Backstage exit

Friday, April 13, 2007
H.M.S. Pinafore, 1979

After 30 years as an important part of the Department of Theatre and Dance, Dennis Seyer will retire in May.

When Dennis Seyer began his career as a theater professor at Southeast Missouri State University one of his first tasks was to design a set for a take-off of the great 1930s musicals called "Dames at Sea," back in 1977.

Thirty years, 132 designs and 22 directing stints later, he's back at work, designing the set for one of those famous 1930s musicals, "42nd Street." He's put in hours of sweat equity, making sure the glitzy, massive sets that are so important to the "song and dance extravaganza" look right and work when the opening curtain rises April 20. This musical may be the biggest he's worked on at Southeast, and it will definitely be his last, as Seyer is set to retire as a theater professor, set designer and technical director after the current semester.

The irony is not lost on Seyer, who, like most young theater students, started out with a desire to act before becoming one of the most important behind-the-scenes players in Southeast's theater productions for three decades.

Seyer quickly learned he didn't need to be in the spotlight to be an integral part of the theater he so loved.

Dames at Sea, 1977

"I don't do it for the recognition," Seyer said. "I do it for the love of the arts and for the students. There's a great deal of satisfaction to creating theatrical art."

Seyer's work is almost entirely done behind the scenes, creating the backdrops that help lend believability to the imagined and reality-based worlds that serve as backdrops to theater stories.

Department of Theatre and Dance chair Dr. Kenn Stilson was a student under Seyer in the 1980s and a colleague in the department for the past six years after Seyer led the search committee that eventually hired Stilson in 2001. Stilson said Seyer's commitment to hard work and perfection in design is almost indescribable.

Seyer, he said, "has been a mainstay in this department for 30 years. Dennis' name has been synonymous ... among others, with this department for 30 years."

Among the faculty in the department, Seyer has served the longest, making him a fount of knowledge for his colleagues. Stilson and others acknowledge that Seyer was a force in building today's theater and dance department, there through name changes, program alterations and a host of faculty members who have come and gone. He started programs to take theater students on excursions to watch large, professional productions in places like New York and Chicago and overseas, served as interim chair for a time period and helped encourage students to work in the professional theater during summers off. Seyer has also represented Southeast as a teacher overseas.

Dennis Seyer built a railing in the scene shop at Rose Theatre for the train station to be used in the musical "42nd Street." (Fred Lynch)

Rhonda Weller-Stilson, Kenn Stilson's wife and another theater and dance faculty member, has a close relationship with Seyer. As a student, and beyond, Weller-Stilson has considered Seyer a mentor, drawing from his expertise to build her own skills. She also works more closely with Seyer on university productions that possibly any other faculty member, due to the close relationship between set design and wardrobe design, Weller-Stilson's primary duty.

As a teacher Seyer is demanding, expecting students to do thorough research before they design anything -- one of the reasons he loves to travel and encourages students to do the same. Everywhere he travels, Seyer watches theater and takes hundreds of pictures of settings he might be able to refer to for a design scheme later on.

"He doesn't take shortcuts, and he expects the same of his students," Weller-Stilson said.

Seyer expects quality work and creates quality work, Weller-Stilson said, but more than anything he wants to help students become true professionals.

"He was exactly the same as he is now," she said. "He takes every bit of it very seriously, and he will go out of his way for the students, he will stay up late just to help them."

In Seyer's office, pictures of destinations abroad (he's also a travel guide, on top of his academic and professional theater duties) are all over the walls, as are quotes and sayings on paper. One of them says, "We have no right to complain about mistakes made by people who are doing the work we should be doing."

The words say a lot about Seyer's tireless work ethic. If a job needs done, he'll never expect someone else to do it for him. In the set shop, he can be found in jeans, T-shirt and a carpenter belt, decorated with sawdust.

"This business is demanding," Seyer said. "If you're in this business, you have to have a vested interest. You can't just press a button on a keyboard and it's created for you."

Many hours of work by many people go into a production, Seyer said. His role is just part of those many hours, in Seyer's view.

Though the work is hard, the hours long and the recognition little, Seyer can't pull himself away from the theater. "Live theater is such a rush," he said.

After this year he'll continue to work in live entertainment as a theater consultant, freelance designer and travel guide, as well as teach two online theater appreciation courses at Southeast. Even those classes are spoken of with reverence by Seyer, as is anything to do with theater. The classes teach an art form American youths typically don't get much exposure to.

"Most of our generations, we grew up with television, we grew up with film, we don't have a tradition of going to live theater," Seyer said.

Seyer is ready to start the next step in his life, but he will miss the first season in the new performance hall at the River Campus, which opens in the fall semester. When the idea of a performing arts campus was first mentioned about 10 years ago, Seyer was in on the talk.

"I have mixed feelings about it," Seyer said. "It's another chapter in the department, and I've been through two chapters already. There are other things I've had on the back burner for years."

Stilson also has mixed feelings: He's sad to see Seyer leave the department, but optimistic about what Seyer's successor Jeff Leutkenhaus will bring to a new era in the department's history. Stilson uses the Rose Theatre, Southeast's longtime theater venue the department will leave behind after this year, as an analogy for Seyer and his Southeast career.

"In one sense it's a natural sense of renewal, just like leaving the Rose Theatre," Stilson said. "Going to the River Campus is going to be joyous, but leaving the Rose Theatre, it's a little sad."

Seyer will still be around. But now he'll be in the audience instead of behind the scenes.

335-6611, extension 182

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