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- Remarks from the Chair: Beginning again
- Donor profile: Mathew Sgan '56
- In their own words: The Department of Theater’s early days
- Chris Baker makes it official
- Jason Lites: Remembering a friend
Hello all —
Off we go to an exciting new school year!
We're moving into our 41st season, now — with a great slate of productions on the schedule, a group of students full of potential, and a faculty and staff that is recharged and ready to mentor them to achieve to their fullest.
Before we completely leave last year’s anniversary celebrations behind us, though, I want to draw your attention to a recording you can listen to down below.
Professor Emerita Virginia Scott and Professor June Gaeke, who were on hand (at various points) for the founding and early history of the department and have been friends for much of that time, sat down with Public Relations Director Anna-Maria Goossens to talk about time in our history. I’m so grateful to them for sharing with those of us who weren’t part of that moment. The full interview will eventually become part of the department’s library archives, but for we’ve created a 13-minute podcast in which they talk about some of the highlights in our founding and early years. Our thanks to Amy Altadonna, our lecturer in sound design, for helping us edit 2 hours of conversation into this podcast. Listen below.
Now, I am thrilled to share great news about some of the amazing people who occupy the offices in the faculty hallway.
For starters, Chris Baker, who has been on our faculty for five years, has a new position. He is now an assistant professor of dramaturgy and this is awesome news. Chris has been part of our family for a while in various capacities, much of that time doubling as a member of Hartford Stage. It’s thanks to him that we’ve forged a great relationship with that company, which has offered a number of our graduate students wonderful internship opportunities. It’s a thrill to have him with us as a full-time tenure-track faculty member. We’ve got an official introduction to him below.
We also are blessed to have Judyie Al-Bilali ‘01G, join our faculty as an Assistant Professor in Performance and Theater for Social Change, in a joint appointment with the Commonwealth Honors College. We talked to her in February’s issue of Stages, when she came here to direct Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, so if you need to catch up on Judyie's life since she graduated from our department, visit that issue. At the time of that interview she spoke about her life-changing work in South Africa. Her commitment to theater for social change, through her Brown Paper Studio, combined with her talents as a director, is what she’s bringing to us as a faculty member now, and we’re thrilled to have her.
Another new face this year is Lena Cuomo, joining us as a Lecturer in Performance. She’s a talented performer with theater and dance in her background, and we are looking forward to the contributions she will make to the Department of Theater. Her bio is here.
When you have a moment, you should also check out our list of guest artists — we have an impressive list of folks coming to the department for short-term engagements to teach, lead workshops, and share their talents.
On a sadder note, we were so sorry to note the passing of a valued member of the Department of Theater, graduate student in dramaturgy Jason Lites. A few of his friends from his time here share memories, below, and I want to add my voice to theirs in regretting his much-too-early passing. Jason was a valued member of our theater community and he is missed.
We are slowly but surely wrapping up the Shed the Shag part of our campaign to upgrade the Rand Lobby. It’s been fun, funny, and inspiring, and we thank all who played a part in making it a success.
What’s next in our efforts to upgrade the Rand Lobby? I canine’t tell you much, but here’s a sneak peek:
Over this past year, we have been blown away by the generosity of our donors. They make it possible for us to turn ideas into reality, and we couldn’t be more grateful. As we have for several years now, we will be profiling some of these folks throughout the year, because they’re not only generous, they’re really interesting people. We start the year with a conversation with Mathew Sgan ’56. As someone whose career path included time working in fundraising, he knows well the value of charitable giving.
Sgan’s connection to theater predates the founding of the Department — he is among those lucky enough to have taken courses with the man for whom our Rand Theater is named. Now mostly retired and living in Hawaii, he nonetheless stays up to date on UMass happenings, and has donated to the department for many years. Distance precluded us from meeting him in person, so the following has been edited from an exchange of emails.
Graduating Year: 1956
A favorite UMass Theater memory: I was in a number of productions. My most memorable experiences were as a cast member in Shaw's Arms and the Man and Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. I also directed the winning interclass play (one act) in 1954. I have many fond memories of participating in theatrical productions and the student group Roister Doisters at UMass.
Why do you donate to the Department of Theater? I would like UMass students to be exposed to theatrical opportunities and to theatrical experiences, either as production participants or as appreciative audience members. Too many, I think, have never had that experience and, if they don't have an opportunity to do so at UMass, will not appreciate how enjoyable and educational stage productions are. When I read about the performances, alumni, faculty, and staff associated with the UMass Department of Theater, I am impressed with their accomplishments.
Many acts in an interesting life
Stages: What brought you to UMass?
Sgan: As a good student in high school, I was accepted at various colleges. UMass met most of the factors that I was seeking in higher education. It was affordable, comfortable as to size (3000 students at the time!), and far enough from home. That factor would enhance my goal to be more independent as a young adult.
I reviewed the catalog and found that the program of general education and majors provided the learning opportunity that I desired. I also liked the variety of extracurricular activities (sports, fraternities, theater) that were mentioned. I visited campus and found it was what I wanted in terms of the students I met, the physical layout of the campus, and the interview I had with the Director of Admissions. I made my decision based on those factors.
Stages: Can you tell me a little about what UMass was like when you were there? UMass had become the University of Massachusetts just a few years prior to your arrival. As a student, did you have a sense of this being a growing place or taking a new direction?
Sgan: Prior to being called the University of Massachusetts, the university was called Massachusetts State College (MSC), I believe. That name (MSC) replaced an earlier designation which was Massachusetts Agricultural College.
Yes, I did feel that a new direction and an improving educational environment was on the horizon. We were fortunate in that post-WWII higher education in general was experiencing growth, that no nonsense veterans were taking advantage of available GI benefits, and that some state educational leaders were finally standing up for better pay and benefits for public higher education staff and faculty.
Stages: You were at UMass when theater was an extracurricular activity — what was your involvement with theater?
Sgan: I tried out and appeared in most productions. I also worked backstage whenever possible. I was a member of the student group Roister Doisters that provided funds and volunteers for the productions. I am very grateful to Professor Arthur Niedick and Doris Abramson for their roles in encouraging theatrical activities for the entire UMass community and for their teaching and mentoring efforts for me.
I was able to take a drama course with Dr. Rand as an undergraduate. I remember it fondly since it opened up so many avenues of thought for me. I still remember his explanation that Sartre's No Exit meant that some scoundrels were meant to spend an eternity in hell. Even the solitude of death was denied to them for their sins! Sounds simple enough now, but at the time it made an important impact on my attitude about a lot of matters from study habits to values clarification.
Stages: Based on your online biography, you explored several different directions during your career: higher education and fundraising, as well as your work on sports history. Can you talk a little about the roots of those various interests?
Sgan: I have had very varied career pattern. I wanted to be part of higher education and went to Cornell University for a Ph.D. I then worked at the University of Minnesota and Brandeis University as an administrator and Dean. Later, I left higher education and started a business career.
I also explored my interest in the development of sports in America. The prominence of Boston and New England in that development led to an endeavor to establish a Museum of Sports for that area. The descendant of that activity is now located at the T.D. Bankworth Garden in Boston. In 2009, I published The Boston Book of Sports: From Puritans to Professionals. I played football and lacrosse at UMass and for over 30 years, I officiated football, lacrosse, and soccer at many levels.
Finally, I returned to higher education as a fundraiser for UMass and other Hillels throughout New England. After moving to Hawaii, I was hired to lead the endeavor to raise the public and private funds needed to rebuild the USS Arizona Visitor Center at Pearl Harbor. Our fundraising team was able to secure the $54 million dollars necessary to complete that project successfully. It represents a fine third act to my life.
Stages: Do you still have connections with friends you met at UMass?
Sgan: Yes, I do have have some contact with fraternity brothers and with members of a now defunct Men's Honor Society, Adelphia, which I was privileged to be a member of during my senior year. Living in Hawaii has limited such contacts and visits to the campus, but every once in a while I hear from UMass related people.
(Ed. Note: Sgan’s ties to his UMass friends are such that they have influenced his giving. About 10 years ago, he was prominently involved in a Department of Theater effort to raise funds in memoriam of a dear friend who had passed away.)
On the death of my friend and classmate Norman Rothstein, I led a fundraising effort in his memory. We appeared in many theatrical productions together. After graduation, Norm was a producer and general manager for more than 40 years on and off Broadway. The funds raised were used to update the sound system at The Curtain Theater.
Earlier this summer, as part of our continuing look at the history of the Department of Theater, we asked Professor June Gaeke and Professor Emerita Virginia Scott to talk to us about their time in the department. Scott was here from 1970 to 1973 when the discussions and then the paperwork to become an independent department were on-going and then returned in 1977 to shape the dramaturgy graduate program, where she remained until her retirement. Gaeke arrived in 1972 and has been here ever since as the Department of Theater’s costume designer; she played an integral part in designing the department’s initial liberal arts curriculum.
Between the two of them, the long-time colleagues and friends know much of the story of the department’s founding and early days, so we asked them to talk about that time.
Below, you can click to listen to their recollections as they spoke to public relations manager Anna-Maria Goossens about the early philosophy of the department, its involvement with professional theater, and some memorable moments from the stage and the classroom.
The conversation begin with Scott and Goossens, and Gaeke joins in.
Many, many thanks to Professor Amy Altadonna, Lecturer in Sound Design and Technology, for editing these clips together from the original 2 hours of recorded material.
Newly-appointed Assistant Professor of Theater Chris Baker is not a new face to the Department. His connections to UMass Theater have been building for some time, from a family connection to an initial professional contact, and through a half-dozen years teaching here in various capacities that led eventually to his current appointment.
While here, he has worked with theater novices taking their first dramaturgy classes and mentored graduate students who are preparing to enter the field of dramaturgy professionally. He finds in teaching that same opportunity to spur a moment of realization in his students that he delights in bringing to the rehearsal room as a dramaturg.
“Certainly, it was because I also had interests in writing,” he said about his initial attraction to dramaturgy. Baker has written creatively and produced critical and research work. In addition, he’s acted and directed. His strength, however, is in production dramaturgy.
“It’s an exciting thing to really know what’s going on in the process at any moment, to be not just informed but to understand where the artist is at any point,” he said.
“A dramaturg can provide a lot of research, where there are questions to be answered that come up… problems to be pointed out,” he said, but his skill, in the end, is “to be able to look at the whole project and think about what might be the best thing to say and do at this point.”
Because he’s not responsible in the same way a director or designer is, he “can be the person who says ‘What if?’” and perhaps be an agent for bringing a greater understanding or new direction to a project.
“The most fun is to work on a production that has a lot of questions at the beginning, that has a lot of messiness,” he said.
One of the most challenging and rewarding productions was one in which a playwright was adapting a Greek classic — and then had to leave the project after getting about a third of the way through it. Baker and his colleagues, still committed to the production, carried on without the playwright, continuing not only to adapt the piece, but to do so in the playwright’s style.
“It was kind of like the student who has to paint the Rembrandt,” he said.
From Chicago to Hartford
Baker did not leap immediately into dramaturgy — his original ambition was to be onstage. Baker attended Northwestern University in Chicago as an undergraduate, where he pursued acting but also varied interests such as directing and writing. While there, he met Linda Walsh Jenkins, a renowned writer, instructor, and dramaturg, who was one of his mentors and introduced him to dramaturgy.
Still, he said, “I thought I was going to be a famous actor.”
After graduation, he and several of his friends (including fellow Northwestern alumnus Stephen Colbert, founded a theater company in Chicago. Both before and after the company split up, Baker worked as an actor.
As he shifted away from thinking of himself as an actor, however, he found himself increasingly drawn to dramaturgical work. An internship at the Goodman Theatre confirmed for him that, yes, this was a direction he wanted to take.
From that internship he went to the ART Institute in Boston for an MA. A connection landed him a position at a theater in Houston after graduation. He has been working ever since, with the exception of a break to return to ART and its Moscow program to take the classes necessary for an MFA. Fourteen years of that time was spent at Hartford Stage in various capacities.
Baker had been aware of UMass for some time due to its dramaturgy department’s status as one of the oldest in the country. His wife, Michelle Hendrick ’95, is an alumna, and her stories of her time here further piqued his interest. When they moved to the area and Baker began working at Hartford Stage, be began his informal contact with UMass.
“I had some conversations with Harley (Erdman) and Julian (Olf). We talked about internships and collaborations,” he said. At that point he was at UMass as a lecturer, going back and forth between Hartford and Amherst as he worked for both UMass and Hartford Stage. “Both places were accommodating of each other,” he said, although he admitted, “It was a lot of driving!”
Throughout his time there, Baker has been instrumental in formalizing and fostering the ties between the organizations. Graduate students in directing, design and dramaturgy took advantage of the opportunity to work with professionals in their fields. Although he’s now no longerat Hartford Stage, Baker remains keenly interested in bringing UMass students there for the valuable professional and resume-building experience the internships offer.
Although years and experience separate the members of the introductory classes from the graduate students he works with, Baker finds connections between the two experiences.
“Those gateway courses are really, really important because when you teach those you really can talk about what is theater, how do you read a play — and I also find that the questions that you’re attempting to answer are really the same ones you do when you’re having artistic meetings about a show or about what plays are supposed to go into a season, or even in tech,” he said. When you’re working on a production, he explained, the questions can be very specific or engaged with the foundational ideas of the art of theater.
With graduate students, meanwhile, Baker loves the fact that they have greater experience and that they’re taking their first steps into the professional world.
Referring back to his assessment of the qualities of a good dramaturg, Baker noted that as a teacher, he can impart the skills of the job, but what he’s most invested in doing is, he said, “nurturing the sensibility of a good dramaturg.”
A few of Jason's friends shared thoughts about him upon his passing this summer. We are sorry to lose such a creative and warm member of our community.
In addition to being a dear friend, Jason was my most frequent collaborator during our time together at UMass, working on two main stage and three 204 projects together. He was a true renaissance man, a man of the theater: a talented performer, a great critic and collaborator, a budding playwright. Spending time with Jason was like having my very own pocket encyclopedia of American Musical Theatre; we would spend hours watching, listening, and discussing. I learned so much from him, not to mention the huge contribution he made to my theatre video collection. I remain inspired by his passion for the theatre and his tenacious spirit. We were just texting about the TONY awards not even a month before he passed. Jason was very close to finishing a graduate degree at Texas A&M, and was actively writing plays; his most recent based on Delia Bacon, a conspiracy theorist on the Shakespeare authorship question. I miss his dry humor every single day.
- Dawn Monique Williams ‘11G
Attached is a picture that I think shows Jason. Quirky, loving, and fun. His head-rubs were great! This was at an Oscar party that he and Laura held at their apartment in 2009.
- Katrina Frances ‘10
When I arrived at UMASS, Jason was the first person to give me a huge welcoming hug. He had a gift for bolstering people with his spirited playfulness. That's just the kind of guy he was. Open, warm, funny, thoughtful, inclusive, passionate, and kind. Ready with a smile, a laugh, or some musical theatre trivia. In this sad time, I count myself lucky to have known his generous spirit and join the UMASS Theater Department in extending heartfelt condolences to his loved ones and family.
- Megan McClain ‘12G
Dramaturgy students interact with PR more than any of the other graduate areas, and Jason worked with me a number of times. He was an engaging presence when we headed to schools to deliver pre-show workshops to kids planning to attend our student matinees. I never saw him hesitate to jump in, even on the silliest ice-breaker games. He also created one of my favorite bits of audience outreach ever — when we did Burial At Thebes, he created a “tourism” website for Thebes — complete with fake hacked pages from protestors sympathizing with Antigone.
- Anna-Maria Goossens, public relations director
In our bid for artistic world domination, we've got a few places you can find us online. We'd love to have you follow, like, comment, whatever — just click onone of the icons to visit us elsewhere:
Professor Amy Altadonna had news about herself and one of her students: “Sean Buenaventura did a sound internship with an esteemed designer at Idaho Shakes! I did a play in NYC (reviewed by the Times) called The Capables. It featured Dale Soules of the original cast of Hair on Broadway. I also completed design and mix of a short film called The Ticket Seller, and I did the design, mix and original music for a feature film called Salesgirl.” Amy also designed sound for Everything Is Ours, also playing in New York.
Professor Milan Dragicevich played the exciting role of Eilert Lovborg in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler for Northern New England Repertory Theatre Company in New London, New Hampshire, a company dedicated to the classical canon of plays. In addition, he tells us, “As a member of the planning and selection committee of the Double Take Fringe Festival, I am helping organize the festival and pick the slate of 8 plays that will be featured at this 3rd annual event, in various venues scattered across downtown Greenfield, October 18-19. The Double Take Fringe Festival is a collaboration between the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Old Deerfield Productions. Department friend Mike Haley and Linda McInerney ‘98G are also on this committee.” Milan also took a moment to be a proud dad: “Our 3 boys learned to shoot stop-motion animation short films at a fun and creative day camp in Bernardston this summer. The week-long camp ended with a showing of all the stop-motion animation films made by the kids. Pretty neat!”
Faculty member Harley Erdman wrote the libretto for Garden of Martyrs, a new opera that opened in September at Northampton’s Academy of Music. Also involved in the production are current lecturers Margo Caddell and Sheila Siragusa.
Professor Gina Kaufmann shared news of a project that involves a UMass alumna: “I am currently working as dramaturg and director on a new play by Connie Congdon ‘82G titled No Little Rebellion, which will have an Equity reading at Shakespeare & Company in September.”
Professor Megan Lewis is currently hard at work on her book about staging white South Africans before, during, and after apartheid. Afrikaners in the Spotlight: Performing Whiteness in South African Theatrical and Public Life explores how the privileged perform themselves into, around, and out of power and how they stage themselves once their privilege has been deflated. She is also busy co-editing a collection of essays about Cape Town-based Magnet Theatre, who visited UMass for a weeklong residency in January 2013. Megan is also thrilled to be launching a study abroad program in summer 2014 at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in South Africa. For more information, please visit theatreinafrica.weebly.com
Julia Lisa ’13 headed west shortly after graduation, and sent us an update. “I am working for CBS Studios as the Wardrobe Production Assistant on Entertainment Tonight and OMG! Insider. I am also the costume designer for a new play called With This Ring by Greg Bowyer, which he wants to make into a movie eventually. This past weekend we shot the promotional photo shoot for the play and the pictures look amazing. I am so excited to design a whole show!"
Alissa Mesibov '13 had a great gig this summer at the world-renowned Shakespeare & Co. She was the dramaturg for Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, featuring Olympia Dukakis. UMass Theater friend and guest artist Tony Simotes directed. We were excited enough for her about that, but then she sent us this update: “After a summer of working as both a dramaturg and a communications associate, I am so excited to be able to stay with Shakespeare & Company. I will continue my communications role and I will be going to UConn as Tony Simotes's assistant for the production of The Three Musketeers that he is directing there.”
Company One's How We Got On (featuring the talents of current students Kevin Murphy, Becca Jeanne Griffing and Peter Staley and under artistic director Shawn LaCount '09G) was featured on WGBH:
Landing somewhere at the corner of Weird and Awesome was Kyle Pasciutti Design's recent gig — Zombifying the star performer/personality/special guest at one of those ever-more-popular Zombie Charge races.
Directing MFA student Glenn Proud worked as an assistant director with frequent department guest artist Kara-Lynn Vaeni this summer as she directed two operas for Opera Slavica in New York City this August. They worked on the New York premiere (and US Russian-language premiere) of Prokofiev's first opera Maddalena in a double bill with Tchaikovsky's last opera, Iolanta, at the Bohemian National Hall.
Graduate student Brianna Sloane had a great trip abroad with several fellow MFA students. She, Alison Bowie and Emily Taradash were TA’s for Professor Harley Erdman’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival course.
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