A Celebration of Theatre MSU and Directing for Stage Class Play Festivals, 1995-2024.

I graduated in 1996 from Mississippi State University. While I was there, I did a good bit of theatre. While my major was Communications Journalism, for a while I was aiming for a minor in theatre. I pretty much had enough credits for it too, except for the fact that the required scene shop class was only taught during my daily air-shift at the college radio station, and I wasn’t about to give that up. Still, I took nearly every other theatre class available, and in 1995 took a class in directing for the stage. The instructor for the class, Dr. Jeffery Elwell, was also my advisor, and he’d asked me to take the class since it was on the edge of not having enough students to allow it to be taught. I signed right up.

The goal of the directing class was to not only for each student to learn how to direct for the stage, but also for each of us to direct a 10 minute play that would be part of a festival of short plays at the end of the class’s run. Students in the class would serve as tech for the festival, and fill in roles in each others plays that weren’t cast with outside students who had auditioned.

(Funny side story: A few weeks into the class’s run, Dr. Elwell began divvying up the various tech and producing responsibilities for the play festival. He assigned one of us to be a costumer, another to sound, another to lighting. And despite the fact that the assistant to the scene shop instructor was one of the directors in our class, he assigned me to be responsible for any construction or set-building that might be necessary.

“Uh, I don’t know how to do that,” I said.

“What do you mean you don’t know how to do that?” he asked.

“I mean, I’ve never taken the scene shop class. I wouldn’t know how to build a flat, a platform, or anything, really.”

Dr. Jeffery Elwell fixed me with a stern gaze and said, “Eric, the scene shop class is a pre-requisite for taking THIS class.”

I allowed a satisfying pause, then said, “Jeff… you’re my advisor.”

Dr. Elwell blinked at this, then reassigned me to running lights for a couple of the shows. (I didn’t know how to hang lights either, but didn’t need to to run the light board.)

The play I chose to direct was called “Wild Sweet William” by Indiana playwright Madge Dishman. It was a touching and funny story about dementia and how it changes family dynamics. The title character, William, has Alzheimer’s and his wife frequently bakes him birthday cakes, regardless of the time of year, simply because they’re a happy memory for him. At that point, none of my relatives had gone through anything similar, but for some reason I was drawn to that play. Now I’ve had more than a handful of relatives and in-laws who have suffered the condition, so maybe I knew something even then. As directors, we had to contact the playwrights to get their permission and arrange any royalty payments they required. Mrs. Dishman did me the solid of not charging me her usual rate, since this was a college production.

The play turned out pretty great, even for my first directing effort. It starred William Watkins (a friend from drama camp who I knew could play a 70 year old man with ease), Melanie Hintz (a fellow Theatre MSU actor who also did aged characters well), and Julie Rathwell (who was one of my sister’s good friends, and also Canadian, so I we had to train her to stop saying “aboot” and “eh” so much). My step-mother, Myra, a former theatre professional, even helped me with props by baking three birthday cakes, provided I iced them. It was a great learning experience all around and was the first of many shows I would go on to direct in the years since.

(Incidentally, I had one of my all time worst theatrical moments as part of that festival, but it was unrelated to the play I directed. I was asked to act in a play by Dr. Jeffery Elwell himself–the title of which eludes me. It was a good play–he’s a great playwright–but our director whose name I don’t want to mention, but it was Ryan Lamar, proved a bit fickle during rehearsals in that he very often didn’t show up for them. We dutifully memorized our lines, but figured the show would just be cancelled and Ryan given an incomplete. Instead, he decided to soldier on, so most of the directing of the show happened during dress-rehearsals. One key element of the play that was missing until opening night, however, was a camera tripod on which was to be strapped a film camera rigged to a pistol. The plot involved a crime scene photographer who decides to kill himself with said rig, so that the camera will take his last photograph as the gun goes off, presumably capturing it. Uplifting, no? But we never had the tripod or camera or gun to rehearse with, and I was the actor who was assigned to come out in the dark and set it up for the scene. On opening night, Ryan brought me, not a tri-pod, but a monopod atop which was the camera and gun. A monopod, for those who don’t know photography equipment, is just a stick with a screw hole on the top. A stick. Meant to be held in place by a photographer, not to be a free-standing entity on its own. Ryan then handed me a strip of duct tape and told me that, near the end of the play, I would need to go out in the blackout before the gun scene, strap this monopod to the leg of a desk using the duct tape, and be sure to point it in the correct direction, or the play would be ruined. No pressure, right? And no rehearsal. My first time doing it was during opening night. And it didn’t work at all. Even a little bit. I went out in the dark, bent down beside the desk, tried to strap the monopod to its leg, but the duct tape wound up folding over on itself, creating a decidedly non-sticky strip of half-width tape that could be affixed to nothing. There I sat, on the floor of the pitch black lab theatre, trying to figure out what to do next. I could just sit and hold it there, and they could bring up the lights, but I had no way to silently signal the lighting person to do so. At least a minute went by in this fashion, with me trying and retrying to unstick the tape with no success. My ultimate solution, which did work, was to use the long strip of non-sticky tape as a rope which I wrapped around the leg of the desk and tied in a knot, holding the monopod in place. I exited the stage, the lights came up and fortunately the camera and gun were facing the correct direction. Now, shit goes sideways in theatre all the time, and the show must go on, so I did the job I needed to do. But to say I was livid about it doesn’t really capture my fury at being forced into this unrehearsed scenario by our less-than-frequently-present director. I let him have it afterward and told him in no uncertain terms that he would have a monopod for the second performance, because this was some bullshit. Second night out? Monopod and tape, once again. Instead of throwing the fit I wanted to, though, I just pulled up my big boy pants and made sure the tape did not fold over on itself when I went back out in the dark. We got it done. I did get a bit of revenge on Ryan, but unfortunately it was accidental. During the play HE was acting in, which fell directly after Wild Sweet William, his character is supposed to enter the room of the apartment he once shared with an ex-wife to discover she’d taken everything including the light bulbs. I was the guy in charge of removing the light bulb from the light fixture we had hanging above the stage area and I forgot to do it on the second night, leaving Ryan to stare up at a perfectly visible bulb, saying “She even took the… oh… no. I guess she left the light bulb.” I only wish I’d done it on purpose, but if Ryan ever reads this, I promise I did not.)

Jump ahead to 2024…

My buddy Joe Evans (who I did a few shows with in those college years) is taking MSU’s Directing for Stage class–I guess for poops and giggles, since I’m pretty sure he’s directed more plays than me already. He asked if I could send him some of my 10 minute plays for consideration of the students. I told him that not only would I send them, but in honor of Madge Dishman, I would not charge any royalties on them. I figured they might pick one or two. Instead, out of the 11 or 12 plays they chose, FIVE of them are mine. It’s practically a Fritzius Festival. Certainly the most of my plays I’ve had in a festival at once.

These will include my short plays, “Job Jar,” “A Tragedy at Ellis Island of Great Personal Significance and Historical Inaccuracy: 1907” (in its premiere production), “Flying Lessons over lunch, with Saint Joseph Cooper Tina” (also in its premiere production), “A Game of Twenty…” and “Aye Do”. It should be noted that Joe Evans is directing “A Game of Twenty…” And “Aye Do” is being directed by David Hintz, who is the youngest son of Melanie Hintz–the same Melanie Hintz who acted in “Wild Sweet William,” the first show I directed nigh on 30 years ago. This fact staggered me more than anything, and yet it took a while for me to even realize it. Like… weeks.

So if you happen to be in the Starkville, Mississippi, area on Monday, April 29 and Wednesday May 1, the directing class play festival will start at 5p, on the McComas Hall main stage, on the campus of MSU. Theatre MSU is also celebrating it’s 60th anniversary this weekend as well, with a production of the musical Pippin.

I’ve even heard a rumor that I might show up. (It’s a rumor I started, so I’m pretty sure it’s true. But, I mean, how could I miss out on my plays being performed on the McComas Hall stage, produced by the very directing class in which I directed my own first show?

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