By JOHN SNIFFEN
Article originally appears in SCENE Magazine | Fall 2016.
As the final notes faded last spring after the last scene of Schreiner University’s production of “Godspell,” there was a moment of silence. The audience in Kerrville’s
Cailloux Theater had just witnessed Jesus’ execution, followed by his disciples’ grief and anguish, then rising hope.
“There was this moment right after the finale where everyone was kind of breathless,” says Evan Vera, a member of the cast. “There was a half beat where the audience was just taking it in, then the applause started, and it was exhilarating.”
Enabling student actors, musicians and singers like Vera to experience that feeling in years to come is the desire of the Schreiner drama and music departments. Godspell’s success—both in terms of popular response and as an educational experience—has encouraged the two departments to plan and budget for annual musical co-productions in 2017 and beyond.
For Claudia Sullivan, professor of theater and communication, and a part of the Schreiner faculty since 1977, it’s the culmination of years of hoping, dreaming and planning.
“The idea has been germinating for years, but we had to wait until we had enough student talent to produce a musical. You need singers, dancers and musicians,” she says. “When the idea came up again for last fall, we had the talent. Everyone’s eyes lit up at the same time, and we said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Prior to “Godspell,” the music department had performed shows with music—“The Rocky Horror Show” in 2010 and “Putnam County Spelling Bee” in 2011—but there was no official involvement by the theater department. Jessica Roberts, who was then a student, but has since graduated and teaches at Ingram High School, directed both shows, and Michael Kahl, directed
“Those were rewarding experiences, but having the theater department involved in co-producing musicals at Schreiner is better overall for the university,” says Kahl, associate professor
of music and director of choral music. “It makes best use of the resources of both the theater and music departments.”
With the decision made to produce a musical, the production team set about picking a show and auditioning performers.
“Godspell” was chosen because it’s a well-loved musical that offers large roles to a dozen people,” says Heather Cunningham, adjunct instructor of theater, who directed the musical. “It also had a great message for our community.”
First performed in the early 1970s, “Godspell” involves a series of parables, mostly based on the Gospel of Matthew, interspersed with a variety of modern music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns.
Kahl directed the singing and band, which included faculty and staff; Jeff Cunningham, adjunct instructor of Theater was the set director; and Devon McLaughlin, who works in the registrar’s office, did costume design.
After rehearsals began, it became apparent that the small theater in the Hanszen Building was not going to be big enough for the production or the audience it was expected to draw.
“We saw that we were going to need a bigger venue,” says Dr. Sullivan. “There was not much notice, but the Cailloux had a cancellation and we took those dates. It was good all around. The set was not too big to move, and it was great for the students to get to work in a quality facility like Cailloux.”
Auditions will be held early in the spring semester for the next musical, “Cabaret,” which will be performed March 3-5.
The large contrast between a show featuring gospel parables and another set in a bawdy nightclub in pre-World War II Nazi Germany is not unintentional. “We like to challenge students with hard material and expose them to the ‘classics’ that have been around for years,” says Cunningham. “Godspell” and “Cabaret” both meet each of these criteria easily. It is an added bonus that they are so very different, giving the students involved year-to-year a variety of depth.”
Students also learn first-hand about the meaning about such well-known show business phrases as “The show must go on.” Lillie Bales, a sophomore from Hondo, had bronchitis during the production. “I had to take medication that made me shake a little bit. It was either that or be unable to breathe without coughing during my solo,” says Bales. “The end result was good, but the journey there was very rough.”
Both Bales and Vera had praise for Cunningham’s directorial skills.
“It was the second musical I’ve ever been in,” says Vera, “and I was not confident in my abilities as a vocalist. She gave me that. She really has a way of bringing out the best in people, in ways that we haven’t thought of before.”
“Heather is very personable,” says Bales. “She makes you comfortable enough to try to do the new things she knows you can do.”
“If you’re in the performing arts, there’s never a time when you can say, ‘I can’t do that’,” adds Vera. “When Heather would see we were questioning our abilities, she would say, ‘No, no, go ahead, I’ve heard you sing before.’”
VIDEO: GODSPELL was featured in a #Schreiner60, a YouTube web video series highlighting Schreiner in 60 seconds.
While Schreiner now has enough talent to put on musicals, that talent is stretched fairly thin.
“Because we are a small school, everyone is involved in more than one thing,” says Cunningham. “It’s hard to get more than the core theatre or music kids to commit to the rehearsal time it requires to mount a full-scale musical.”
“Many students are involved in multiple student organizations or ensembles. Finding a time where everyone can rehearse on a regular basis can prove to be difficult,” says Kahl.
And there’s the money factor. It’s more expensive to buy the rights to perform a musical than a play, says Dr. Sullivan. “Plays can cost $50 to $70 for royalties. Musicals start at $2,500 and go up. We primarily do older shows because newer ones are more expensive.”
Also, Schreiner must compete with other theaters in the region. “They will not license us to do a show that is already being performed nearby, such as at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio,” says Dr. Sullivan.
Those challenges aside, there is tremendous upside to the departments collaborating on musicals.
“Performing in musicals stretches the students,” says Dr. Sullivan. “It challenges them in unique ways. They are essentially called to play fantasy scenes. Breaking into song in a situation in which they would not normally do so pushes their creativity.”
Kahl speaks of “The light bulb effect” —“You almost see a light bulb go off in the student’s head when he or she realizes what kind of effort, dedication and patience it takes to make something sound and look as good as it possibly can. The energy and enthusiasm that occurs after the students buy into the rehearsal process is a valuable teaching moment.”
He also sees rapid improvement in students’ singing and acting ability during the intense rehearsal process. “They’re singing and acting every day for about four weeks. Most of them make great strides with their technique.”
Staging musicals can also be a good recruiting tool, says Dr. Sullivan. No matter what their major, students with singing, acting and dancing skills like to participate in theater while in college, even if it’s not their major.
“As a smaller program, we are able to give large roles to students who have put in the time and effort, and really have earned the chance. That doesn’t always happen at a larger university,” says Cunningham. “And the whole university seems to come out for the musical--really supporting the students in the show because we are such a tight-knit university community.”
Bales, who chose Schreiner because it was recommended by her high school theater director, says she came here because “there’s a great, small theater program that is growing and getting better every year. My high school’s program was new, but growing, and I loved it.
Having numerous community theater companies around Kerrville was also a plus. In the fall, she was part of a production of “The Tempest” performed outdoors at Stonehenge II on the grounds of the Hill Country Arts Foundation in Ingram.
Vera did not come to Schreiner because of theater, he started as a nursing major. After graduating from a high school where his class alone was 600 students, he wanted to see what it was like “to be part of a close-knit community where you can know almost everyone. I stumbled onto the arts community here, and it was a treasure trove.”
Several of his fraternity brothers were involved in theater his freshman year, but not him. “I used to annoy them by going to their shows, accidentally memorizing their lines, then misquoting them back to them. Finally they just said, ‘Join the theater, we need more actors.”
Without any previous acting experience, Vera auditioned and, in the fall of his sophomore year, got the role of Dionysus in The Bacchae. Summer before last he was Pugsley in Addam’s Family: The Musical at the Point Theater in Ingram.
Vera is still working through his career choices, but is leaning toward getting certified to teach in grade school. “I like kids, and teaching allows room for creativity. And it would allow me time to support my artistic passion. My time in college has made me realize I’m someone who needs an artistic outlet.”
Bales is also leaning toward teaching, and wants to be involved in community theater wherever she goes. “I want to
be a part of helping other theater programs grow.”
“Being involved with the production of a musical has been a wonderful, educational, and also incredibly enjoyable experience,” she says. “I would highly encourage anyone who has ever thought about it to come audition and see how it goes.”
Schreiner University’s performing arts programs are benefitting from the addition of a new freshman living and learning community, and physical improvements to on-campus practice and performance facilities.
The Performing Arts Living and Learning Community (PALLC) for freshmen began in fall 2015 with Michael Kahl, associate professor of music and director of choral music, as its coordinator.
Its goal is to provide an enriching experience through exposure to the arts in a holistic context. Students have opportunities to experience performance as both audience and participants in music, dance and theatre. The program encourages community members to support each other’s creativity, and to experience deeper connections with the performing arts.
“This blend of artistic interests creates a unique environment conducive to
creative expression and self-realization,” says Kahl. “Members engage with art and performance, both on and off campus, and explore how their experiences inform and shape their studies, their careers, and their communities.”
The coordinator and trained peer mentors work closely with PALLC members, organizing on and off campus activities. Rooming in the same section of Trull Dormitory promotes interaction among the students who have similar interests and majors.
The current group is a mixture of musicians, actors, painters/illustrators, and poets/ writers. While music and theater majors are obvious community members, there are also business, education, biology, sport management and graphic arts majors.
Fall 2016 activities have included an evening songwriting workshop at the Schreiner Outfitters bookstore with Stuart and Hilary Adamson of the Flying A’s; attending a Symphony of the Hills concert featuring music department chair Dr. Don Crandall on piano; attending the San Antonio Symphony’s performance of Carmina Burana, then meeting with the San Antonio Mastersingers chorus master; and attending the Point Theater’s production of Pump Boys and Dinettes, meeting with artistic director Jeff Cunningham, and touring the theater complex.
As part of Interdisciplinary Studies 1301, PALLC members are creating and presenting original works, including songs, poems, slam poetry, face painting, and canvas painting. They are basing their work on the required reading for the course,” The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown.
Work is proceeding this fall on renovations to several facilities utilized by the performing arts at Schreiner. Rex Kelly Pavilion is being renovated into a Music Education Hall, and the Hanszen Fine Arts Building—including the Fine Arts Theater--is being refurbished. A landscaped plaza, centralizing the performing arts at Schreiner in one location, will join the two buildings.
The Music Education Hall will include classrooms, practice rooms, a music library, a recording studio, computer stations, audio listening booths, and an ensemble room large enough to hold the entire Symphony of the Hills, which will rehearse there.
“Creatively and academically, our students and school will flourish in this centralized space,” says Dr. Crandall.
The music department had used the Dietert Auditorium building for classes, but outgrew the facility. Dietert is also being renovated this year into a home for Campus Ministry, Purposeful Living, and Church Vocations. It will include a 100-seat recital hall and a 208-seat chapel.
The improvements are a part of the five-year, $50 million fulfilling the Promise campaign, specifically the portion relating to the creation and maintenance of a premier place of learning.