If you’ve spent much time around theaters here in the Twin Cities, chances are you’ve run into a graduate of Saint Olaf College. The Guthrie, the Children’s Theatre Company, Walking Shadow, Girl Friday Productions, the Playwrights Center, Park Square, Frank Theater, Torch Theater, History Theater – Oles are everywhere. You’ll find them in New York and Chicago as well as the Twin Cities, starting small theater companies, working for big ones, teaching Kundalini Yoga, studying to become science teachers, and receiving Ivey Awards.
They’ve been around for a while. Gremlin Theater in Saint Paul, for example, was created in 1998 by three Saint Olaf graduates and despite light rail construction and noisy Aikido studios, Carl Schoenborn and Peter Hansen, both 1997 graduates of Saint Olaf, have built it into one of my favorite theaters in town. But for the past ten years or so, the influx of eager young directors, actors, singers and dancers coming out of little Saint Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota, has increased dramatically. They’re a talented group. They are also smart, know what they’re doing in a rehearsal room and a pleasure to work with.
What’s going on? I think it’s the work of Gary Gisselman, Artist in Residence and Artistic Director at Saint Olaf College. Before joining the faculty of St. Olaf in 1999, Gary was Associate Artistic Director at the Children’s Theatre Company. For many of those years, I was an actor at CTC and I’ve spent countless hours in rehearsal rooms with Gary. As I’ve gotten to know some of the young people who’ve passed through the theater department at St. Olaf, I believe I’ve recognized Gary’s influence. I’ve spoken to several former St. Olaf students about Gary and the theater program at St. Olaf. Here’s what they’ve told me.
A Liberal Arts Education
Every person I talked to expressed gratitude for the breadth of their education. Some were theater majors, some created their own inter-disciplinary majors. Ian Miller (‘05) was an art major who spent a lot of time on stage. All took a variety of classes outside the theater department. And within that department, they took acting, directing, theater history and design classes. Whatever their individual interests, they were encouraged to work in all areas of the school’s productions. They acted, directed, designed, ran lightboards and soundboards, stage-managed, built sets and worked backstage. Anna Sundberg (‘05) says the experience has made her “a more grounded, level-headed actor.”
In keeping with this commitment to broad-based learning, Gary is remembered for confronting his students with prodigious amounts of research materials for each production – books, music, paintings, experts in fairy tales, medicine, mathematics – whatever might be useful. An actor who just wants to act is challenged to think beyond himself. Max Wojtanowicz (‘06) and Stephanie Polt (’06) both gave me the same quote from Gary: “Theater isn’t about theater. It’s about everything else.”
The Man Who
In 2004, Gary directed a production of Peter Brook’s The Man Who, based on “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” a collection of clinical case studies by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Six actors alternated between the roles of patients afflicted with neurological disorders and the doctors who investigate and treat them. Every former student involved in that production remembers it as a highlight of their time at Saint Olaf. Ian Miller tells it this way:
Before we even opened our scripts, we had two solid weeks of table work. Gary had us watch documentaries about the brain and videos of real people living with brain injuries. We visited a neurologist at a Minneapolis hospital, met with St. Olaf’s science faculty, and interviewed students who experienced seizures. We had stacks of reference books and packets full of information on brain disorders—I think there might even have been a quiz. Gary made us very aware that the characters we were playing were real people, and all six of us became deeply committed to portraying these afflictions of the mind accurately, honestly, with nuance and dignity for the people who really lived through them. The resulting production, staged in St. Olaf’s intimate black box theater, was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as an actor.
In addition to Gary’s commitment to smart, curious theater artists, another trait was mentioned several times. Gary is honest. Sometimes, brutally honest. Gary told Ian Miller, “You sound like some terrible method actor with marbles in your mouth.” He took Max Wojtanowicz aside the end of his sophomore year, “calling me out on all of my bullshit as an actor.” Eva Nelson (‘06) says Gary is “not a man to put things nicely because he wants to save your feelings.” Jason Vogen (’04) was dropped from a show because of certain “unattractive qualities.” Dionne Laviolette (‘07) puts it simply: “Gary is a hard ass professor.”
But, astonishingly to me, Gary’s students are thankful for his honesty and feel it made them better artists. Gary’s bluntness was seen as a sign that he cared about the work they were trying to do together and signaled his investment in their progress. Jason Vogen said, “Once I accepted the things he had pointed out…I realized what a huge favor he did for me.” “He has inspired me to keep learning and to keep my unique combination of gifts intact,” said Lauren Asheim (‘03). Alex Morf (‘03), now based in New York and currently performing in Louisville, thinks of Gary “as a mentor, friend, and colleague.” Dionne Laviolette expressed a common sentiment: “Gary was by far the most influential person in my life. He not only gave me the tools to be a stronger artist, he also gave me the strength to be a better person.”
It’s not all lollipops and rainbows at Saint Olaf, of course. Brutal honesty can be, well, brutal, and there were struggles for everyone. Gary, being human, can sometimes play favorites. Which is great if you’re one of the chosen ones, but frustrating if you’re not. (Back when I was definitely not one of Gary’s favorites, I would feed rehearsal suggestions to Charity Jones. If I suggested an idea, I was an idiot, but if it came from Charity, oh, Gary loved it.)
Many felt that they graduated from St. Olaf somewhat unprepared for the business side of theater – things like headshots, resumes, auditions. How do you pay rent, buy groceries and afford health insurance on a stipend of $200 for six weeks of work? I suppose a class addressing these issues would be useful. It would also be the most boring, depressing class ever.
Thus, in conclusion
Clearly, Gary Gisselman is having an enduring effect on the theater through his students. The more they work around town, the more they bring Gary's insistence on intelligence, clarity and hard work to our stages. I, for one, welcome it.
Sure, there’s the risk that this is all part of an evil plot. Presumably, at some point, all these Oles will receive a signal from Gary, after which they will turn the rest of us into worker drones, sex slaves and/or food, but until then, we will continue to enjoy the contributions they are making to theater in Minnesota.
Next week, I travel to Northfield to meet with Gary and speak with current students at Saint Olaf. It probably won’t go well.