The novelist Gail Godwin once said, “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths pure theatre.” I realize the context might be a little cattywampus, but I like to think that, in good theatre, there must be an element (a percentage, if you will) of good teaching. In my own best theatre experiences, I have learned about the human condition, about literature, about language, and certainly about myself.
This is why I am always particularly interested to hear what our local institutions of higher learning plan to include in their theatrical seasons. I hope for and look forward to entertainment value, of course, and the simultaneous diversion and catharsis that comes from good performance. But I also find myself picking these seasons apart wondering what the selected shows have to offer the students of these institutions — not the ones in the audience, necessarily, but those who are learning the lines and treading the boards.
I had the good fortune, just recently, to chat a bit with Joi Hoffsommer, who, in addition to being one of the most talented actors I’ve ever seen, also happens to be Department Head of Theatre at Parkland College. What I learned from a few questions was illuminating in terms of education in the theatre, and it also served to reinforce a couple of things I already knew: Hoffsommer is as dedicated to her position as an educator as she is focused on her craft as an artist.
I used the shows in Parkland’s upcoming season as springboards for each of my questions, but my interest was generally about more than one thing.
Kind of like good theatre.
Smile Politely: I notice a new face up first this season, as well as a familiar playwright. From what I know of Leading Ladies, it should be a treat for those who enjoyed Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor a couple of years ago. What can you tell us about its director, Sandra Zielinski?
Joi Hoffsommer: Sandi is a recent “graduate” (her description of her retirement) from the directing program in ISU’s theatre department and has been directing all over Central Illinois and beyond for many years. Sandi is an educator at heart, spending time with each actor, helping each craft the best performance possible. We are lucky to have her.
SP: I’m pretty excited to see Around the World in 80 Days, even if it won’t be in the new black box theatre, as originally planned. Is there an update on the construction of the new space?
Hoffsommer: The latest update has us in by November 7th, but major construction projects are rife with unknowns. I long ago learned that throwing a tantrum will only get you so far, so I abandoned that tack after a couple of huffs and puffs early on. We will be in eventually and will be very happy when we are. We have Plan B in place, so the show will go on, no matter what!
SP: That’s good to hear. The next show in the season, The Sparrow, deals with young characters, so I’m curious: what is considered ideal in terms of student actors/participants in a Parkland Theatre show?
Hoffsommer: The rule of thumb is to assure that at least one role of each gender in every show is suited for our traditional, young-adult student. We aim for more and have been able to make sure there are multiple roles in that range for most shows. We don’t promise roles to our students, but we encourage auditioning, and many of them have been cast this semester. Auditioning is a skill that is honed with practice. Making sure the performance track students audition regularly is important for their education.
SP: I am not typically a big musical enthusiast, but I’ve heard such good things about The Drowsy Chaperone, and it gets serious points in my book for being the brainchild of the creators of Slings & Arrows. With notable exceptions, you are usually associated with so-called “straight plays,” so I wonder: what are the things that grab you about a musical? Do you have any particular favorites?
Hoffsommer: I always must wear two hats when doing season selection, and I do not do it alone. I am an educator and a producer. I must look at the balance of material over a two-year period to give the students a relative range of experiences in genre and design potential. What might serve the community for entertainment and bring in much-depended-upon revenue is a necessary consideration. The full-time faculty and staff collaborate in the selection, so there are several voices in the mix. But for me, I want a musical with music that grabs me and good storytelling. Sometimes I also want a belly-laugh, as with last year’s SPAMALOT.
SP: I thought last year’s season was pretty great. Diverse, fun, with great production values and performances. Beyond putting up another good season (which goes without saying), what are your hopes for the program, going forward?
Hoffsommer: I hope we can integrate the new space into our regular season with relative ease. A reduced seating capacity will be a consideration in our ability to accommodate all of our patrons and, of course, in potential box office receipts. It may take a season or two to for us to figure how to manage this reduced capacity, but there are several aspects of that needing thought and planning. The opportunity for our students in performance, design, and technology to work in both spaces is an educational bonanza. That is the best part of the future of the Parkland Theatre program in my book.
Parkland College Theatre kicks off its 2014-2015 season with Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies on October 2nd. For more information, visit the Parkland Theatre website.