OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – Universities have theater programs. Why? Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft:
“Let me start with the big-ticket item. The fine and performing arts are very different in how we use our minds and our bodies compared to so many other areas.
“In the theater, we use everything. We use psychology, we use critical thinking, creative thinking. Use our imagination. How do I make this happen? We tell stories.
“I think anyone – even if a student doesn’t go into theater – by exposing yourself to those little moments of vulnerability or being willing to share with another person is something that you can apply to many other things later in life. For instance, ‘How should I put myself into this other person’s place?’
“Or, ‘Oh, they want people to come in here and be a creative thinker.’ A few jobs that I’ve had over the years that were like filler jobs I think I got because of my theater background. It wasn’t what the job was, but they knew I would have good people skills.
“We collaborate all the time. We think on our feet. We improvise all the time. Someone will say, ‘Oh, this is a problem.’ ‘Oh, okay, well, let’s fix it.’ ‘Okay, let’s find a solution.’ ‘Okay, how do we do that?’ And we just go for it.
“I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize. It’s not just, oh, adulation and having an audience, although that’s wonderful.”
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre aims “to do a little bit of everything. We do all kinds of plays. We do classical plays, we do contemporary comedies, we do new plays, we do musicals. Basically, we’re trying to give our students a variety because we are an educational setting.
“It’s not just about giving an audience what they want, although that’s part of it. We produce theater, we have an audience come in. But it does have to be about the student.
“When a student has been here for four or five years, has there been at least one or two musicals, have there been at least one or two classical plays? – so they get a variety of genres to experience and do.
“And not everyone is cast in every production, either. Students work backstage, or are they actors on stage. And there are the technicians, the technical theater side of our program along with the acting and directing side of the program. And the stage managers as well; they’re an emphasis. A really big part of an academic program is giving the students varied experiences.”
Theater being theater, not much comes out of books.
“I try not to show – like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go show off to you and show you all my phenomenal acting skills.’ I don’t do that. It’s more as students watch me work with other students and with each other. I think they start to see, ‘Oh my gosh, she asked that question or she gave a suggestion, and it worked. How did she know that?’
“Or I might say, ‘Okay, this might sound really odd, but trust me because I’ve done it, and it worked for me. It’ll work for you.’ And so they see that.”
Teaching subtly worked into the picture for Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft.
“As an actor, I was of that mindset that, you know, you don’t teach, you act. If you’re teaching, that means you’re not acting.
“But what happened was we moved from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee. My husband and I had just gotten married. He was going to grad school in Milwaukee. I had never been there. I knew nothing about the city and found out it was this wonderful arts center that had all these wonderful programs that supported the arts. I applied for jobs because I needed to have some sort of regular job, needed some income. Over the years, my husband and I took turns with who was doing what and the other person helping to support that.
“I got a job at Milwaukee Repertory Theater as artistic coordinator to Joe Hanreddy, the artistic director. He really appreciated my knowledge. At that point, I had a master of fine arts in acting and had been to grad school and had been acting professionally, and so he really appreciated that. Whenever something happened where he thought I could be involved or might be interested, he’d say, ‘Oh, why don’t you sit in on this’ or ‘Hey, you could do some of this.’ So it was a really great learning experience.
“And then in the midst of that, the Milwaukee Rep’s education director came to me and said, ‘Jane, there’s a college that needs someone to teach a class, and they need someone with an MFA. At that time, there were not a lot of people with the MFA degree in Milwaukee.’ I said, ‘Oh, I guess.’ I had taught a lot of little workshops in Minneapolis. I never taught to college level. And so I taught a class. And then another college heard about me and said, ‘Oh, we have that same class, would you like to come here?’ What happened was I gradually started teaching more and more courses at more colleges.
“There were some times that it would come into the daytime hours. But Joe Hanreddy was flexible, and he would say, ‘As long as this gets done, and that gets done,’ and we’d check the time with him. And so I would not take lunch, and I would go for these chunks of time on certain days and then come back. I’d start early or work late.
“I was still also doing my acting. I was busy. And then when my husband finished graduate school, at some point I said, ‘You know, if I’m piecing all this stuff together, maybe I should just try to teach at one place full time’…
“I started applying for full-time jobs, and I got a full-time, tenure-track teaching job in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And so we went there for my job. Before we moved, in Milwaukee, I was teaching 21 credits a semester at between four to five different campuses. It gradually got up to that…
“So that’s what got me into teaching. And what I discovered was that I am an actor who can talk about it to others, and I can bring that out of others. I think there’s a lot of actors that maybe can’t do that. I finally started to recognize, ‘Hey, that’s a skill.’ And the joy of seeing someone have that moment of recognition or of joy or of struggle was really wonderful. I felt, ‘This is good.’
“At that point, my husband and I were saying that at some point maybe we’d have a family. We weren’t sure. But that seemed to lend itself a little better, a little more regular type of a job as I was getting more into the teaching.
“But I’ve always done the acting as well. So I’ve always been a theater artist, where I’ve always pieced together many different areas of the discipline to make it all happen.”
Directing also started during the time in Milwaukee for Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft, in a way.
“I’m a very analytical person. As an actor, I’m very meticulous about how I analyze my script. I physically go in and mark things up, and I have certain things that mean certain things, so I really have analyzed what is on the page in the text, so it can give me every sort of acting clue possible and help me make choices about my acting. People would see my script and be amazed at the stuff I did.
“I think maybe it was the education director at the Milwaukee Rep who said, ‘Jane, did you ever think about directing?’ And I said, ‘Ehhh, yeah, I kind of thought about it, but I’d rather act.’ He said, ‘I think you should try it.’
“I did a couple of staged readings at first in Milwaukee. I directed with the Boulevard Ensemble a staged reading of (David Mamet’s) ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ with professional actors. It was to raise money for a women’s shelter. And then I directed another professional group in a staged reading of about the Kristallnacht for a special Jewish festival that was happening in Milwaukee. Those were kind of my foray into it.
“And then one of my teaching jobs was at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater about 60 miles outside of Milwaukee. I got their half-time position – with benefits as well, which was great – and part of my load was directing a show. So I directed ‘California Suite,’ and that was my first full production that I ever directed. And then I directed ‘I Do, I Do’ in their professional summer season. And that’s when we left for Indiana, where I had gotten my full-time teaching job, which also had directing as part of the equation.”
“‘California Suite’ is made up of vignettes, so it isn’t like many, many people on stage. It’s like several mini-plays, and so that felt sort of reasonable.
“We used music from the ‘Hotel California’ album (of The Eagles, 1977). At that point in time, I was saying to the students, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize that this album is 20 or 25 years old now.’ And then I looked around the room, and I never thought of myself as being older than students. I was like, ‘Oh, I am who I am,’ and I looked and them and I was like, ‘Oh, they’re all 20 or younger. I think I’m getting older.’ So that was a real strange thing, to think that that album has been around that long and then to realize that these students were that age or younger was really interesting. That was very fun, and I really enjoyed it.
“I did find that I enjoyed directing and that, again, with my teaching, a lot of our directing is teaching. We do a lot of teaching in the rehearsal hall on a college campus. That’s our lab in a lot of ways.
“Again, I think that’s one of my strengths as a director is bringing out the strengths of the actors, or getting them to a level that they maybe didn’t think they could get to and maybe still not there yet, but they’re still learning and they’re young and they’re growing. It’s like I know where they started and then we got them to there – wow! – isn’t that amazing that that person had that growth now in that process and into production and performance? And the same as watching them grow throughout their four years of being on campus. It’s like, ‘Wow, remember when?’ and feel really proud. It’s like, ‘Fine, great, got you all trained, and now you’re going to leave us.’”
Jane Purse-Weidenhoeft has directed regularly at UW-Oshkosh for more than a dozen years. Naturally, some productions especially resonate in her memory.
“When I directed ‘The Laramie Project,’ that was wonderful. We brought in one of the Tectonic Theatre Project members from New York who had co-written the piece. She did a workshop with us on Skype ahead of time. Then she came in and did a workshop on moments work with students on site. She did talks after the show. And we had some other talkbacks.
“I love directing shows that deal with some sort of social issue that get us to look at the issue and talk about it at least.
“I will never forget. A gentleman in the audience at one of the talkbacks who was maybe in his 60s raised his hand. He looked very troubled. His face was very furious, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, it’s somebody who really had a problem with this show, and what’s he going to say?’ – putting all this stuff on him. And then he starts to talk. He said, ‘I’ve been going to theater for years,’ and talked about all these things in his life, and then he said, ‘I had no idea. I just had no idea that people were having these experiences because who they choose to love. I’m not against any of this, but I never took it the next step. I never even thought about, Oh my gosh, this person goes through this. I don’t have to go through that, and I don’t have to go through this. You have opened my eyes to something that I never thought I had much of an opinion about.’
“So that’s why I love when theater has an impact. That’s another strength of theater and why theater can say things and do things in a way that other disciplines can’t, that you move people when sometimes just learning about something can’t quite do that same thing…
“We did ‘Clybourne Park’ by Bruce Norris a few years ago. I thought it was a very interesting play. The first half is the 1950s, and then in the second you’re in the same house in the 1990s. We were able to get some great actors in the show.
“One of the wonderful things about that show is there is a Black male and a Black female in the story. We have not had a big diverse population in our program yet. But it’s like, well, that doesn’t mean we don’t do things. We try to get people here and do this work. So we had wonderful actors who came in.
“The (initial) Black actor… it was too much for him. He was a senior and trying to go into grad school; he wasn’t a theater major. It was too much for him, and he had to drop out of the show. And I was looking and looking, and we found a freshman who hadn’t done theater since middle school. He came in and observed, and he was really hesitant. He said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ And I convinced him. I said, ‘I will help you. I will get you there.’ And now he just graduated as a theater minor. He had been way into another major of political science. And that’s Bryan Carter, who just graduated and has been in productions all over the place for us.”
Side note: For his title role in the fall 2029 UW-Oshkosh Theatre production of “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” Bryan Carter was selected as one of four outstanding performers by the National Committee of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, which numerous campuses participate in.
Also, UW-Oshkosh won the Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Award, an honor given for “programs in higher education using theatrical production to promote long-term societal impact through an artistic, empathetic exploration of our complex cultural and physical world, and advocates for justice on campus and throughout the world.”
“In January, I said to Bryan, ‘Would you have thought, back then when you were a freshman – we twisted your arm many a time to get you to do the show – that you would be here today?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that was so special.’ What life would have been had he said no. So that was special.
“And then the Black female for ‘Clybourne Park’ was a student who had a conflict during tech week and our first production… It was a problem… Then we got a community member, Morgan Stewart, who I knew from the area. I talked to her about auditioning for the role way, way back, and she just said, ‘I can’t commit the time, it’s too long a rehearsal period.’ I said, ‘Well, how about a week? I’ll give you a week.’
“So she came in on the Sunday tech rehearsal with script in hand… I told her she didn’t have to be off script. She said, “Ohhh, thank you!’ I said, ‘I’ll make an announcement. People love this stuff. And they did. They were so supportive. ‘Oh, hi, she just started four days ago.’ And people afterward would go, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s fabulous.’ And she was. She was wonderful. And she worked her tail off, and was wonderful. And everyone was very supportive of her.
“The other actors in the show, most of them theater majors, knew what they were doing. They were trained. They could keep moving forward as I’m bringing new people in, and then they had to kind of back up to do some extra work with new people to get them up to speed. And, boy, that cast, they worked their tails off and really made it happen.”
“So a lot of times in theater, it’s those things that you think are just awful, but then you figure it out. It’s, you know, the old adage, ‘The show must go on,’ or you figure something out. We really do that. We really make it happen.”
For many young actors, New York City is the end-all in theater. Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft has this take:
“For years, I avoided New York. I’ve pretty much been in the Midwest. My friends kept saying, ‘Jane, you should go to New York.’ I’m like, ‘You know, I don’t like, I don’t want to live in that setting. I want to have space and have a house and have kind of a normal life as well as a theater life. I really don’t want to go there.’ That was my opinion for years.
“When I was in Minneapolis, I was a working actor. I was always very happy with where I was and what I was doing and how I was progressing. And I kind of felt like ‘that’s not the thing to do.’ There are so many cities where you can make a living as a theater artist. I just didn’t feel I had to go to New York or L.A.
“But, through the Kennedy Center College Theatre Festival, I applied for a faculty award grant that was a national award, and I received it. They said, ‘We will pay for you to go to New York for a month to study at the Actor’s Center and study with master teachers.’ They treated it as they’re training actors, but it was training actors who teach. So it wasn’t me going as a teacher learning how to teach acting from these people. I was me going as a special actor who also teaches. So that was wonderful.
“I strongly believe in lifelong learning, and I love going to workshops for getting a new idea about something or getting someone else’s opinion or getting someone else’s take on something. And I bring that back to my students, and it makes me more excited about everything, too.
“So that was wonderful. I studied with Olympia Dukakis. She was one of our everyday instructors, and she was unbelievable – just so giving and sharing and lovely. Diane Reese was one of the students at the time, too, and I did some things with her in a lot of our scene work. It was just so special and so invigorating to do.
“And then a number of years later I ended up in New York to become trained in Fitzmaurice Voicework. I’m a certified teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework… That’s a type of voice technique that’s very connected to the physical life. Some of the moves are sort of yoga, so it’s a lot about release and breath and then being able to fully bring yourself to your acting… I was really excited to do that, and I wanted to do it for years…
“I love New York now. I love to go to shows there. I’ve been there multiple times to see shows. I’ve been there for major training opportunities, so I love New York. I just don’t want to live there. I like seeing green and leaves and trees, and I’m very much into sustainability and the environment.
“For a long time, I said, ‘I never made it out of the Midwest,’ and then somewhere along the line I said, ‘You know what, this is me.’ I celebrate that now. I used to be, ‘I can’t seem to get out of the Midwest.’ No, now I celebrate that I have that life. So, yeah, that’s New York and me.”
Final thoughts of Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft:
“We hope people come and see our shows. We hope students come and be trained with us. We love what we do. And we’ll try to keep doing it.”