July 1, 2014

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Remarks from the Chair

Hello all—

Woah, what a year! Thinking back on it, I have such great memories! We welcomed so many guests to our department that was just insanity! Our collaborations with the Massaschusetts Dance Festival and Five-College Opera were wonderfully rich and successful. And these were just the two biggest examples: we had guest instructors, artists, scholars, technicians, you name it. We had ZFX help us FLY people in the Rand for Peter Pan! (Our Dean was one of them!! To see her fly click here.)

Two playwrights, Liz Duffy Adams and Tira Palmquist, joined us for the inaugural year of a new Play Lab, giving us the benefit of their artistic talents as we launched a new festival we hope has legs to stand on for many years.

However, it wasn’t just the guests who helped make our year special. I would have nothing to write about without the impressive home-team talent that makes this department what it is. From the bottom of my heart, I am thankful for all the students, staff and faculty. What a talented group of artists and human beings. I am so proud of their accomplishments.

As we have done for several years now, we compiled a Year In Review that hits the year's highlights. It's sent to UMass officials and made available in the department. If you'd like to read it, you can download this year's edition as a PDF by clicking here.

We flipped the calendar to July (which is the end of our fiscal year), and are happy to note that our gift fund has grown to a sizable chunk and we have several dozen of you who have purchased seats as part of our Mark Your Spot campaign. We’re trying to keep that momentum going as we work toward a fully refurbished lobby, so if you have an impulse to donate, please give in to it!

If you do buy a seat and you’re in the area, let us know. We have a delightful season planned and would love to have you try out your Rand seat by joining us for a performance. Our five shows are The Merchant of Venice, A New Brain, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the new Play Lab, and Dead Man’s Cell PhoneOur mainstage page has details.

Heck, even if you didn't cough up the money for a seat, you’re welcome back at any time!

The end of this school year does mark an official end to June Gaeke’s time with the department, and even as we look forward, we are taking that moment to look back and appreciate those who shaped our past, and June in particular. June was the last of a generation of theater makers in our department who cleared the path for us, and we are thankful to her for her work. Please read on below for some words of tribute and thanks from former students and colleagues.

I hope you have a wonderful summer, and I hope to hear from you soon!


Penny (with Casey and Scout)

June Gaeke: Words of praise

Upon June's retirement from the Department of Theater, we invited people to send us their thoughts about her work and time in the department. Below are a few of those contributions.


From Andy Wittkamper '99G: A tribute to June Gaeke, on the occasion of her retirement...

In the fall of 2001, I was a couple of years graduated from the UMass Department of Theater and had been living and working in New York.  The job was in the costume field, but was low paying, and with my shiny new MFA I thought I should be doing better.  Then a fortuitous call came that changed my life forever.  It was from June Gaeke. 

June told me that she was going on sabbatical, and invited me to teach her classes for the spring semester.  I hadn’t really thought of myself as a teacher, but decided to accept the challenge.  I had just had a bad experience assisting on a show, was hopelessly sick of Long Island, and remembered Amherst with great fondness—so the decision was easy.  In short order, I came home to UMass and taught June’s classes.  It was an exciting time.  I lived part-time on Long Island and part-time in Amherst, shuttling back and forth every week.  Although I was still new to teaching and made a lot of mistakes, I loved it.  I came back to New York at the end of the semester with a new sense of purpose.  I sought and secured a faculty position at a local community college with a very good theater program, and never looked back.  June provided me with this life-altering opportunity, helping me to create a new future for myself. 

Reflecting upon my graduate years with June, I am immediately reminded of how young I was.  Not just in age.  I was, after all, twenty-six at the time, but young in experience, attitude, and demeanor.  Younger than my years.  I’ll just chalk that up to coming from the Midwest as I usually do and leave it at that. 

June knew where I was coming from, though.   And I don’t mean geographically.  I was ambitious and impatient, a poor combination of behavioral traits no matter how many ways you try to reconcile them.  I wanted to prove myself in the quickest way possible.  June wasn’t phased by this.  Instead, she was confident and constant, guiding me along the way with her quiet dignity, understated manner, and steadfastness.   She gave me the most wonderful design opportunities in The Tempest, Marisol, Oh Dad..., and Naga-Mandala, experiences I still hold very close to my heart.  I’m sure I wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with, but despite my shortcomings June always believed in me and remained invested.  She was persistent, but never unyielding.  She knew precisely what I needed--a good bit of freedom and a strong, guiding hand.  These are the qualities I remember and admire most about June.  I could not have been better cared for.  I was lucky to have June as my mentor.  Very, very, lucky.

I am reminded of something June once told me.  I was grumbling about how I never had any time, could not keep up, could not wait for this whole “grad school thing” to end (blah blah blah) so I could “start my life.”   She calmly advised me to consider the following:  there would never be another time like this, a time when all things conspired toward my development as a person and as a theater artist.  The time spent, the tasks undertaken, the lessons learned, the outcomes achieved, were worth holding on to.  In other words, live in the moment, and recognize how good you have it.   I didn’t fully accept what she said at the time (remember: ambitious and impatient), but embraced my grad school experience as she advised and was never sorry that I did. 
Today, I find that the passage of time has enabled me to better accept what June told me so many years ago.   Like June, I am also a costume designer and teacher.  I chair and sit on a number of college committees.  I advise students, formally and informally.  I attend and present at conferences.  I own a house, and have all the requisite responsibilities that come with home ownership.  And now, truly, I have no time.  I look back on the whole “grad school thing” as some of the best years of my life, and realize she was right.  June was always right. 

June Gaeke recently retired after forty-one remarkable years of service to the UMass Department of Theater.  (It fills me with a great deal of awe, and just a little humor, to know that June began teaching at UMass the same year I was born.)   As a founding member of the department, June was an agent of its creation and endurance, a brilliant and prolific artist, and a mentor of uncommon influence.  Her legacy of pure devotion resounds in me and in the thousands of students whom she has touched over the years.  I am proud to have followed in her footsteps as an educator and mentor, and prouder still to confess that she speaks through me to my students--most especially when they dare to wish aloud that their lives would start more quickly.

Wishing you the best and most joyous of new adventures in your retirement, June! 

Andrew L. Wittkamper, ‘99G
Professor of Theater
Suffolk County Community College
Selden, NY  11784

From Kenneth Chu: A video message

Kenneth Chu sent a message of thanks to June that we played at her retirement celebration.

From Calvin MacLean

This has been an eventful year for those of us who were a part of the UMass Theatre Department during the "early years."  So much has happened, and now June is retiring! 
… June went on a long sabbatical during my final year in the directing program, and Ron Keller and I rented her home during that year.  I remember feeling both thrilled and terrified with that responsibility.  I have always hoped that we did not let June down.  While I never actually worked with June as a director, I remember her design class vividly and her exquisite taste and exciting imagination. Please extend to her my congratulations, my appreciation, and my gratitude for the wonderful experience during my time at UMass.  It was a very fertile and exciting time. 

From Gail Fresia

Gail read the following piece at June's retirement celebration.

Congratulations on your well-deserved retirement. We met when the Theater Department was just moving into the brand new Fine Arts Center.  I was hired as the first Costume Shop Manager. Fresh out of Fashion School, I came to work with a solid background in pattern drafting and sewing techniques. What I did not know was that I was about to embark on 12 more years of continuous education under June’s direction.

It was an exciting time, the department was growing and we were encouraged to experiment. June showed by example what it takes to be a good designer. Show after show was filled with strong characters clothed in the perfect costumes. Her renderings were always surprising and never the same. She continually raised the bar and the shop always tried to reach it. 

June is a brilliant designer. Every line she puts on paper is meaningful and has a purpose. Her sense of rhythm and color breathe life and depth into the characters. Her designs are beautiful and elegant. I loved the days when she came into the shop with a new batch of designs and we talked through each character and decided what we would make, how we would make it, and worry about how little time we had. 

With each show I would learn something new. June was always open and generous with her knowledge and she always challenged me to try new techniques, both historical and modern, to work with new fabrics, and to manage my time to meet the deadlines. I also learned about theater and all its complexities because this was a whole new world for me. 

Ultimately, I am not only June’s friend, I am one of her many successful students. I have always considered myself a technician and I am very proud of my work. But somehow, I also became a designer and I know it is through June’s leadership that I was able to work in both jobs. 

So June, as a student, I cannot thank you enough for all I learned while working with you. And as a friend, I hope I can see more of you now that you are retired. But, if I know you, you will be busier than ever.  Enjoy every minute of it!

I spoke to Jeffrey Fiala and asked if he would like to add anything. He wanted to tell you that you were always his first choice for resident designer here at UMass and he enjoyed all the years he designed alongside you. He has been retired for 6 years now and said that the best thing is to realize that any deadlines are the ones you choose. You will be busier than ever now doing the things you love to do and want to do.  Enjoy this new phase of your life. And if you ever make it to Las Vegas, give him a call.

Sean Kelley takes improv to new media

By now, podcasts are a familiar concept to most people: a digital episodic series, most commonly of audio files, that can be downloaded and listened to on computers, tablets, phones, etc. This medium is fertile creative ground, and it’s where Sean Kelley ’04 has found a way to make an artistic mark. Kelley, who moved to Chicago upon graduation to immerse himself in the city’s vaunted improv theater scene, parlayed his interest and connections in that arena into a role with Improvised Star Trek, a bi-weekly comedy podcast that riffs on the famous tropes and plot points of the various Gene Roddenberry sci-fi series.

Trekking online

The show, now in its fourth year and with 90 episodes and counting, began at iO Chicago (formerly improv Olympics) as a live show some years back.

“One of the things I really love about our show is the title is also the mission statement,” Kelley said. “But it’s not a gimmicky show. …The whole show is based around characters and relationships with each other and the flaws that they all have as people. We kind of looked at Star Trek where, like, everybody’s super-perfect, everybody on the Enterprise was best in their class, best of Star Fleet, the best at what they do, and we were like, ‘Well there have got to be people in the future who are just regular flawed or even awful people. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see those people interact?’”


If the show title didn’t clue listeners in, the show’s website would do the honors. Kelley, for example, plays Lt Cdr Watson, the moon-born Chief Science Officer aboard the USS Sisyphus. His bio lists among his interests: “Science, working hard, sticking his nose up in the air, chinchillas, cleanliness, secret Earthshine nips.” Another character’s bio reads, in part, “Zarlene is one-quarter Betazoid, so she can empathically tell if someone is hungry, provided that they are looking at food and salivating and saying out loud that they are hungry.”

But don’t think that the mockery is malicious. “I proudly identify with the words ‘geek’ and the word ‘nerd’ and I do definitely think we tapped into that,” Kelley said. The show functions, he said, “as an homage as much as a parody.”

Despite a promising set-up, after 10 months of live performances, Kelley and his cohorts were told they weren’t selling enough tickets and that the show was on the chopping block.

They were dismayed and not ready to let go quite yet. “We loved doing the show and we felt like we were just starting to get some traction,” he said. “Eventually somebody in the cast was just like, ‘Why don’t we just do a podcast?’”

The group was quickly on board but getting up and running took some work, since their familiarity with the format was primarily as listeners. Kelley said the group workshopped the show for months as a podcast, because the dynamic is so different than performing for an audience. Trial and error helped them figure out the best equipment to use, taught them that their podcasts needed to be more concise than the live shows, and helped them figure out the pattern of their podcast work.

Just as improv shows rely on audience input, so does Improvised Star Trek. Kelley uses the show’s Facebook and Twitter accounts on the day before recording to solicit suggestions for episode titles, often along a general theme.

The recordings usually happen on a Sunday in a cast member’s living room. Kelley said they don’t map out the episodes beforehand, although they do occasionally have discussions before hitting ‘record’ — the day they taped “A Shuttlecraft Named Desire,” for example, they discussed Tennessee Williams and his work to make sure they were all au courant on the tropes and ideas they’d be working with. If a classic Trek episode is being spoofed, they’ll likewise review the important plot points as part of their preparation.

Each recording day, they’ll do two episodes — Kelley estimates they record about three times as much material as will make it into the final cut. The pieces are edited down, sound effects and music are layered in over the dialogue, and where it makes sense, voices may be processed in keeping with the actors’ roles — say, with a robot-like or aging effect.

Marketing new media

Four years in, the groups has nearly 90 episodes under its belt, and has a sizable following of listeners, thanks in part to a praiseworthy post from the Onion’s AV Club (Click here) and tireless work by the cast members, especially Kelley, to get the word out.

“When you do theater in a new media format, you can reach so many more people!” Kelley said. Whereas a stage show nets 140 people on its best night, even a smaller podcast like this one can find 1000 listeners per episode, he noted.

His work with Improvised Star Trek is not Kelley’s only source of income — by day, he writes for HY Connect, and his blog on marketing and social media can be found online: http://lonelybrand.com/blog/author/skelley/ (Although the subject matter is unrelated, Kelley credited the writing and especially the dramaturgy work he did at UMass with giving him the skills he now uses in this facet of his career.)

Unsurprisingly, he is enthusiastic about arts marketing.

“I don’t think that artists should compromise their artistic vision, EVER, but I do think we as a collective class of people need to do a better job of creating things that are accessible and understandable so that people will come and see our shows,” Kelley said. “A lot of theater people think that marketing is a dirty word. ‘Oh like, marketing, that’s the DEVIL. You think about ways to sell things. That’s really gross; I don’t want to be involved in that!’ OK, well, when only 10 people show up to opening night of your play…”

Kelley’s set himself a mission to help his podcast gain new audiences. He spends a lot of time on social media spreading the word about the podcast, and the group has gone back to doing a monthly stage show, which now serves as a promotional tool to help popularize the podcast. The group’s also been part of fan conventions.

Popular as podcasts have grown to be, people are still figuring out how to use the medium — and how to listen to it and find what they like. The most common and popular are interview-format shows, but there’s a small but growing number of podcast that are putting a digital-age spin on the old radio play format.

“There are a million Nerdists and only 5 Night Vales,” Kelley said, referring in turn to the popular Chris Hardwick interview show that focuses on geeky topics like science, sci-fi and film; and Welcome to Night Vale, the Stephen-King-meets-Lake-Woebegone fictional radio show. Unsurprisingly, Kelley is most interested in the latter, citing The Thrilling Adventure Hour as another of his favorites in the genre.

“You close your eyes, and your imagination is the canvas,” he said.

The journey here

This both is and isn’t where he thought he’d be when he set out to be a theater major.

“I was really dead-set on, you know, I’m going to be a serious actor,” said Kelley. “I wanted to be an actor’s actor.”

Only a few weeks into his first semester, however, he auditioned for Mission Improvable. He ended up in very few shows in the department, he said, because he became so involved with the UMass improv scene.

As his friends started to graduate, they started moving to Chicago, he made plans to join them.

“I am NOT going to be left behind!” he vowed. He estimated that a group of about 40 UMass alumni that he knows of are in the city. Not all of them are still in theater, but many of them were part of the city’s improv scene at some point. A number were part of iO Chicago, Kelley’s erstwhile artistic home and a farm team for places like Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show.

“UMass has a real resource in those improv groups that are independently-run and operated on campus. They have produced a lot of very successful performers, you know, in New York, LA, and Chicago,” Kelley said. “I always find myself wishing that there had been more institutional support for them… just because so many of the people who are leaving that school and becoming successful did some kind of time there.”

“There are a few moments you can point to and say, that’s exactly when my life changed forever,” he said. “It changed the creative direction of what I was doing and it brought a lot of stuff into focus about what I wanted to do with my life. I met a lot of my best friends, people I’m still friends with.”

Even his marriage can be credited to the shows — Kelley’s wife Chelsea (Ives) Kelley ’05 was a fellow theater major and frequent audience member.

With 10 years in improv, podcasting, and writing under his belt, what’s Kelley’s advice to students who are at UMass now?

“Aim big, do your own thing, and don’t be afraid to fail a lot — because that’s how you get better! When I first left UMass I think that I was a little bit safe, and I wish that I had taken more chances as a performer and as an artistic person in general.”

“Also, don’t drink too much!” he added. “Art before leisure!”


We thought we’d start the updates for this issue with a look at what our faculty members have been up to. As you will read, they are busy, collaborating artistically and academically with theater artists and scholars, and their projects have taken them around the country and the world.

Sound Design Lecturer Amy Altadonna designed sound for Take Me Back at Walkerspace in Soho. Her work got a positive mention in the New York Times.

New faculty member Judyie Al-Bilali was an actor in our New Play Lab's Variations of F***ed and directed a staged reading for graduate student Adewunmi Oke’s thesis, trey athony’s Da Kink In My Hair. She will be traveling to South Africa for the first year of the Grahamstown Festival Course’s inaugural year.

The just-published African American Connecticut Explored (Wesleyan University Press) features an essay about actress Gwen Reed by Assistant Professor Christopher Baker.  Reed, born in 1912, grew up working the tobacco fields in Connecticut. Her love of Shakespeare drew her to acting and she eventually was part of the Federal Theater Project’s Negro Unit in Hartford, one of the few cities that had both black and white theater companies. For twenty years she earned her living as a spokesperson for Quaker Oats and impersonated Aunt Jemima at store openings and civic events. Her later career included roles at Hartford Stage and as a well-loved children’s storyteller on local television.  “Reed was part of theater history,” says Baker, “from One Third of a Nation with the Federal Theater Project to productions at a young Hartford Stage at the beginning of the regional theater movement.  She never made much money as a performer—she died in poverty—but she was tenacious. She stuck to the thing she loved.” Baker was also was dramaturg/adaptor of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona for Hartford Stage’s Educational program, Breakdancing Shakespeare, and served as chair of the semi-final selection committee for the Horton Foote Prize for New American Plays. He directed a 10-minute opera about Paula Dean for Hartford Opera Theatre. The opera was written before the racial slurs controvery; instead, it was about Paula Deen being challenged on entry into heaven for the use of all that butter and sugar – but ultimately seducing the angels with her cooking! The opera is called  Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens by Jennifer Jolley and Vynnie Meli.

Milan Dragicevich wrapped up his final year serving as Undergraduate Program Director and appeared in Shaw’s witty exploration of romantic ideals, Arms and the Man, with the Northern New England Repertory Theatre Company.

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. He completed an original screwball comedy, entitled Nobody’s Girl, commissioned by the Northampton Academy of Music, to be produced there in October 2014, with Sheila Siragusa ‘03G directing, and to feature alums Keith Langsdale and Sam Rush ‘97G, and current student Mac Leslie. It’s about the first woman manager of the Northampton Academy of Music and the controversy that ensued when she was appointed to this position in the early 1940s. Erdman co-edited an anthology about Spanish Golden Theater in adaptation, to be published by Tamesis Press (UK) late in 2014 or early in 2015. He is starting a new opera with composer Eric Sawyer, The Scarlet Professor, based on Barry Werth’s biography of Newton Arvin, the Smith College professor whose career was ruined when he was arrested in 1960 for possessing softcore gay pornography. In November 2013, he presented at an international symposium on Spanish Golden Age theater in Bath, UK, focusing on our UMass production of Suitors. In November 2013, he spoke on a panel at the University of North Carolina/Charlotte for the production of alumna Sarah Brew’s translation of Love the Doctor. The chair of the Theater Department there is alum James Vesce—also a former teacher of Sarah’s!

Gina Kaufmann and Constance Congdon ‘82G received a TCG grant through Shakespeare & Company and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival to develop No Little Rebellion. Kaufmann was accepted into and attended the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers “Symposium on Musical Theatre” in New York in April. She was also accepted into the 15th International Michael Chekhov Workshop and International Festival for which she received a $500 Flex Grant for Teaching/Faculty Development

Profs Megan Lewis and Judyie Al-Bilali are thrilled to be taking 14 students (from UMass, UC Irvine, SUNY Buffalo, Yale, York University in Canada, undergrads and grads) to the 40th anniversary National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa this summer. This brand new study abroad course will introduce students to the second largest theatre festival in the world (outside Edinburgh in Scotland) and the largest in the southern hemisphere. Students will learn how the performing arts can offer us a lens through which to examine questions of social justice, race, class and gender politics, history, language, memory, and the role of the arts in our global world.

Gilbert McCauley has received a Mellon Fellowship. Supported by the UMass Center for Public Policy and Administration, the Fellowship supports faculty members as they develop classes to connect the theoretical with real-world applications. In Gil’s case, he plans to use the opportunity to create a course with a social justice perspective, in which students would work with inner-city teens to create theater pieces exploring “the roles social and cultural diversity, or lack thereof, and oppression have played in our own academic lives and in educational access more generally.”

Performance faculty member Julie Nelson played Grace in Vigil, by Canadian playwright Morris Panych, at Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine. This winter, renowned pianist Estela Olevsky invited her to perform as the narrator in collaboration with her and Charles Bestor on his composition, 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. The piece is in response to and includes the Wallace Stevens poem of the same title. Finally, she performed in a workshop reading of No Little Rebellion, a play by Connie Congdon ‘82G. The reading included actors from the UMass Department of Theater and Shakespeare & Company.

Puppetry International featured scenic design faculty member Miguel Romero’s article on the Parque de las Ciencias (Museum of Natural History and Technology, Granada, Spain) exhibit in honor of 30 years of brilliant work by the company Titeres Etcetera, Spain’s Illustrious puppet company.

Guest lecturer Sheila Siragusa ‘03G assistant directed Harley Erdman’s opera Garden of Martyrs in the fall. She is directing Sarah Treem’s play The How and the Why at New Century in July, and Nobody’s Girl in the fall for the grand reopening of the Academy of Music after its renovation.

Updates from students, friends and alumni
Jane Cox was nominated for a Tony Award for her work on Machinal this spring.

Recent grads Daniel Cuff, Thomas Kelsey, Annelise Nielsen, Julia Piker, Linda Tardiff, Peter Staley and Zach Smith formed The Deer Players to perform The Brink of Us in New York City this spring. They learned about Delaney Britt Brewer’s play from guest UMass instructor Kara-Lynn Vaeni, who brought the playwright to UMass for a reading and directed this production as well.

Jessica Hegarty ’11 emailed us to say she’s currently the Assistant Box Office Manager for the Charles Playhouse, the theater made notable by Blue Man Group and Broadway in Boston.

Troy Hourie ‘97G went on a two month artist residency in a rural village in Portugal. He built four installations in an exhibit in a glass gallery in the town square. He has compiled images and an archival video for his Escape to Beira installation in Portugal at http://troyhourie.com/escape-to-beira-portugal

John McDermott ‘92 recently designed Hope and Gravity at Creede Repertory Theater in Colorado, Henry IV and V for Shakespeare in Clark Park, Philadelphia, Benefactors at Berkshire Theater Festival, Red at Dorset Theater Festival, Bright Light City at Los Angeles Theater Center, Broad Channel for UP Theater, A Fable at the Cherry Lane Theater, Ethel Sings at the Beckett Theater and 17 Orchard Point at Theater Row. He was just appointed Assistant Professor of Set Design at Adelphi University.

Justin Townsend ‘97 won an award for Sustained Excellence of Lighting Design at the Obies.

Brianna Sloane ‘14G let us know that on June 19 and 20th at The Emily Dickinson Homestead, she premiered an original work co-written with UMass student Emma Ayres entitled The Emily Dickinson Project, which was funded by a grant from the UMass Arts Council. The piece is a 9-woman promenade play moving the audience through variations of Dickinson’s life and voice, while moving them through her home. All the spoken text was drawn from Emily Dickinson’s personal letters. Brianna is also directing a production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, part of Hampshire Shakespeare Company’s 2014 Mainstage Season.

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