Small Stage, Big Time Talent

Local theater schools are producing top-notch plays and talented professionals The cast of Xavier University’s April 2016 production of Rent. Directed by Stephen Skiles, the show featured a set by Joe Leonard and costumes by Kathleen Hotmer.

They’re Greater Cincinnati’s other theater schools. You know—the ones that aren’t the College-Conservatory of Music.

Some are small, like the one at Thomas More College. Others are large, but a little farther afield, like the one at Miami University. But the two most active and robust programs that are close to home are the ones at Xavier University and Northern Kentucky University.

The two programs couldn’t be more different.

NKU’s Department of Theatre and Dance is mammoth, with more than 250 majors. Its online faculty roster lists 19 people, though adjunct professors would expand that number greatly. Most impressive is that no matter where you wander in the Fine Arts Center, there seems to be some sort of production going on. There are mainstage productions and second-stage shows. The program has the biennial Y.E.S. Festival of new plays. And there always seems to be a performance taking place in one classroom or another.

Xavier’s Theater major is tiny in comparison. It lists just two full-time faculty members, though the adjunct faculty is a veritable who’s who of Cincinnati theater, including the likes of Bruce Cromer, D. Lynn Meyers, Pamela Myers and Brian Isaac Phillips. There are just 62 majors. And that’s a leap of nearly 40 percent over what it had last year. But then, for a program that isn’t even four years old yet, it’s impressive.

The one thing the two programs have is a certain scrappiness. Though they stage their share of mainstream shows, they’re constantly sticking out their creative necks. They’re hungry. They’re ambitious. And they tend to graduate students with similar traits.

After Griff Bludworth graduated from Xavier in 2016, he stepped into a one-year apprenticeship at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati. He understudied roles in nearly every production. He performed in a world-premiere ETC holiday show.

But all the while, he was crafting a decidedly out-of-the-ordinary play for the apprentice company to perform. It was called Antigone (born against.) and was a modern-day adaptation of Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play about gender inequality, courage and the love of family. Not only did Bludworth write the script, but he starred as King Creon. And, to top it all off, the script was based on his own translation of the original play from the ancient Greek.

Sound like an exercise in over-achievement? You bet. But then, Bludworth graduated with not only a degree in theater, but also another in classical studies. Today, he’s still at ETC, but now as an assistant director.

“That’s typical,” says Stephen Skiles, the head of XU’s theater program. “Maybe not the classical studies part. But I really encourage our theater majors to be double majors. If you can add a business or engineering or marketing degree on top of the theater degree, why not? Let’s continue educating ourselves.”

That’s a rarity in any degree program. Why encourage students to engage in other fields of study that may diminish their focus? Or, in the case of theater, cause them to miss the occasional rehearsal? Usually, that sort of thing is unthinkable.

“College is one of the rare times in life where people are encouraged to pour all their efforts into learning,” says Skiles. “So why not learn even more than you thought you might be able to? Why not immerse yourself in other things that interest you? In the end, all of that will make you a better actor or director or designer or whatever you decide to be in life.”

Xavier has a great tradition of student theater. But until Skiles pressed the issue with the university administration, Xavier had not offered a theater major. Once he got the go-ahead, Skiles has been aggressive in his recruiting and in his willingness to put edgy plays onto the stage.

He regularly attends high school productions and corresponds with students who show an interest in the program. Skiles is every bit as aggressive in bringing outside professionals to the campus.

When playwright Trey Tatum and director Bridget Leak presented a show called Slut Shaming at the 2014 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, Skiles saw a play that he thought would hold enormous relevance for XU students, especially for those at the beginning of their college careers.

Within months, Tatum and Leak were workshopping the show at Xavier, refining and tightening the play with a cast of XU students. In August 2016, the play was performed several times for incoming freshman. It was sobering and impactful theater and regarded as so important that it won an Ignatian Medal for Outstanding Commitment to Diversity and Social Justice from the Jesuit Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

“But remember, we also did Legally Blonde and The Music Man,” laughs Skiles. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that all of it is important. I know I said it before, but it bears saying again—we want to develop well-rounded people and well-rounded theater professionals.”

It’s much the same attitude over at NKU, says department chair Mike King. But the route they take is vastly different. As a large state school, NKU has the advantage of in-state tuition of residents of Kentucky. There is also a tuition incentive program that offers a tuition reduction of at least $5,200 to residents of 30 Ohio counties and three in Indiana.

Like Skiles at Xavier, King believes that nurturing and encouraging students is an essential part of what they do.

“That’s especially true in the early part of a student’s career,” says King. “That adjustment from high school to college can be very difficult. The expectations are different. And the responsibilities, too.”

At many colleges, first-year students aren’t allowed to participate in productions. That can be incredibly disheartening for a young person who has presumably had some great success on the stage in high school.

“We don’t do that here,” says King. “Students want to get onstage and perform. That’s why they’ve come here. To learn and to perform. So one thing we do every year is our first-year show.”

Typically, it takes place within the first three months of the school year. So even as they are adjusting to all the things that are different about university life, the students are able to throw themselves into one thing that is familiar—rehearsals.

“It gives them a chance to see what life is like at NKU,” says King. “And even more important, it gives them a chance to make connections to other students. We’ve found that this production has been an important element in retaining students and helping them make the adjustment to college.”

Erin Ward was typical of those students. When she arrived at NKU in the fall of 2010, she was like many college students—she didn’t really know what she wanted to do. She had attended an Educational Theatre Association conference at NKU a couple of years earlier and had heard then-department head Ken Jones speak. She was intrigued enough to audition for NKU’s musical theater program.

“But I didn’t get in,” she says. She decided to go to NKU anyway. “Because I lived in Morehead, it was affordable for me. And it was little distance from home, which I wanted, too. Mostly, I think I wanted a city experience. I’m from the woods, so this would be new for me.”

By her own admission, she was confused about what she wanted out of college, even after deciding to become a theater major during her sophomore year.

“But I had faculty members who were patient with me and took me under their wings,” says Ward. “I remember Mike King showing me how I was more skilled in acting than in music. I mean, I’m a folk singer, not your usual musical comedy performer.”

Most importantly, though, she was encouraged to experiment, to get in front of audiences, no matter how small, to take chances and to try all manner of performing.

During her final months at NKU, she took a leap and auditioned for a Fringe production called Hot Damn! It’s the Loveland Frog. The show was a hit. And it linked her with two of Greater Cincinnati’s best-connected actors and writers, Michael Douglas Hall and Joshua Steele.

Suddenly, Ward seemed to be on stage all the time. She was on stage at the Carnegie. And in the Know Theatre’s “Serials” series. And in a production of Tom Sawyer for Queen City Flash. Before long, she signed on to spend the 2015-2016 season as an apprentice at the Playhouse in the Park.

Today, Ward is still in town. And she is still performing. She’s an active member of OTR Improv and performs in plays as often as she can. She co-starred in the Know Theatre’s world premiere production of The Arsonists in September. And she’s currently acting in an indie film. And she is still thankful for the decision that took her to NKU.

“At NKU, you have to make your own career,” says Ward. “You can’t just sit and wait for someone to bring things to you. You have to make things happen for yourself. If you don’t get cast in a show, you have to find the drive to make other ways to get yourself and your art seen. That’s how it is now that I’m out of school, too. I learned how to find those avenues for myself. I don’t think I could have done that without NKU and Mike King.”

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