2008, right after I was asked to direct my first show at SC4, “Christmas Belles,” after my predecessor, Rich Goteri, got an acting gig in L.A. and was unable to do that show. While I’d worked with volunteer costume people in community theatre, I didn’t know what to expect from Lisa as a professional costumer. I’m sure I’m not giving away any secrets when I tell you that artists, including theatre directors, often have very strong opinions about their work. I’m not any different, but I found Lisa to be an open-minded, enthusiastic collaborator whose primary concern was the overall quality of the production. To that end, she was vital to letting me know how things worked at SC4, and considering we only had four weeks to put the whole show together, I literally could not have done Christmas Belles without her.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to direct shows at SC4, and regardless of the style and timeframe of the play, Lisa was always ready to discuss and work together to create a visual sense for each character. She was particularly excited about the play we just completed, Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. She had done the costume design for the production but was unable to finish the collection of costume items before her death. The cast and I pulled together items from their own wardrobes – plus a whirlwind dress shopping excursion at Macy’s – and I think Lisa would have been pleased with how close to her original vision we ended up with on stage. The hallmark of good teaching is when your students can do things on their own, and clearly Lisa taught us – and I include myself in that list of students – taught us well.

Lisa Sturtridge did a lot of things in her life. She was a Sanilac County kid who went on to Michigan State to get a bachelor’s degree in technical theatre, with a concentration in lighting design; later she completed her master’s in costume design and dramatic literature at Emerson College in Boston. She worked with summer stock theatre companies for many summers during these years around the U.S. Incidentally, the music we played at the start, “Good Times Roll,” is by a band Lisa not only liked, but she also knew personally. When she was in Boston, she worked for a time at the Barnes & Noble store on Harvard Square, where students and professors from Harvard and MIT, along with many other poets, musicians, actors and artists would hang out. Among the people Lisa met working there were Benjamin Orr of The Cars and Tom Scholz of the band Boston. Another musical guilty pleasure of Lisa’s was 80’s hair bands. She surprised me one day by not only telling me that the musical Rock Of Ages was one of her favorites, but by then putting the album on and singing along heartily.

Her interest in photography brought her back to school at SC4 a decade ago, and she worked with Ralph Polovich as both a student and a darkroom assistant until the opportunity came along to use her costuming skills again beginning in 2004. She also began teaching Introduction to Theatre and Fundamentals of Stage Makeup. Over the past seven-plus years, Lisa touched many students’ lives as a teacher, a mentor and a friend. Because she hadn’t always had the easiest life herself, Lisa was particularly sensitive to students who had special life needs: economic challenges, academic or psychological difficulties, those who found themselves homeless or otherwise in need. Several times in the three years I knew Lisa, I saw her go out of her way to work with a student – and they didn’t have to be in one of her classes, either – and help them with proofreading a paper, borrowing a coat, or connecting with a social service agency. Students were her reason for being, and she was never happier than when she was just talking and sharing with a student in her office or in the costume shop.

It’s strange to think that Lisa won’t be walking through the door to our office again. While we didn’t agree on everything… and when you get tossed, more or less randomly, into an office to spend dozens of hours every week together, who does? Lisa and I shared a passion for the power of the art of theatre. All other minor differences were dwarfed by that common belief. Lisa was a colleague, a collaborator, an artist, and ultimately, my friend. I will miss her.

We all have different beliefs, and we take different comfort from them. Today’s event isn’t really a memorial service, as such, yet the mere act of holding this celebration of Lisa’s art is a reminder that when we affect someone, when we make their life better, when we make them laugh, or cry, or learn, or grow, we live in that person’s memory. Lisa affected so many people, and because of that, she will never be forgotten and lives on forever.

To close our program, I’d like to ask all of you to participate again. Lisa was a very affectionate person. She gave and received hugs enthusiastically. So now, I’d like to invite any of you that were affected by Lisa, who learned from Lisa, who counted Lisa as a friend, to join me on stage. Let’s hug each other one more time in the memory of our friend, Lisa Sturtridge.

Opening night for “The Gifts of the Magi”

Tonight is opening night for “The Gifts of the Magi,” a musical version of two short stories by O. Henry that I directed at St. Clair County Community College. It’s the first musical our department has done in several years, and tonight’s performance will be in front of many of the college’s administrators and over a hundred donors, so it’s a big deal. Dress rehearsal started a little rough last night, but the show got stronger as we went through it, and I think we solved the problem that was getting us off to a slow start. So I feel pretty confident about tonight.

In addition to directing the show, I’m also the vocal director and I’m conducting from the first row of our 300-seat thrust stage theater. I’m going to try to be as invisible as I can be, but I determined it would help if I was keeping the tempo and conducting the few odd rhythms that are in the music. I’ve enjoyed working on this production, especially with the talented students who are playing the six roles and working on the crew. My fellow faculty members Mary Hackstock (piano accompanist) and Lisa Sturtridge (costume designer) have been great to work with, and SC4 grad and current public school art teacher Janine Murphy-Evenson created a fantastic background on stage that sets our scene perfectly.

The show is Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. if you’re in the Port Huron area this weekend.

Just do it

I’m sitting in my office at the college, waiting to see the Drama Club’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” I’m the advisor for the club, but I’ve had very little to do with this student-led production, and that was an intentional choice. The Club has done some one-act plays in previous semesters, very successfully I might add, but late in the fall term I was approached by Alex Meyer, one of my students, who wanted to propose that the Drama Club do “Ghosts” as the winter production.

Now “Ghosts” is a big leap from the one-acts they’ve been producing, but Alex had read Ibsen’s play several times and was keen to direct it. So I told him to pitch it to the Drama Club members. Partially because he was so passionate and convincing, and partially because no one else had a better idea, “Ghosts” was approved and the ball started rolling.

I’ll know in a bit over an hour how well they’ve done with some very challenging material. But regardless of the artistic outcome, I’m very proud that the Club, and Alex in particular, took the big step of tackling a full-length period play and brought it to a successful conclusion.

Self producing is a growing topic in theatre, partially driven by the financial troubles of regional theatre companies. Rather than waiting for opportunities, some actors are starting their own groups and producing shows they want to produce. The costs of doing a small local production are manageable, with rental costs for a venue often the most expensive part of the budget (and sometimes the sticking point). But royalties are not onerous for non-musical plays, and costumes, props and scenery can be begged and borrowed. That’s why I think what Alex and the Drama Club have done is so important. They wanted to do something, and rather than wait for someone else to do it or for permission to be granted, they went out and did it.

Congratulations to everyone involved with the show. Now you know what it’s like to self produce a play, and hopefully it won’t be the last time you attempt it. I firmly believe we need more art, and that if you’re going to do something, you should start with quality, like Ibsen. I’d much rather fail artistically with something strong like “Ghosts” than succeed with a lesser script.

UPDATE: Very well done. Well developed characters, the simple set wasn’t flashy but served the story, costumes helped define the period (as the should — and a hat tip to my colleague Lisa Sturtridge for her help to the Club here). Overall, a most impressive result. Congrats to Chuck Tinker as well, both for his performance in “Ghosts” and for being the force behind the re-established Drama Club over the past year.

Another trip down the sledding hill

One of the coolest parts of working in theatre is that it’s rarely boring. Even if you’re doing a play that isn’t going well, at some point that show will be over and you move on to the next one. A group of new friends and old get thrown together to create another production.

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Image thanks: Thoth, God of Knowledge via Flickr

I selected Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing last spring as part of our 2009-10 season at St. Clair County Community College. I loved reading the play to myself, and wanted to choose works that would challenge my actors and crew. The Real Thing will do exactly that. Last week’s auditions provided me with seven strong actors to play these complex characters, and now I can begin to picture what they will look like. But the read-through is what I really look forward to. I get to hear the early sounds of the characters’ voices, which is always different than I heard them in my head while I was reading the play myself. And that’s good. My job as the director is to help the actors individually — and as a group — to discover the truth behind their characters so they can show that truth to our audiences. If I’ve done my job well, each actor will know much more about their character than I’d imagined.

Starting a new production is like jumping on a sled at the top of a hill and holding on for dear life. Once we start, there’s no stopping, and things start to rush by you as you speed down the hill. Today we’re back on the sled. I can’t wait.