When Students of the Stage Become Colleagues

Sabbatical is a time for new ideas, fresh experiences and ongoing scholarship. Each happened this spring for Jeffrey S. Miller, professor of theatre arts, when he returned to Minneapolis to direct a show  . . . . with former students who are now professional artists. He wrote the following response: 

Jeff Miller (c) with the cast of “Kingdom Undone.”

“Every Teacher-Artist’s Dream”    by Jeffrey S. Miller

I suspect fathers and mothers experience something similar when their kids joyfully choose to take up the professions to which they have given their lives.  Teachers certainly do when their students become their colleagues. But all the imagination in the world could not have prepared me for the deeply moving and richly satisfying experience of creatively collaborating with young artists I once badgered, criticized, prodded, cajoled, hassled, humored, reprimanded and—hopefully—nurtured when they were starting their professional journeys.  This was one of those rare moments of unexpected astonishment every teacher-artist should have, and one I will always treasure as evidence of God’s grace and confirmation.

Technically, it all started at Bethel College, now University, where I both earned my undergraduate degree and later taught in the Department of Theatre Arts.  I had plans to be a doctor but a wise professor named Rainbow, of all things, saw in me certain proclivities that would never fit with a life in medicine.  And though far too young and inexperienced, I was given an opportunity to hone my skills teaching and directing at Bethel just as I was completing graduate studies at the U of MN.  My earliest students were just a few years younger than me . . .Among the first was a musician/actor/writer of remarkable talent – Michael Pearce Donley – who helped develop the original production of Gloria for The Refreshment Committee, a theatre company I founded with my wife, Mary, and a cadre of amazing up-start mostly-Bethel artists whose commitment to a theatre of faith was infectious and unrelenting.  Michael later served as the Music Director for our live radio show, Sunday Nite, on the Skylight Satellite Network of KTIS.  But he’s best known now as one of the three original creators and performers of that “highly caffeinated comedy” Triple Espresso. 

Years after Michael, I was blessed with a wave of exciting and talented performers coming through the theatre arts department including Jeremiah Gamble and Vanessa Muras, who would later team-up both as husband and wife and form the company, Theatre For the Thirsty.  Jeremiah’s senior practicum project was a piece he wrote and performed call The Rough and the Holy, a one-man show featuring people who encountered Jesus.  He performs that show to this day.

Their college peers included actor and designer, Geoff Wold and costumer, Nadine Grant.  In addition to his degree from Bethel, Geoff graduated from the highly-regarded physical theatre program of the Dell ‘Arte Company of Blue Lagoon, CA, and has done lighting designs for companies in MN and beyond. Nadine went on to graduate school at the University of Missouri where her capstone design project won the national costuming award given by USITT.  She now teaches at Belhaven University in Jackson, MS. 

By 2007, I had been gone from Bethel a number of years, having spent some time with Lamb’s Players Theatre of San Diego before coming to Gordon.  During a sabbatical leave, Jeremiah and Vanessa hired me to direct My Name Is Daniel for their company and began talking to me about a bigger, future project that was based on the last days of Christ.  Many drafts and a week-long workshop later, Kingdom Undone was brought to the Southern Theatre in the unusually warm late winter, early spring of 2012.  And it brought together the script and music of the Gambles, the music direction and score of Michael P. Donley, the era-blending, richly textured costumes of Nadine Grant and the lush, haunting, evocative lighting of Geoff Wold.

As I sat watching the opening night performance of our remount of Kingdom Undone in the late winter, early spring of 2013, I was overwhelmed with just how fortunate I’ve been to experience something so full and rare.  Here I was in one of the loveliest and most sought-after small theatre spaces in the Twin Cities (my personal favorite), experiencing a provocative and inspiring take on a story of immense significance that I had directed in collaboration with the Gambles, Michael P. Donley, Geoff Wold and Nadine Grant – all originally my students and now my artistic collaborators!  How unusual is this?  Who gets to experience such joy and fulfillment?  I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this resounding time of artistic satisfaction and personal grace.

The strands of this tapestry and its multiple connections to artists from my past run deep and extend much further than Bethel. But the bracing and humbling experience of Kingdom Undone, collaborating with, learning from, being challenged by and working among such gifted artists (and former students) – what can compare, this side of heaven?                                         —J.S.M., March 19, 2013

Comments are closed.