By Casey Leming ’19
To the students who pursue it, there’s nothing minor about the theatre minor at Shippensburg University. Learning the foundations of acting, production, and technical theatre from the minor’s dedicated faculty have led alumni to entertaining and rewarding careers.
Dr. Paul Leitner and Professor Paris Peet revived the theatre program by establishing the minor in 1995, after the major had been cut due to funding. The 18-credit minor has mentored and shaped students over the past two decades, teaching them the importance of the performing arts locally and worldwide. Alumni of the program have gone on to work professionally in positions such as technical and artistic directors, performers, stage and production managers, theatre founders, and professors.
Many theatre alumni say they owe Leitner and Peet their careers, crediting their guidance, passion, dedication, and work ethic in the classroom and on the stage.
The minor has a history of hands-on learning, having produced a full season of shows in the past that required students to fully participate. With opportunities in technical design, set building, costuming, staging, production, house management, performing, and directing, the theatre minor used to act as a full-on theatre company run out of Memorial Auditorium. Today, the minor produces a theatre practicum show every two years.
Learning the concepts to perform as well as tangible procedures for production helped many alumni maintain a career, despite not having a degree in the field. Students also pursued master’s degrees in the arts because the skills learned at Ship went beyond those of their colleagues and professors.
Peet said the importance of the performing arts depends on the effects of storytelling. “It’s important for people to come together as a community; to be present with one another.” Theatre alumni expressed similar sentiments, sharing that the stage provides them with a chance to share their own stories as well as stories they feel need to be told.
From Storytelling to Stage
Tim Gallagher ’96, professor of theatre in the Philadelphia area, believes that storytelling dictates how we as a society live and survive. “Right now, more than ever, we need a sense of community. We lose touch with the people sitting right next to (us). I think stories are how we survive everything.”
When Gallagher attended Ship, he was a student paying his own way through college as a computer science major. He never felt like he belonged anywhere until he was dared by a friend to audition for a show at Ship. As soon as he got involved with the minor, something clicked.
After leaving Ship, Gallagher became an assistant stage manager at Delaware Theatre Company. With an interest in stage management and directing, he freelanced in Philadelphia. When Montgomery County Community College posted a job opening for the director of their upcoming theatre program, he applied and was instantly hired. In building the theatre program from the ground up, Gallagher found a passion for working with students, which he credits to Peet and Leitner. “Paris and Paul were my family. They made me the artist I am today.”
Though Gallagher left Ship with plans to become an actor, he found more interest in teaching and directing, and the minor prepared him to dabble in a bit of everything before he found his niche.
When Zeb Hults ’01 graduated with similar plans to pursue acting, he realized a different passion as a technical director. Now working with a theatre department at the University of Minnesota, Hults works as a liaison between set designers and college students. As a victim of several budget cuts at various jobs, Hults believes the ever-increasing depletion of arts and theatre programs is dangerous. “We’re in danger of losing the story,” he said.
Agreeing with Gallagher, Hults believes that storytelling is one of the most significant parts of the performing arts. “It’s a storytelling method, but it’s a way to be able to communicate in the fashion in which it can kind of take you out of reality for a bit. It’s tough out there, there’s a lot of things going on. If you can sit down and escape for a while, it’s quite something.”
Diana Knox ’99 quickly learned the importance of ambition in the world of performing arts and production. As a stage manager touring the country, Knox has held positions in television production and education. With connections from The Blue Man Group, Impractical Jokers, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and several operas, she is now a production manager for the show, America’s Test Kitchen, and said she owes many of her skills to Ship’s theatre minor.
Knox makes sacrifices for her art, sometimes requiring her to miss birthdays, weddings, and holidays. “Professional theatre is a lifestyle. It’s something that gets into your soul and your being. It becomes a part of you.”
Though she has many connections to thank for her success in the field, she credits her time at Ship as the most valuable, especially thanking Leitner and Peet for their help in shaping the trajectory of her career.
After attending a show produced by the theatre minor at Ship called Tracers, Doug Durlacher ’97 found himself forever changed by the performance he had witnessed on stage and immediately enrolled in the minor. Durlacher has worked as an actor in professional theatre, children’s theatre, and at the New York Shakespeare Adirondack Company, as well as a director, and even as a fight choreographer.
Much like many other theatre professionals, Durlacher said that most of his jobs came from connections with others in the field. He said that in becoming a “yes man” of sorts, he found himself working on the most incredible projects.
Durlacher echoed Knox’s sentiments about immersing oneself in professional theatre, but said that it’s significant as a hobby as well. “Some of the most important theatre is local community theatre, filled with volunteers who are there because they want to be.”
He said that his experiences at Ship shaped him personally and professionally, helping him to focus more on the happiness he gains from the experiences and less on the paycheck. Thanks to the direction of Leitner and Peet, students learned to own what they were passionate about and, in doing so, they found fulfillment in different ways.
Making a Difference
Tom Reing ’94 is artistic director and founder of Inis Nua Theatre in Philadelphia. Inis Nua is an Irish theatre that produces shows from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Reing said he fell in love with theatre when he realized he could making a living doing it.
As someone who sees stories unfold onstage every week, Reing said theatre is important because of the skills it cultivates, “Employers want individuals who critically think, have self-esteem, who problem solve, and are team players—the arts do all of that.”
Reing found success in Inis Nua and artistic directing, but he’s clear, “I’m not doing this for fame, I’m doing it to tell stories.” He believes, without storytelling, there is no humanity.
Fellow theatre professional Brian Hull ’84 is a two-time Emmy® award winner, animator, and puppeteer. Hull had the opportunity to take the theatre major at Shippensburg, saying he learned different ways of storytelling when he wrote music and shows for a quartet while at the university. They toured the tristate and this, he said, is what jumpstarted his career as a performer for Opryland.
After pitching his famous character, The Professor Hull performed interactive shows at Opryland. This opened up positions in both animations and the National Public Library where he now works as head of a puppetry division that reaches over 100,000 children a year with their puppet shows. Since then, Hull has worked with Dolly Parton, The Country Music Hall of Fame, and puppetry companies around the world.
Hull said working with children has always been the most rewarding. “The kids want to see the truth, and you have an opportunity to share it with them. It has nothing to do with getting rich. It has everything to do with helping someone.”
Hull expressed the importance of hard work and determination, noting that a career in theatre isn’t the easiest path. He compares the experience to that of Michelangelo. “You’re not gonna get there if you give up. It’s hard work, but it’s historical. Michelangelo got paid, but he still had to fight to prove he was good.”
Storytelling Will Save Us
It’s no secret that funding for the arts has taken a hit at all levels of education. Theatre alumni are quick to point out the value it adds to education, entertainment, professionalism, and life in general. “When you go to college, you learn how to make a living, but the arts make life worth living,” Gallagher said. Leitner and Peet taught their students that art is something to dedicate yourself to, to own, to experience, and to appreciate.
“The arts have an inhuman quality,” Hull said. Added Durlacher, “Theatre, the arts in general, are the pathways to creative problem solving, to empathy, and as soon as that starts to erode, society crumbles.”
“Arts education helps us to be better humans and understand ourselves better and understand others,” Gallagher said.
Casey Leming ’19 is an intern for SU Magazine.