David Korff, 1942-2021

Sometimes we work toward a goal, knowing what we want and devoting our efforts toward achieving it.

Other times opportunities are presented unexpectedly, and if we take the chance it might change the course of your life.

David Korff

David Korff, who died on January 20, provided that opportunity to me in late 2008. David was the chair of the department of visual and performing arts at St. Clair County Community College, and late in the fall semester of that year, he had a problem: The department had an upcoming theater production in less than a month and he’d just lost the director, who’d left to take another opportunity. He asked the technical director, Roger Hansel, if he knew someone who might be able to come in and take over the production. Roger, a friend of mine from community theater, suggested me.

David asked Roger to give me a call and find out if I’d be interested. In other circumstances, I might have hesitated a bit, but late 2008 was near the start of the Great Recession; both my wife and I had lost our jobs, so any income was going to be welcome, and the idea of actually getting paid to do something I loved was an added incentive. I accepted and somehow we put together the production – Christmas Belles by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten – in about three weeks.

David and his wife, Katherine, came to see the play (they came to all of the plays and other arts events on campus) and she was very complimentary. David was more reserved, so I wasn’t immediately sure he’d liked the job I did. Plus I figured it was a one-off gig.

So when I stopped by the Fine Arts Building the following Monday to finish the cleanup and collect my things from the office I’d used for my brief time as a professional director, David stopped me in the hallway.

“You’re doing the next show, too, right?” he said.

“Uh, yeah,” I cleverly replied. Both Christmas Belles and the first show of the winter semester, two one-acts by Edward Albee (The American Dream and The Zoo Story) had already been selected by my predecessor, and Albee’s works are not easy to stage. But I had the feeling that if we could do Albee justice, this could turn into something greater.

The American Dream/The Zoo Story was well-received. My small troupe of actors, soon to be renamed The SC4 Players, rose to the occasion. As the semester ended, and I was again preparing to clear out my office, David stopped me in the hall again.

“What shows are we doing next year?” he asked.

“Uh, I don’t know,” I replied, not-nearly-as-cleverly.

“Well, the director picks them, and you are directing for us next year, correct?” he said.

“Of course, David,” I said, feeling a smile overtake my entire face. A full-year gig directing sounded pretty good, even if still part-time. Then he dropped the other surprise.

“And you’re going to teach acting for us, too, right?”

“Yes, sir,” was all I could think to say.

Eventually, I taught acting, improvisation, and oral interpretation of literature for eight years at the college. My colleagues and students and I built a small program into a much larger one, with as many as fifty students involved in our productions over the course of an academic year.

And it all started with a phone call, and someone who could see beyond the usual constraints, who wanted results, and who had the imagination to let those things happen. David Korff was that person.

One day, during the rehearsals for the Albee one-acts, I stopped by David’s office as I often did to give him an update. He patiently listened to my report, which I assumed he would want because every boss I’d had up to that point in my various careers always expected status reports. When I finished, he asked me why I kept telling him all of this information. I said I thought he expected regular updates.

“I don’t know much about theater,” he said, “except that I like it. I hired you to do that job for me. If I’m unhappy with what you’re doing, I’ll let you know.”

That was an incredibly freeing moment. I’m not sure I’d ever felt so trusted, and I’m not sure I’ve had that feeling since David retired a few years later. I’ve never forgotten it.

I got to work with David on the first grants committee devoted to the arts at our local community foundation, and got to appreciate his overall knowledge of arts and how they worked, including the value of art. Groups would come to us asking for funding for upcoming projects, and most of the time they would say that they intended to have no admission fee for their event. David would push back, suggesting they place at least a nominal price on admission, even 50 cents or a dollar, simply so people would understand that arts had value, that they weren’t trivial or throwaway parts of our society. Not everyone accepted his advice, but I did, and that advice continues to inform my decisions as an artist.

Honestly, I didn’t know David that well. We didn’t socialize outside of work. I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but certainly respectful colleagues. In the fall of 2011, we produced a collaborative celebration of all of our arts disciplines, including theater, music, dance, and visual arts. Afterwards, David wrote me a short note:

I did get to tell David on several occasions how much the opportunity he gave me changed my life. He would smile and tell me that I’d helped him as much as he helped me, but I’m not sure it’s even close to equal.

David Korff’s obituary closes with the following suggestion:

As a Living Memorial for David and those you love, take your family to a concert. Picnic along the River Walk. Acclaim the blue of Lake Huron. Visit Museums and Galleries. Buy a piece of Art. Eat more pie!

Thanks, David, for taking a chance on me.

Open to interpretation

I used to teach acting at a community college. The department where I taught was called “visual and performing arts.” The performing arts were vocal and instrumental music, dance, and theater.

While “performing arts” is no doubt an accurate description of what happens when the artist is in front of an audience, I prefer to think of them as “interpretive arts.” I like that term because music and theater performances require a two-step creative process. This is different from photography, illustration, painting, sculpture, and other visual arts, which involve a single artist producing a finished work based on a concept or idea they have devised themselves. There’s seldom a team involved in creating a work of visual art.

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Going back to a (virtual) stage

Nearly all live theater companies and groups have been idle since the world shut down for the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, like everything else, theater artists assumed they would have to postpone or cancel a production or two, but then things would slowly get back to normal.

Eight months later, many groups are still wondering when, if ever, that “normal” is coming. Restrictions on the number of people who can attend a public event are very low in most states, making the economics of a full-blown stage production difficult.

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