Plot thickens for Xavier theater program, which now has two degree programs and plenty of respect

Department takes risks, attracts top-notch talent

CINCINNATI -- Xavier University has been a mainstay of Greater Cincinnati’s theater community for the better part of a century.

Several generations of fine actors and directors have made their way through the school, and XU’s faculty has been home to a long line of distinguished theater professionals.

But it wasn’t until 2012 that you could actually get a theater degree from XU.

“I don’t know why they didn’t offer a degree,” said Stephen Skiles, Xavier’s director of theater. “As far as I can tell, there was always a huge interest in theater here.”

Skiles came to XU as an adjunct professor in 2002. After leaving for a full-time position at the University of Akron, he returned to XU to head up the theater department in 2012.

“When I was hired, one of my jobs was to collaborate with Dave and Tom to put together two theater degrees,” said Skiles. “Tom” is Tom Merrill, director of XU’s School of Arts and Innovation. “Dave” is Dave Zlatic, XU’s former technical director.

Skiles may downplay it, but not only has the trio launched two new degree programs, it has also built a theater department that is nimble, innovative and regularly takes chances that larger programs might be unwilling to risk.

Alex Roberts, left, and Griff Bludworth are seen in a scene from Xavier University’s upcoming production of “Miss Julie,” directed by Regina Pugh. The show is being presented as part of a three-production repertory series that includes “Betrayal,” by Harold Pinter and “Begotten,” by Xavier senior Tatum Hunter. Provided

XU’s degree programs are a Bachelor of Arts in theater, which went into full effect in the fall of 2014, and a Bachelor of Science degree in theater education, which was launched in the fall of 2015.

It’s not an enormous program; there are just 40 majors. But, as Skiles points out, they purposefully developed a student-driven curriculum.

“The students determine roughly one-third of their own curriculum,” said Skiles. “That means that while we have 40 majors, we could have students going through with 40 completely individual curriculum maps.”

Making the program even more adventurous is the level and frequency of involvement by active theater professionals. Glance through the adjunct staff and it’s an impressive who’s who of working Greater Cincinnati actors, directors and choreographers, including Dee Anne Bryll, Pamela Myers, Torie Wiggins, Brent Vimtrup, Dave Powell and Dylan Shelton, among others.

Like any good administrator with dreams that are bigger than his budget, Skiles isn’t afraid to ask anyone for anything. He is constantly working his connections for his students’ benefit.

During the run of “A Christmas Carol” at the Playhouse – Skiles plays multiple roles in the show – he got to know actor Craig Wesley Divino, who plays the character of Fred. Divino, as it turns out, is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s Fault Line Theatre. And through that connection, Skiles met playwright Nick Gandiello, who was looking for a theater to workshop and perform his play “Black Fly Spring.” After a bit of contractual wrangling, the workshops and show took place at Xavier in 2014.

Similarly, the Playhouse connection also brought Skiles in touch with former artistic director Ed Stern, who recently directed “This Is Our Youth” at Xavier.

How did a theater department with a small budget – Skiles won’t reveal how small – manage to score a guest director like Stern?

“He called me and asked,” said Stern. “It’s true. I’m retired, but I’m still alive. And I have always loved working with students. Stephen knew that, so he called. And I answered.”

Artistic directors of all four of the area’s largest professional theaters have worked with the department this year: Blake Robison (Playhouse), D. Lynn Meyers (Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati), Brian Isaac Phillips (Cincinnati Shakespeare Company) and Andrew Hungerford (Know Theatre Cincinnati).

“We haven’t paid any of them what they’re truly worth,” Skiles said proudly, adding, “I wish we could.”

XU performs many of the same shows you might expect from an above-average university theater program. They’ve done “Avenue Q,” “Hairspray” and “Spring Awakening,” among others.

But now the program has begun what may be its most ambitious series of performances ever. Over the course of two weeks, student actors will perform three full-length shows in repertory, each directed by a notable guest director.

Bruce Cromer, arguably the region’s best-known actor, will direct Nobel laureate Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” while Regina Pugh will stage August Strindberg’s late-19th century masterpiece “Miss Julie.”

The third play is perhaps the most intriguing of all. Bridget Leak, a former Cincinnati arts ambassador and founder of Queen City Flash theater company, will direct the world premiere of Tatum Hunter’s “Begotten.” What makes this so significant is that Hunter is one of those 40 XU theater majors.

“This story began as a 10-minute play,” said Hunter, a 22-year-old senior. “I showed it to Stephen (Skiles) in the spring of my sophomore year just to see what he thought about it.”

Skiles remembers it vividly.

“It was in the middle of a longer conversation,” he recalled. “I told her that if she expanded the play and we could get it into decent shape, I would produce it her senior year. Lo and behold, she went away and wrote the play.”

Skiles wasn’t completely removed from the process. When Hunter started expanding her play, Skiles offered to connect her with former Cincinnati Enquirer theater critic Jackie Demaline, who ended up mentoring Hunter through the process.

“I had never met her before,” said Hunter. “We just started getting coffee. And then I would send her everything I wrote. Not to edit or critique, just to ask questions.”

She has proved to be a supportive sounding board, an expert well-versed in script development and analysis with an astute ear for dialogue.

“She and I still meet up,” said Hunter, who has already begun working on a new play. “I like her. She’s strong and smart and hilarious. And she’s mean, in all the best ways.”

Bringing her play to the stage, though, has been a wild ride.

“I’m terrified, but I am loving the process of seeing the play come together,” said Hunter. “It’s invigorating. I mean, it’s what I want to do. But when you’re a new playwright and a young playwright, it’s also terrifying to put your work out there.

“I know that it’s a big deal. It’s still really magical being in the room hearing my friends and people I’ve worked with for four years bring my characters to life. Sometimes it’s almost hilarious when I hear them talking about these characters and their childhoods. I mean, I made these people up sitting at my kitchen table.”

If You Go:

- “Betrayal,” by Harold Pinter, directed by Bruce Cromer; Feb. 17, 20, 26 and 28.

- “Miss Julie,” by August Strindberg, directed by Regina Pugh; Feb. 18, 20, 24 and 27.

- “Begotten,” by Tatum Hunter, directed by Bridget Leak; Feb. 19, 21, 25 and 27.

- 7:30 p.m., Gallagher Student Center, Xavier University, 3800 Victory Parkway.

Tickets: $17, $12 for students, seniors; 513-745-3939, www.xavier.edu/theatre-department

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