Director Please

A theatre director or stage director is a director/instructor in the theatre field who oversees and orchestrates the mounting of a theatre production (a play, an opera, a musical, or a devised piece of work) by unifying various endeavors and aspects of production— and there’s lots of them.

Meet Professor Kenneth Stilson, a very busy man.

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Kenneth L. Stilson is best known as the author of the classic text, Acting Is Believing, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th editions, with Larry D. Clark and the late Charles McGaw, which has been adopted by more than 150 universities and colleges around the world.

Professor of Acting, Directing and Musical Theatre and Chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance in The Earl & Margie Holland School of Visual & Performing Arts at Southeast Missouri State University, Kenn played an instrumental role in building the professional training programs in theatre and dance at Southeast, which recently received accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST).

573: You must get great pleasure from working with young people.  Can you tell us a little about your job?

Quite simply, I have the greatest job in the world, because it’s not really a job. It’s just what I would do—whether I was paid for it or not. It’s what I dream about, and it’s what makes me the most happy. I get to explore my imagination every day. I get to create stories and people living in imaginary worlds. I get to investigate the depths of the human experience and, in the process, live vicariously through these people. As a storyteller, I get to travel to distant lands and have wonderful adventures. Time travel? Not a problem in my world. I’ve been involved with shows set anywhere from ancient Greece to the Renaissance to contemporary societies to futuristic worlds that exist only in the imagination. How cool is that? Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lot of hard work—and I put in long hours seven days a week—but I love it.  I don’t know how to do anything else, and I don’t want to know. As I said, this is who I am, and I get paid for it. Pretty awesome. 

My job also has the added bonus of getting to work with smart, talented, beautiful, and highly motivated young professionals. Everything I describe about my job involves a teachable technique. That’s what I do in the classroom. I teach technique. I do the same thing as a director. We create an imaginary world—in this musical it’s the world of Dr. Seuss—and I get to help these actors create characters—from Who’s, to elephants, monkeys and birds to Grinch’s—who must act and behave truthfully given the circumstances. Some worlds are very close to our own, where people are similar to you and me. In other worlds, however, the laws of physics are different. People can fly. Animals can talk. Magic is real. Ghosts exist and can influence the human world. In Seussical, an entire world that is no larger than the head of a pin exists, and it is up to Horton the Elephant to save that world from destruction. At the same time, Horton must protect an egg and help give birth to an elephant bird. It’s fantastic stuff. 

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573: Can you give us a basic overview on what a theater student’s life is like at River Campus.

For theatre and dance majors, the River Campus is a conservatory. They live here. They eat here. They learn here. It’s all under the same roof. They wake up. They go workout in the River Campus gym. They go back to their dorms and shower and get dressed. They take the elevator down to the St. Vincent’s Commons café, which overlooks a beautiful park and the Mississippi River, and have breakfast. Then, they go to class—whether it be acting or dancing or stage combat or designing or construction or singing—it’s all here. They also have classes on the main campus, and they take a shuttle back and forth between campuses. But, most of their time here at Southeast is spent at the River Campus. 

573: How many productions do you and the students hold each year?

We produce 7 major productions each year—3 musicals, 2 plays, and 2 dance concerts. Then, we produce a host of additional second stage plays, dance concerts, cabarets, showcases, and so on. We also produce a student-directed short film festival each year. We also bring in quite a few outside guest artists to work with the students, and we take our students each year to New York for a showcase in the middle of the theatre district, just off Times Square. It’s a busy place. We have one of the top professional training programs for undergraduate theatre and dance majors in the Midwest, and I’m very proud of the work they produce. I am always amazed at their creativity and execution. 

573: Tell us about Seussical. 

Seussical is a wonderfully original musical that combines several of Dr. Seuss’s most popular books: Horton Hears a Who, Horton Hatches an Egg, and The Cat in the Hat. It also has some characters from numerous other books, but it focuses on those three. It’s the perfect summer musical for us, as it will appeal to children of all ages. Kids will love it, but adults will love it for different reasons. People started buying tickets for it as soon as they heard we were producing it, and that was all just word of mouth. So, it will most definitely sell out every performance, so get your tickets early. 

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573: With so many aspects to worry about how do you decide on which battle to fight and which to compromise?

There’s no one answer to this question. Every show is different, and each one has its own battles and compromises. With Seussical, the biggest issue is space. There are 30 actors—including children—in this cast, and we’re doing this show in the Wendy Kurka Rust Flexible Theatre, which is a relatively small space. Yikes. What to do with all those people, who are often onstage at the same time, is a major problem. But, I’m working through this with Jeff Luetkenhaus, the set designer. In this play, the characters are also larger than life, and I want the costumes to be somewhat exaggerated. Again, back to space, I’m working with Matt Buttrey, our costume designer, to create costumes that work with the world of the play and physically fit within the walls of the theatre. It’s all about creating a vision, and then compromising that vision to fit the physical and financial structure of the theatre and producing organization—the River Campus Summer Arts Festival. 

I can guarantee audiences will love this musical, and they will need to get their tickets early. Every performance will be SRO. 

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