W. Stuart McDowell to retire: A talk with the man who changed WSU’s theater department

Director, educator and playwright W. Stuart McDowell, who chaired Wright State University’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures for 22 years and directed 26 productions from William Shakespeare to Rodgers and Hammerstein, has announced his retirement effective June 30.

Currently serving as professor and artistic director of the department as well as the Frederick A. White Distinguished Professor of Professional Service, McDowell, 73, arrived at WSU in 1994.

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Before his arrival, he was artistic director for Grove Shakespeare in Southern California and was founding artistic director of the Riverside Shakespeare Company of New York City, which he co-founded with his wife, Gloria Skurski. While helming Riverside Shakespeare for a decade, McDowell, a Brechtian scholar, directed Tom Hanks in his New York stage debut.

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Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

His relationship with Hanks proved helpful during WSU’s “Rise Shine Campaign,” a campuswide fundraising endeavor in which Hanks served as national co-chair. More than $160 million was raised for scholarships and construction of state-of-the-art performance and gallery spaces for the school.

McDowell “has been a tireless champion of so many artists and educators,” said Joe Deer, who succeeded McDowell as department chair. “He is unafraid of the challenges inherent in big dreams. He lives for his audience and is the soul child of P.T. Barnum, Joseph Papp and Bertolt Brecht. Every Stu production is an event and every event is an opportunity to champion our department.

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“As I’ve worked for the last two years to try and fill his estimable shoes as the new department chair, I know better than most how incredible his daily achievements have been. I will deeply miss his open door and easy counsel, but I’m so happy he can now focus on his next set of big dreams. I will welcome his continued friendship and occasional support at Wright State.”

Looking back on his WSU career, McDowell, whose penchant for spectacle was memorably captured in such productions as “Show Boat,” “Les Misérables,” “South Pacific” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” shared numerous insights.

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Q: What strikes you the most about your early days at Wright State?

A: Abe Bassett founded the department and did a lot of wonderful work. When Abe left, Bill Lafferty served as chair. When I came in under the "deanship" of Perry Moore, I was to shepherd the department into the 21st century. We had elements to fix such as sound problems inside the (Festival Playhouse), and we didn't have a musical theater program or much scholarship support at that point.

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Q: Since then, how pleased are you about the progress made?

A: One of my proudest achievements is increasing scholarships for students about tenfold with so many initiatives, including the named scholarships such as the Martin Sheen, the Tom Hanks, etc. We were also able to offer a musical theater degree which Joe Deer (implemented). We also strengthened our acting component, brought in guest designers, and simply worked to get the quality of the shows up to a level I think the theater students needed as we began to head toward our pivotal Creative Arts Center renovation.

I really have received a lot of support from the university from the top down because I’ve always felt the arts can lead. For a city of its size, Dayton has a tremendous arts scene. And Wright State has developed a strong arts program which has grown stronger because it has fulfilled a need in this community for training in a pre-professional way. I’m also proud to have been one of the original three chairs to conceive and develop the ArtsGala. The arts give people joy in darkness. It gives people a vision, a language and an articulation. It gives a voice to the challenges we face.

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Q: The Dance and Motion Pictures departments have particularly grown as well. Former film professors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert won the Oscar this year for their documentary “American Factory.” Alumna Hannah Beachler won an Oscar for “Black Panther,” which was also an achievement.

A: The Dance and Motion Pictures departments are in a period of huge transition right now, but what's glorious is that those transitional founders, particularly in the Motion Pictures Department, have come back to share their stories, storytelling, technique and glory. And the facilities the Dance Department has are astonishing, as are the dance concerts.

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Q: Which shows are you most proud of producing or directing?

A: When I came to Wright State, diversifying was important. The department was particularly looking for a stronger African-American constituency. Wright State had never done an African-American play. So in my second season, I hired Sheila Ramsey to direct "A Soldier's Play," which was a real triumph. Sheila would also direct "The Piano Lesson" among others and years later we co-directed "Fences," which was a terrific production.

My production of “Show Boat” starring Nicole Scherzinger as Julie is also special, as is “The Secret Garden,” the first show I directed here. Most recently, I really enjoyed directing in the downstairs Herbst Theatre for the first time with “An Enemy of the People.” In the Herbst, you get to focus on actors, the story, the open-ended parable, which is the core of really great drama. The intimacy, performances and rawness of “An Enemy of the People” was thrilling and so much fun.

Q: You were also instrumental in the premieres of “1913: The Great Dayton Flood” and “1903: The Wings of Dreams.”

A: Dayton has given so many gifts to the world, including flight. I had hoped to make a trilogy called "1923: Accords" which jumped forward to the Dayton Peace Accords and back to the Civil War, weaving themes of community and racism including the film "The Birth of a Nation." It still may happen. It's an exciting idea. Dayton is such a microcosm of this country.

Q: You’ve given audiences so many memorable images — including a striking, nearly sensual use of water in “An Enemy of the People” and a riveting conclusion to “Cabaret” in which the set crashed against the backdrop of a huge Nazi flag. What is your perspective on the art of stagecraft?

A: For me, the process of directing most often has to do with really connecting to (the story). The essence of really great storytelling is parables, which mean different things to different people. And in order to arrive at such images, such distilled moments, you have to take a play and boil it down or peel it. It's not going to be an onion — but more like the core of an apple. You keep peeling away at it until you get to the core, the pit, the seed. And it's important that seed connects to all the different parts.

Some of my favorite directors are Peter Brook and Trevor Nunn, who were able to tell stories in big, grand ways which all came from simple little things, a little seed. Sometimes you can’t find it easily, so you just go ahead and do the play. But other times it’s the galvanizing moment where it all comes together. To be honest, basically every single production I’ve directed has come with a terrifying feeling in rehearsals. But once the show is blocked, it’s so much fun.

Q: What is the biggest lesson you learned?

A: When I served as chair, it took me a while to learn that the best self-definition of the position is a servant. The chair is a leader but also a servant. I was here to serve the faculty, to give them the tools they needed. It was a turning point.

Q: What are your hopes for the future?

A: I'm currently writing a book called "In A Heartbeat," a history of the early years of the Riverside Shakespeare Company of New York City. I also desire to come back to Wright State as a guest director.

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