Rhonda Weller-Stilson and her husband, Dr. Kenn Stilson, met when they were theater students at Southeast Missouri State University in the early 1980s. As she remembers it, they met at an open house where he asked her friend for a date. After straightening that out, they married and left to pursue careers in theater that took them to Alabama and to Shakespeare festivals across the South.
Now the couple has returned to Southeast, she as the theater department's new costume designer, he as the department's new chairman. Two of their former teachers and mentors, Dr. Don Schulte and Dennis C. Seyer, are still teaching at the university.
C. Kenneth Cole, the University Theatre's new technical director/lighting designer, is the third addition to the theater department this semester.
With growth from five full-time faculty members to eight in one year and an impending realignment of some departments associated with the performance arts, the arrival of the new faculty members signals the university's commitment to its plan to create a School for the Visual and Performing Arts at its proposed River Campus.
All three new faculty members said Southeast's School of the Visual and Performing Arts drew them here.
"The School of Visual and Performing Arts is going to be monumentally important to the cultural environment of the region," Stilson says.
Reinforcing of the guard
The professors' arrival is less a changing of the guard than a reinforcing and is in line with a departmental reorganization soon to be formalized.
The Department of Speech Communication and Theater is soon to spin off its theater component, which will merge with the dance program in a Department of Theatre and Dance. This will bring Dr. Marc Strauss, head of the dance program, from physical education into the new department.
Also in the works are a new bachelor of fine arts in performing arts degree with options in theater performance, dance and design technology. This is in addition to the university's bachelor's degree in musical theater, which recently was established.
The University Theatre has not had a full-time costume designer since 1982 when Weller-Stilson, a Cape Central High School graduate, was studying at Southeast. The state of the costume shop, she says, is what you'd expect after 20 years of being run by students. "It has fallen into disarray," she said. But she has ordered new dress forms and is putting the shop in order.
Cole is the first full-time technical director/lighting designer at the university. Seyer has fulfilled that role for many years in addition to his directing duties. "I am amazed at what Dennis Seyer did," Cole says. "He was doing everything I do and everything else he does."
Cole wrote his thesis on computer control of moving scenery and expects to integrate that knowledge into the University Theatre productions.
He has been associated with the Ashlawn Summer Festival in North Carolina, as well as working with opera companies in Nashville, Tenn., and Santa Fe, N.M.
Mentors now colleagues
Stilson and Weller-Stilson are still sorting out their reactions to returning to teach at their alma mater.
"Our mentors are still here and now they're our colleagues," Weller-Stilson said.
"And they're still our mentors," Stilson added.
Seyer, Dr. Sharon Bebout-Carr and Dr. Robert Dillon Jr. are the other full-time faculty members. Schulte is semi-retired and is teaching his last class at Southeast this semester.
The addition of faculty means the department can offer many more classes. Stilson hopes the number of students taking classes in the department will double in size within five years.
He founded the Alabama Lyric theater in 1998 and directed it until he departed this year. He also was the director of performance of theater and dance at the University of South Alabama. Among the organizations he has worked with are Lincoln Center in New York City, the Mississippi Shakespeare Festival and the Missouri Summer Repertory Theatre in Columbia, Mo.
In addition to directing theater companies and programs, Stilson also has written a biography and a play. The play, "Where the Lilacs Grow," was presented Friday in a staged reading directed by Dr. Roseanna Whitlow, a professor associated with both the speech and theater departments.
The University Theatre's first production of the season will be the Tom Griffin comedy "The Boys Next Door." Running Oct. 2-7, the play tells the story of four mentally disabled men and their social worker. It is recommended for mature audiences. Dr. Robert Dillon Jr. will direct.
Next is "The Best of Sondheim," a musical revue offering the composer's most popular songs. Stilson will direct.
"Transitions," the fall dance concert Nov. 30-Dec. 1, will be choreographed by dance professors Dr. Marc Strauss and Paul Zmolek and by visiting artist Nina Shineflug of the Chicago Moving Company.
In the spring semester, Bebout-Car will direct "A Piece of My Heart," a play about six women who went to Vietnam. Seyer will direct the children's play "The Frog Princess," and Strauss, Zmolek and Southeast students will collaborate on a spring dance concert titled "Full Tilt."
'A rejuvenated spirit'
Though the River Campus is being held up by litigation, the students and the professors are enthusiastic about the changes they see, the professors said.
"It's exciting what's going to be happening," Cole says.
Says Stilson: "We're here to build upon what has been. There is a rejuvenated spirit."
Stilson, who grew up in Malden, Mo., appeared in 25 to 30 productions during his years at Southeast with lead roles including Biff in "Death of a Salesman" and Paul in "Barefoot in the Park."
Weller-Stilson, who may have given birth to the couple's first child by the time this story appears, appeared in "Lysistrata" at Southeast and was directed by Schulte in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" but says she worked mostly behind the scenes.
Cole has remained behind the scenes since high school. "In high school I had the only non-singing part in 'My Fair Lady,'" he said.
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