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Hometown U: The new kid in town

  • Author: Kathleen McCoy
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 2, 2015

If there's a metaphor for what's going on within the walls of UAA's theater department, a newborn might fit.

The actual baby is Hunter Hewitt. One day in late July, at just 4 days old, he lay nestled in his mom's arms in a jumbled faculty office on the third floor of UAA's Fine Arts Building. His dad, Ty Hewitt, will start at UAA this fall, teaching acting.

A few office doors down, another new professor, Brian Cook, had to rush off to check out an apartment he'd put money on, sight unseen. Also new to Anchorage, he'll teach directing and theater history this fall, and launch the season's first Main Stage production, "44 Plays for 44 Presidents," in October.

A third addition, Nova Cunningham, is so new she's not here yet. She's still finishing work at Denali Village's Cabin Nite Dinner Theater.

Even the chair of the department, Dan Anteau, is fresh to his role, though as a UAA alumnus, he's doing a bit of an encore.

Anteau graduated from UAA with a bachelor's in theater in the mid-'90s. He went on for an MFA in lighting design at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, taught in Hawaii and saw his lighting designs go up in New York, Alaska, Minnesota and even Africa.

But Anteau never lost touch with UAA, and came back to teach his passion in the mid-2000s. He now replaces a department chair who held that job for a decade, and who taught in the department for a quarter century.

What's happening at UAA's theater department is a massive changing of the guard. The legacy faculty who built the program, in fact, even built the UAA Fine Arts building that opened in 1986, is now all gone.

Some, like Michael Hood, who arrived in 1976, and Frank Bebey, who arrived in 1978, as well as others, left up to a decade or more ago.

The final big sweep is more recent. Fran Lautenberger, a costume designer and puppeteer, left two years ago after 27 years at UAA. And just last May, two department anchors retired together: Shakespeare and theater history expert David Edgecombe, and former chair and longtime acting and directing professor Tom Skore. They represent a half-century of experience between them, now gone.

Poof! The "kids" -- UAA's newer faculty -- suddenly got the keys to the castle, a prospect they find both sobering and exciting.

Anteau is quick to credit UAA's legacy theater faculty. He cites their mentorship, wisdom and abundant navigational skill, not to mention a wealth of talent and expertise. After all, they built this house, he says.

But he was also once "the new guy" at the University of Hawaii, his first teaching job after graduate school.

"I replaced a guy who'd been there 35 years," Anteau said. "Everyone wanted me to do just what Mark used to do." Which Anteau didn't. But he also learned that, for those 35 years of comfort with Mark, there was "probably 20 years of frustration."

"So, I would say, 'Let's do this,' and people would say, 'Oh, that's soooo great!'"

And so it goes. Transition is inevitable, and for UAA theater, that time has arrived.

Now, Anteau, Hewitt, Cook and Cunningham, as well as two relative newcomers, costume designer Colleen Metzger and technical director Daniel Carlgren -- both here just four years -- all have big plans for UAA.

First off, Anteau wants to deepen drama connections with the broader Anchorage community. He's launching three new classes this fall -- script analysis, scene studies and an arts education outreach course. He's also inviting high school and community actors to join his college actors in free, Friday afternoon acting labs.

"Friday is a full day for our department," Anteau said, "We've got labs in production technique, stagecraft, costume construction. But we didn't have a lab for actors."

Now they will. One Friday lab might introduce Commedia dell'arte. That's theater with masked "types" from 16th century Italy, a form that Hewitt -- with an MFA. from Southern Oregon University and a decade of performance experience -- brings to the department. Other labs may simply be monologue practice among peers. New faculty will rotate through the labs, Anteau said.

Perhaps one of the team's most ambitious initiatives is the April 2016 production of "Stalking the Bogeyman," a tale of childhood sexual abuse based on the personal story of Anchorage journalist David Holthouse.

Some 8,000 Alaska children are physically or sexually abused annually, according to data reported by Providence Health and Services. Because of the play's relevant content, plans call for it to travel within the state, with time for talkbacks after each show and support from mental health professionals in each location.

"We understand the enormous undertaking this represents," Anteau said. "This is difficult material for the audience, and it's difficult material for our students."

Cook, who earned his master's from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and his doctorate in Theatre Arts from the University of Oregon, will direct the production.

"Everyone knows someone who's had this experience," Cook said. "Why do we not talk about it? Why is it so hard to say the word rape in public?"

"We've got to do something, and one of the things we can do is start talking about it."

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA where she highlights campus life in online and social media.

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