September 25, 2018
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On Center Stage

Read the full feature in the September/October issue of Evansville Living.

Evansville’s theatrical roots were planted in the middle of the 19th century when independent theater companies were established and performed throughout the Midwest. Evansville’s own Civic Theatre traces its history to the 1920s, when the community theater movement swept the country. Today, with creative cousins in regional theaters, well-respected university theater departments, veteran actors, and many special events, there is plenty of live theater to enjoy.

At the University of Evansville, Department of Theatre Chair John David Lutz has built a national reputation and helped jumpstart many careers. Owensboro’s Ron Waite’s musical productions have grown out of the back alley. Our long-running summer musicals showcase the area’s exceptional young talent.

We’ve talked to these people and many others – on stage and behind the scenes – to give you a sense of what there is to see beyond the footlights, just minutes from your door.

Career Stage

John David Lutz enters his 50th year at the University of Evansville  By Nathan Blackford

John David Lutz always has looked a bit younger than his age. So when he took a teaching job at the University of Evansville in 1965, he wore a tie everyday to distinguish himself from the students.

Now entering his 50th year at UE, Lutz, 74, still looks younger than his age. But he doesn’t wear those ties anymore.

“When I came here as a faculty member, I was teaching people who had been classmates,” says Lutz. “And I’ve been here ever since.”

Lutz graduated from Boonville (Indiana) High School in 1958, and from what was then called Evansville College in 1964. He had bounced back and forth between there and Indiana University in Bloomington. He also was in the Air Force Reserve to avoid being drafted.

When Lutz began teaching, theater was part of UE’s English department with three faculty members. During his time at UE, the school’s theater department has gained a national reputation as a premiere training program.

Today, theater is its own department with state-of-the-art facilities, a dozen faculty members, and graduates working in theaters and television shows across the country.

“I like the fact that we’ve grown in reputation and in size over the years,” says Lutz. “We attract students from all over the U.S., and we’ve had a lot of success with local people.”

Back in the 1950s, UE faculty member Dr. Sam Smiley began to build the theater operation. That earned the program some attention in the community, and it’s what attracted Lutz. Smiley hired Lutz after graduation, and mentored him for several years.

Lutz has won so many awards they’re hard to count, but they include the Evansville Mayor’s Arts Award, the Governor’s Arts Educator of the Year Award, the Sadelle Berger Academic Faculty Award, and many more.

This year, Lutz will direct one of UE’s four productions; it will be the second time in his career he’s directed “Macbeth.” The other three productions — “The Wild Party,” “Dancing at Lughnasa,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” — each have a different director.

Those who have studied under Lutz have gone on to work on the stage, as well as movies and television. Students have choreographed on Broadway, written plays, created TV shows, and more. Ron Glass, a 1968 UE graduate, starred on TV’s “Barney Miller.” Rami Malek, a 2003 graduate, acted in the finale of “The Twilight Saga.”

“We’ve had a lot of them go on to be successful,” says Lutz. “It’s a lot more than acting. We’ve been more successful in the last five or six years with people who design scenery and costumes, people who design lighting, and people who are in administrative positions in professional theater. We have professional costume designers employed by the TV show ‘Girls.’ And we’ve had success with students going to graduate programs at places like Yale, NYU, and the University of California at San Diego.”

For many years, UE participated in the American College Theater Festival. At the regional events, theater departments put on plays to compete for awards and the chance to advance to the national event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Lutz and his students enjoyed several trips to the national event.

“That got us noticed on a national basis, and it also gave us credit locally and with our administration,” says Lutz. “They were aware that we were something more than just a college theater department, because we achieved on a national basis, won awards and things like that.”

UE dropped out of the theater festival a few years ago due to the expense. But as long as graduates continue to find work across the country, says Lutz, the department’s reputation will remain strong.

Lutz didn’t have to stay at UE. He had offers to go other places, although that doesn’t happen anymore. But he never really wanted to leave.

“In my younger days I had offers to go other places, but I’m kind of a homebody,” says Lutz. “Evansville feels safe to me.”

Unlike Lutz, many of his students are from somewhere outside the Tri-State. In fact, of the 130 students in the department this fall, 44 are from Texas. Last year, UE theater students came from 29 states. UE holds auditions all over the country, including Seattle, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.

The theater department is highly selective in its recruitment approach. Students have to fit in with the department as well as the university as a whole. Lutz has picked many of the students himself.

“We look for talent, obviously,” says Lutz. “But we also look at academics. Because we demand so much of their time in productions, they don’t have a lot of time for studying. So they have to be able to stay on top of their studies.”

Lutz, who has been the head of UE’s theater department for almost 30 years, will probably give up that title soon. And though he’s always resisted the idea, he may be headed toward retirement.

“After 50 years, I think I ought to think about it,” he says. “But I like what I do. Being department chair is something I am going to step away from soon, or I’ll start looking my age.”

For more information about the University of Evansville Department of Theatre, visit evansville.edu/majors/theatre.

Dressed for Success

Costume designer receives the Mayor’s Arts Award  By Emily Patton

Patti McCrory has trouble putting it into words what it means to her to be the 2014 Art Educator of the Year recipient, an award given by the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana at the Mayor’s Arts Awards held Aug. 21 at Tropicana Evansville. Perhaps the reason why it’s a struggle is because the professor and costume designer at the University of Evansville Department of Theatre recognizes her work as a collaborative effort.

“Since theater is a collaborative art, I feel singled out, honored, and appreciated and so grateful to be working with the talented faculty, staff, and students here at UE,” says McCrory. She was recognized for her dedication to the field of education and design. McCrory shared the Art Educator of the Year award with Dr. Hilary Braysmith, an associate professor of art history at the University of Southern Indiana.

McCrory has been a member of the University of Evansville Department of Theatre faculty for 26 years, and she regularly teaches at Harlaxton College, UE’s British campus located near Grantham, England, in the summer. She was nominated for the Educator of the Year Award by UE Department of Theatre chair John David Lutz and arts advocate Judy Steenberg.

“My colleagues in the department make me look good,” says McCrory. “Eric Renschler sees things in me as an educator and artist that I try to make be true. Sharla Cowden teaches us all to claim our talent and she markets the department. Directors R. Scott Lank, John David Lutz, and Diane Brewer trust me as a designer in a life-affirming way. Diane Brewer shows me how to be disciplined by her example. Jean Nelson reaches our students with love, support, and through her own excellent skills. Christina Ward helps us be understood, literally. Chuck Meacham always has time for students and faculty, showing us how to make a positive impact.”

McCrory received her master’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and joined USA (United Scenic Artists) in 1990. She also has worked extensively with the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival.

“What other job do you get paid to read great works of art, pretend, and then make those ideas come to life?” says McCrory.

Don't miss these online exclusives:  • Lights, Camera, Action   • Life on Stage

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