While Mirae Kim was a graduate student in Pittsburgh, a conversation with a friend clarified her future research interests. As Kim describes it, her friend said “My mom always makes a donation every year to the Carnegie Museum, though she rarely visits it.” When Kim asked why, her friend answered, “Well, she is a Pittsburgher, and she feels like it’s just ‘our thing.’” Kim realized, “So, as a community member, she feels like she is obliged to make some gift every year; it’s just something that she has to do. And I just got so fascinated: why do people make [these gifts]? Why do they feel they need to do that?” It was a practice she had not seen growing up in South Korea or studying abroad in New Zealand. In the United States, however—particularly Pittsburgh, a city known for charitable giving—Kim was intrigued by patrons making small donations—under $100—to arts organizations. Moreover, arts organizations’ share of revenue from individual donors was huge: “It wasn’t just a small amount,” Kim emphasizes, “but often fifty percent or more of their revenue stream.” She wanted to learn more: why do people make these gifts? What is the role of small gifts? What kind of contribution does the nonprofit sector make to the community?
It all began with a church play featuring shepherds in choir robes and beards made from plastic bags. A young boy sat enthralled in the audience during this first encounter with theatre and let the characters performing on stage fascinate him. That boy, Clyde Ruffin, would eventually grow up to become Professor and Chair of Theatre at MU and Founding Director of the World Theatre Workshop. Years later, Ruffin admits that theatre is still where his heart is.
M. Heather Carver is framed by her clown shadow—a black mannequin head wearing a pink camouflage hat and red clown’s nose—as she joyfully begins to describe her place at MU. “I come from a background of performing,” the Associate Professor of Theatre offers. “As a means of studying something, we perform it.” As a way of studying autobiography, for example, Carver performs autobiography.
MU Theatre Professor Jim Miller emphasizes happenstance events, moments of inspiration, and intriguing connections as he talks about his work in the theatre—from a revelation while working on a Pepto-Bismol commercial in New York years ago (that he couldn’t “stomach” life as a struggling Broadway actor) to selecting which plays to direct at MU. Now, after twenty-six years of teaching and directing at MU, Miller has not only gathered a large repertoire of these stories, but has also come to believe in the power of such intangible resources as serendipity and instinct in the realm of acting and directing.
Professor Albert Devlin, a natural storyteller, sits back in his chair, crosses his arms, and proceeds to describe the fortuitous events that changed the trajectory of his professional life—that is, when in 1995 the estate of playwright Tennessee Williams placed the collection of his correspondence in the hands of Devlin and Nancy Tischler, professor emerita at Pennsylvania State University, giving them permission to edit these precious materials.
Dr. Kim gives a few examples of how arts organizations have built community engagement programs.
Dr. Kim traces the shift in focus for arts organizations from education to broader definitions of community engagement.
“Part of my hopes or desires for the department is that we will continue our legacy in order to strengthen our Ph.D. program and our M.A. program,” says Ruffin. Along with these goals, he hopes that the department will obtain the necessary resources to continue to have an extraordinary production program and to improve classroom and studio space.
Ruffin takes us backstage to watch actors prepare and warm up for the night’s performance of Holding Up The Sky.
Ruffin received the Kellogg Fellowship in 1984 and completed the program in 1988. He chose to work on issues of aging, and how cultures are transferred from one generation to the next. The fellowship provided him with funding to travel around the world, and these adventures taught Ruffin life-changing lessons.
Ruffin states that the advent and departure of talented students is the biggest challenge he faces. “The work goes on while the students come and go,” he observes. “There are periods where I’ve had so many wonderfully talented students that anything seemed possible, and then there are years where the talent pool is not as significant as you’d desire.” Casting appropriately for plays is another obstacle he must overcome.
Although Ruffin emphasizes that many of his productions are dear to him, the works that resonate as unforgettable are Langston Hughes’ Tambourines to Glory and the Black Theatre Workshop’s Strands. In Tambourines, he worked with a predominantly African American cast, and the production sold out every night. Strands took two years to create, won various playwriting awards, and was a regional and national winner at the American College Theatre Festival.
Ruffin explains his approach: “You know, I hadn’t really thought about whether or not I had a philosophy, because I was committed to doing what I felt was right; I’m kind of guided by my heart in that way.” He inspires his students and actors by encouraging them to be confident and to take ownership of their talent. He doesn’t believe in offering his students intensive direction throughout rehearsals and class; he feels that personal development is more valuable to human growth.
Whether their work seeks to counter domestic violence and ethnic genocide, identify cancer treatments, or employ literature and music to understand humanity, these MU faculty describe in their own words why this work is important to society.
Since October of 2006, Carver has been developing Booby Prize, a comedy about the unfunny subject of breast cancer. “It’s a one-woman show featuring me [laughs],” and how she was “lucky” to be the one of every seven women to get the disease. Through Booby Prize, which is ever evolving, Carver is able to combine her interest in social activism, women’s health, and autobiography: “I decided that I could have breast cancer and still have a sense of humor, and still do my work. And so that’s when Booby Prize, you know, became born, the idea that—unfortunately—I won the prize. I won the Booby Prize, which you don’t want to win, you don’t want to be the 1 out of 7 who wins, but I won, and so that’s how I start off the performance.” Much of the performance features Carver performing actual stories that happened to her, infusing humor into the reality of her situation. At the conclusion of Booby Prize, Carver warns the audience against expecting closure and a happy ending. Despite the clean bill of health at her last medical checkup, the possibility of cancer returning lingers on, and so Carver reminds the audience, “I don’t have a pretty ending; my ending is still up in the air.” Among audience members, Carver has observed not only laughter and tears, as might be expected, but “people doing both at the same time, and not quite knowing what to do about it.” The thread that runs through Booby Prize—like Carver’s other scholarly and creative projects—is storytelling. Some of the stories are painful, and some are funny. Either way, Carver always tries “to keep it raw.”
Miller talks about his preference of film over theatre as an actor’s medium.
Miller talks about theatre, his love for it, and the challenges it presents.
Devlin describes the content of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. Volume I covers the period from 1920 to 1945 (with the success of The Glass Menagerie), while volume II concerns Williams’ “major period” from 1945 to 1957, during which A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were introduced.
Devlin discusses work he is doing with others on campus, including his joint appointment in the Theatre department.