From the archives of the Oakwood Register, August 26, 2008
By Burt Saidel
It seems like a century ago. I sat in a cornfield listening to Robert Oelman, chairman of NCR, announce the founding of Wright State University. Enthusiastically, he predicted that the university would have an outstanding medical school, engineering school, business and undergraduate school and, above all, a theater department of national repute and scope. Oelman became the first president of the WSU Board of Trustees and everything he prognosticated, and much more, has come true.
Perhaps the least likely area of success for a new university in metropolitan Dayton, Ohio, would be in the arts. But in these four decades, WSU has fulfilled the dreams of generations of aspiring students of acting, dance, technical theater, music and visual arts through its theater department. The faculty, the ever-improving facilities, and the enthusiasm of complete involvement have made WSU creative arts among the most sought after university programs.
As applications pour in for every aspect of the theater department, Chairman Stuart McDowell continues to develop new opportunities and new talents. The results on the stages of the WSU Creative Arts Center speak loud and clear from these columns. Some of our great moments in theater, anywhere, have been given to us by the WSU students.
The creative arts faculty is star-studded. Such luminaries as Mary Donahoe, Joe Deer, Greg Hellems and Bruce Cromer not only teach and direct but are seen on local and national stages in leading roles. Such a combination of pedagogues, who are active in their art, sparks the magic at WSU.
Chairman Stu McDowell is also active in his art. He has recently won a major award for an essay on the works of German playwright Berthold Brecht. This essay will join
his other writings to become a book on Brecht which will have far-reaching effects. Again, scholarship mixed with active participation — a winning combination.
Stu speaks with the greatest pride not about his accomplishments but those of the students. Theaters all over the country have employed WSU students. Names such as Susan Blackwell, Nick Farina and Nicole Scherzinger, are but a sample of those alumni who have met success.
The department of theater tech, design, implementation, and back-stage management has the loftiest record. These graduates have 100 percent employment within two months of entering the job market. This record is unbroken for six years.
The long range plans call for emphasis in every genre of theater. The goal is to “nail the classics” and to produce the best in contemporary theater. Brecht will be well represented as will Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan and visits to the great American musicals.
Next season is a great example of this diverse but very effective concentration. The 50th anniversary of Lorainne Hansberry’s ground-breaking A Raisin in the Sun will be commemorated with a special production in honor of Dayton’s own theater icon Sheila Ramsey.
Song and dance wizard Joe Deer will direct Thoroughly Modern Millie. He promises 50, count ’em 50, tap dancers exploding on the stage and bringing the roaring 20s to life. Greg Hellems will direct the debut of Smokey Joe’s Café, exploring the 60s music in a gala revue fashion.
Thornton Wilder’s immortal Our Town will make its WSU debut under the direction of Sinclair’s Brian McKnight. It is hard to believe that this play, seen on every conceivable stage from high schools to historic Broadway, has never been done at WSU.
Brian McKnight brings a wide range of sensitivity to everything he does. He understands comedy, tragedy, satire, pathos equally. Our Town is an exposition of life and death. It is complex in its simplicity. Its characters glow with each line, each word.
I can predict with certainty that this Our Town will plumb the very depths of emotion with elegant truthfulness.