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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: The play’s the thing for Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft, Part 1

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre associate professor

Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft works on her script for “Lady Gregory – Her Stories” at home during a sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. (Amber Wiedenhoeft)

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – To help faculty members sharpen their knifes, so to speak, universities encourage sabbaticals to broaden their horizons with an eventual payoff for students.

Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft earned a break from teaching and directing plays at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in spring 2020 to pursue research as part of writing a play.

Spring 2020… also spelled c-o-r-n-a-v-i-r-u-s C-O-V-I-D-19.

“It changed my spring and, of course, my family’s spring like everyone. I was in Europe when the travel ban hit. I had the spring off where I was doing research, taking a sabbatical where I was not teaching. I was working on a one-person show script that I had been working on for years and was trying to wrap up.

Lady Gregory and Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland.

“I was in Ireland and working on a script about Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, the famous Irish playwright/co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. My husband was with me, and we had just gotten over there and stayed the night.

“And then the next morning at 4 a.m. our daughter texted us and said, ‘There’s a travel ban. They’re canceling trips from Europe. Everyone from Europe.’ We found out later that where we were they were still letting people in and out.

“But anyway, my week in Ireland where I was going to where Lady Gregory’s home had been, where she did all her work, where she had a nature preserve – all these different things that I was planning on versing myself into – did not happen.

“Basically, we turned around and made sure we could get flights back, changed all of our reservations, canceled everything and made it back before the midnight Friday deadline. We didn’t know what was going to happen after that.

“I had brought disinfectant wipes along, so on the way there and back I was wiping down everything possible before we sat down and afterwards. We were not masked, but that really wasn’t in the equation at that point. So, yeah, it was a very different week.

“And then we got home. My daughter is a freshman in college. During spring break, she came home as most everyone, and then she did her spring semester online from home. So that was interesting to observe. But, yeah, very different scenario.

“As a teacher or a director, I did not have to deal with any of the campus issues at UW-Oshkosh where I teach because I wasn’t actively teaching anything this spring.

“I made a lot of progress on the script. Even though I didn’t get the relaxation and the immediate information and context that I hoped to get, even planning the trip and all the things I looked at affected my ability to move forward with the piece. And it helped even being in the airports where I heard people speaking with the Irish dialect.

“For a while, I was really having trouble working on the piece because I wasn’t sure – ‘What next?’ And then with the whole COVID virus kicking in, I just thought, ‘What? Is this worthwhile? (ironic laugh) Does this have meaning, this one-person show of mine in the midst of a pandemic?’

“The piece is kind of going in multiple directions right now. There might be one that’s just what it would be anyway. There might be another version where I’m both a Lady Gregory or a contemporary me. I don’t know, it’s definitely going to be a very different piece than what it would have been with the whole plan that was in place.”

A one-person play would probably work well for a lot of theaters at this time.

Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft chuckles at the thought.

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory.

“I have an Irish background. Lady Gregory didn’t start writing plays as a playwright until after she was 50. Years ago when I heard that, there was something really wonderful to hear that there was someone that did so much in her life after 50. As I was looking at those years coming up, I thought, ‘Boy, you know, it’s really great to find those people and celebrate those people.’

“So, yeah, I just have always been intrigued by her. She was a mover and shaker in the Irish literature renaissance and worked with William Butler Yeats and George Bernard Shaw, Millington Synge – many of the great Irish playwrights/poets. I’m excited to see where the piece ends. I definitely made a lot of progress, so that at least happened. But it was a very different type of progress than planned.”

“At the moment, the title is ‘Lady Gregory – Her Stories.’ She definitely meets the expectation of the Irish storyteller. She translated many of the Gaelic folk stories into English. So many of those stories had only been passed down by word of mouth, and Lady Gregory put them down on paper so the stories could be shared more broadly with people beyond that small group (of oral storytellers).

“She’s a strong woman. I like that, too, that she definitely stood her ground with many important people and really made a difference. I really do gravitate toward that.”

Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft.

At the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh:

“I am a full-time faculty member. I am an associate professor of theater, and I teach in the acting program. Merlaine Angwell and I are the co-leaders of the acting emphasis. I cover all of the voice side of components – voice and diction. I teach dialects. Merlaine teaches more the movement side of things. I also teach improvisation.

“Administratively, I was the chair of the department for the last three years, and now Merlaine is taking the next shift. She and been chair for six years, and then I was chair. We all have administrative duties. We all advise students, and we all do recruitment – of going to high schools and seeing students or meeting with students or giving tours to students and their parents.

“That’s the main gist of the job – lots of student contact, lots of mentoring, advising, being a resource, writing all sorts of letters of recommendation for internship and graduate school. And directing. I’m also a director in the season, so I direct one or two shows a year depending on what year.”

***

A (large) snapshot, supplied:

Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft is a professional actor, director, dialect coach and associate professor. She studied at The Actors Center in New York with Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis and Moscow Art Theatre director Slava Dolgachev. She holds a Masters of Fine Art in Acting from Purdue University, is a Certified Teacher of Fitmaurice Voicework®, having trained with Katherine Fitzmaurice, has studied heightened voice with Patsy Rodenburg of the Royal National Theatre and Improvisation with The Second City co-founder Paul Sills. Her scholarly research focuses on the life and writings of Irish playwright, Lady Gregory and on the creation of character through analysis of the text.

At the 2018 Association for Theatre in Higher Education national conference in Boston, Massachusetts, she was cast in The Judith Royer Excellence in Playwriting Award Presentation as the lead role of an American Army Ranger in Aleppo in “Soldier Poet,” by Darcy Parker Bruce. She is currently writing a one-person performance piece about Lady Gregory, the Irish playwright and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre who was a major influence in the Irish Literary Revival. A draft of the piece was performed at the Mid-America Theatre Conference Playwriting Symposium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She regularly offers pedagogy presentations on the actor process. Two examples of voice training presentations were at the UW System President’s Summits on Excellence in Teaching and Learning: “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Results of Fitzmaurice Voicework Research and Time Away from Technology – The Joy of Performing.”

When acting in Minneapolis, Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft was an acting company member of the Minnesota Shakespeare Company for five years and performed with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, at the Walker Art Center, Actor’s Theatre of St. Paul, Chimera Theatre, Park Square Theatre and Theatre in the Round. In Milwaukee, she acted at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Renaissance Theaterworks, Theatre X, Bialystock and Bloom, Broadway Baby Dinner Theatre and the Playwrights Studio Theatre. She was a visiting artist with Milwaukee Rep’s Community Education Department and the on-air host of “Inside/Outside Milwaukee,” a public affairs program on WVTV.

***

“I’ve always been interested in theater. I’ve always seemed to have a flair for it. I mean, as a kid, I did puppet shows on our front porch. In school, I was always in the plays. I think my first one was second grade. I was Sleeping Beauty. And then I don’t know what happened but in fifth grade I was the Wicked Witch of West. I’m not quite sure (laughing) what happened in between. I really wanted to be Dorothy, but I got to be the Wicked Witch of the West. As time went by, I thought, ‘Oh, that was the character role. You had to act more for that one.’ (Chuckles).

“But I’ve always been interested, I’ve always done it. I did theater all through junior high and high school. In summers in high school, I was an assistant director and stage manager for my high school drama coach. When I went to undergrad, I was always a theater minor. At first, I was going to major in law, be a lawyer, and then I was going to major in secondary education. I think music was in there, too.

“But basically one day I woke up and said, ‘You know what, this is what I’m good at doing, and this is what I love, and so I’m going to be a theater major.’ And that was it.

“When I made that decision, I was in a production of ‘Godspell’ at St. Adolphus College in Minnesota where I attended. We had a guest director, Larry Whiteley, and he had been the original stage manager and touring stage manager of the original ‘Godspell’ production on Broadway. At some point in time, they gave him permission to be like the director of note, and so he sort of made a career of directing ‘Godspell’ all over the place.

“My parents came to see the production. Afterwards, I said to them, ‘I’m going to be a theater major,’ and they said, ‘Well, should you be somewhere else? Should you be looking to do different things?’ They were totally supportive, didn’t bat an eye. And I said, ‘No, no, I’ve made a good beginning here, it’s a small program and I feel like I will really get opportunities and individualized attention. I don’t want to go anywhere else.’

“What ended up happening, when I graduated, I moved to Minneapolis, and Larry Whiteley was directing in the Twin Cities at that time. My first professional show was a show with Larry, the musical ‘Cinderella’ in St. Paul, Minnesota – my very first paying professional gig probably because of knowing him and having worked with him.”

Monday: Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft discusses acting, teaching, directing and UW-Oshkosh productions.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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