Before I ever directed a play for Parkland College Theatre, I was a fan of their productions and their program. My first experiences in theatre were at a community college very much like Parkland, so I felt immediately at home there, even as an audience member. Getting to know the program a little from the inside, I have frequently been impressed by the work ethic of the students and the attention given by faculty and staff to the education experience.
Having worked with Parkland students and graduates outside of Parkland, I can attest to the fact that the skills and work ethic carry over. These emerging actors, designers, and directors bring their “A Game,” even when there’s no course credit involved.
This kind of behavior and passion reflects well on the individual who oversees the Parkland College Theatre culture, Theatre Director Brian Morgan. In the years that Morgan has been coordinating all things theatre, the program has turned out some tremendous productions. More importantly, especially to Morgan, it has turned out some tremendous graduates whose talents and determination serve not only themselves and their craft but also their community.
I spoke with Morgan about his early artistic experiences, his responsibilities and hopes regarding Parkland, and what he thinks will come next.
Smile Politely: How far back can you remember being interested in theatre? Do remember a specific show that sparked your interest?
Brian Morgan: My earliest memory of theatre was when I was very young, maybe 3 or 4 years old. I remember watching the 1960 filmed version of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin. I loved the music and the theatricality of the work, although at the time I probably just thought it was fun. Fast forward to when I was asked to join the 5th/6th grade play (and I was only in the 4th grade) due to one of the cast members dropping out. This is when my interested really was piqued. I don’t even remember the play now, but I remember the feeling of waiting in the wings, being onstage, and even the smell of the stage makeup. Once I experienced the excitement and magic of theatre firsthand, I was hooked.
SP: What have you learned from theatre? Not just skills, but about life? Aside from employment and a creative outlet, how has theatre impacted who you are?
Morgan: It would be impossible to list everything learned from theatre as I learn new things every day. Honestly, the best lessons from theatre are all about people. Theatre provides a medium for expression and sharing of each other’s knowledge throughout the entire process of staging a show. I went to school in a small town with many people that were of the same mindset; we all grew up with similar experiences and circumstances. Theatre opened a door to discover new cultures, social issues, and different belief systems while also being a great tool to promote discussion and critical thinking.
My experiences in theatre have also developed and enforced the idea that everyone is important and we only succeed together. Without the stage lighting you can’t see an actor, without the actor you can’t tell the story, and storytelling is what theatre is all about. Everyone is important, every role on stage or off has an impact, and everyone needs to work together to make the best art possible. Theatre has made me much more appreciative of our differences as people and constantly reminds me just how important it is that we continually learn from each other.
SP: Let’s talk specifically about Parkland College Theatre now. What is your present job description, and what all does that entail?
Morgan: My job title is Theatre Director, which is a merger of Artistic Director and Technical Director. This is a very uncommon combination for a theatre. As an Artistic Director, I am in charge of all programming, messaging, hiring, and budget and resource allocations. As a Technical Director, I engineer all the scenery and effects that are designed for our productions and supervise all the technical aspects of shows such as the scenery shop, costume shop, electrics, and sound. The only reason my position is even possible for me to do is because of an amazing group of people on our Theatre team and all the support from Parkland’s administration. I am also a full-time faculty member and teach and mentor students. My position as a faculty member is very important because our facility’s purpose is to serve as an academic lab to train our students and, as a venue, to engage the community in learning.
SP: Has being involved in the educational side of theatre changed your approach to or appreciation of it?
Morgan: Theatre is my passion, and passing along that knowledge to others is a natural instinct for me and one reason I was drawn to teach. When I first started my career in theatre, my mind was focused on being the best Technical Director and making sure no one was better than me. I approached my career in theatre almost like a professional athlete’s mindset, working harder to be bigger and better than any of the competition. Since I have started to teach, my focus has completely shifted away from my own skills and legacy in theatre to that of my students. Now I try to work harder than everyone else to see my students become better than I ever was or ever will be. I celebrate every student that helps make our profession better and do everything in my power to help students on to their next phase, whether that be transferring to a University or gaining employment in the industry. I still follow and keep track of students I had 10 years ago when I taught at the University of Pittsburgh. This fundamental change in my approach has enhanced my appreciation of theatre since I now see my students’ appreciation and passion grow.
SP: I know that Parkland Theatre had already announced its lineup of productions for the 2020-2021 season when the quarantine went into effect and, very sadly, Chicago had to be canceled. How firm are those plans now? Has a decision been made about theatre in the fall or the upcoming school year? Also, will Parkland be shifting any of its theatre focus online (either in terms of performance or instruction)?
Morgan: I think anyone would be lying if they said plans of any sort were firm in the current situation. Our hope is that we can function as close to normal as possible when we open our first show. Obviously, there are a lot of unknown factors at this time, but our continued priority is our students and our community’s health and safety. No plans or decisions have been made in regard to next season or classes in the Fall semester; this will be a college administration decision and whatever they decide will be what is safest for everyone. I am currently making plans for all scenarios that could come our way and, while I won’t dive into all of those, I can say our primary goal is to continue to provide uninterrupted training and experiences for our students so that they can continue on their journey without issue. We only have two years with our students to prepare them to be professionals, and every semester is important. I believe that, no matter the scenario, students will receive the same high-level training regardless of the delivery method(s) and should not hesitate to join us in Fall.
This past Spring semester, we were able to finish all of our Theatre courses online—even some of the trickier ones like Costumes and Acting II. Summer courses were mostly offered online before all of this happened, and we will continue to offer a range of online courses again this year.
SP: Looking at the shows produced in your time at Parkland, is there one you can point to as a great example of what Parkland Theatre’s potential?
Morgan: I have been extremely proud of all the shows in my five years with Parkland. While all of them had elements to celebrate and examples of what an amazing program we have, if I had to choose just one it would be Memphis. Students were involved in every element of that production, both onstage and off. The collaboration and mentorship that our students showed each other, especially between our students and the high school students, was really the best part for me. The backstage crew and cast were one big team. We had an actor that had to miss prom for the show and the team decided to do a prom onstage after one of the performances. It was a very close group, and so many good things came from that show in terms of training and message. I feel that it really embodied the idea of theatre and how powerful it can be when so many people come together working on one common goal.
SP: Is there anything you’d like to say to fans of Parkland College Theatre or any potential students out there who are wondering what happens next?
Morgan: Parkland College and Parkland Theatre is here for you. Through all the uncertainty we have experienced these last few months and looking into the future, we continually work to ensure that nothing will keep us from teaching, mentoring, and caring for our community. We will continue to support our students, put our community’s needs first, and create theatre in new and inventive ways. I want to thank the community that have donated to our Friends of Parkland Theatre Program, which directly contributes to our student’s success and our ability to continue bringing people together to create theatre. I also want to say to all the theatre groups and K-12 theatre programs in the Champaign-Urbana area, we are all in this together. Parkland Theatre and I are here as a resource or a helping hand if needed. Together we will move theatre forward, and what an opportunity it is to bring back theatre stronger than ever once this intermission has concluded.