The magic of “The Wizard of Oz” sticks with viewers for their entire lives. For some, like Georgia Southern University Professor Lisa Abbott, the magic of theater stuck.
Originally from Littleton, Colorado, Abbott watched “The Wizard of Oz” while in elementary school and “was hooked.” Then, she participated in productions any chance she had and directed her first play in high school. Directing “lit (her) brain on fire.”
Despite that love of theater and directing, Abbott went to college to pursue pre-med biology/psychology at Colorado State University, while in pursuit of that degree she continued to be involved in theater.
“I had already had experience as a director, which is my biggest love, more than acting, but I had no idea that you could not only major in theater but you could major in directing. That and a really awful chemistry class forced me to rethink my career goals. Once I started studying directing my life changed.”
That pivotal moment resulted in a change in major. Abbott received a bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University in psychology with a dual major in theater. She then received a Masters of Fine Arts in directing at the University of Portland.
After her undergrad, she met her husband, Sean DeVine, during an internship at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. DeVine now serves as the Technical Director for the Georgia Southern Theatre Program. They have one son, Kian, who plans to attend West Georgia College in the fall (COVID-19 permitting) to study theater and music.
Abbott’s position at GSU grants her the ability to teach and direct — both things she loves. The program at the university is “purposefully eclectic when it comes to script selection.”
“I am having the opportunity to direct shows that in the professional world, I may never have had the opportunity to do,” Abbott said. “Most of my professional work was with new scripts, which I loved, but being able to sink into Shakespeare or do a musical is also awesome.”
One of her favorite things about her involvement in the department is the group of students and colleagues she gets to work with. By her description, they are “interesting, challenging and so engaged.” That engagement lends dedication to the department’s productions and to the art of theater. Amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, the faculty is having to revise and rethink their original plans.
As with most decisions made in this situation, safety is a priority.
“Someone once described a play as an iceberg, where the audience only sees the tip. We have to think about how all those people under the water stay safe and healthy. As a result, we have decided that there will be no live performances for fall semester and spring semester is on a ‘wait and see’ plan,” Abbott said.
If we look at Abbott’s normal routine (i.e., not during a pandemic), her days vary depending upon if it’s a teaching day versus a non-teaching day. A teaching day starts out usually with a 9 a.m. core class, theater appreciation.
“I love teaching it because it provides me the opportunity to share my love of theater with students who may have never experienced it and know nothing about how a play is produced.”
As her day progresses, Abbott will teach an acting class that concentrates on the student’s movement, vocal training, script analysis and performances. Her third class is an upper level course—in the fall, that class will be a directing course.
The acting class and the directing class seem to work hand-in-hand. In the acting glass, Abbott works with the actors on their on-stage presence and character development.
“I work with getting actors comfortable in their bodies, to think about how a character might exist psychically, how they may move in relationship to the other characters they share space with, to act with their whole selves.”
The directing course she will be teaching this fall will focus on the director’s interactions with the actors — and their encouragement of the actors to explore movement. This course also spends time on script analysis, creating mood through light, sound and staging.
The virtual classes this past semester was a unique challenge to these students, as they typically focus on physical cues.
Another of Abbott’s tasks is to supervise student stage managers for the productions and to collaborate with student and faculty designers in production and design meetings.
In academic theater, the students and professors aren’t limited to what productions they can do. They can explore any genre, any theme and that opens up a world of opportunity for them. It allows them to be in touch with the happenings in the real world and to choose plays that can teach and inspire the audience and the cast.
“Theater allows us to explore what it means to be human. We get to step into the shoes of another person and experience their life. It entertains but it also teaches.”
An example of a production that has been chosen to be performed that is rooted in current events is the upcoming production, “Touch.” It will explore the “meaning, value, and loss of physical connection.” The show will be a devised theater production — and created by the company. Devised theater is a created performance by the company – the group will begin with the question “What does touch mean in today’s world?” Their conversation will determine the production and what form it takes during the rehearsal process.
“We have to make sure (amid the pandemic) that not only are our audiences safe, but our students as well. We are still committed to producing, however to allow our students the opportunity to continue their education. We are exploring streaming options, creating performances on line, and the possibility of a mix of the two,” Abbott said.
Abbott is excited for the challenge of “giving the students a chance to do this kind of creative work that has the flexibility to allow us to work in the environment we have to live with for now.” These works can have a lasting effect on the students as well as the audiences, not just through the actual production, but through the conversations that arise from them.
“The arts are how we as human beings process life…. When we did ‘Race; A Play’ by David Mamet, we had some challenging conversations in rehearsal as well as in post-show discussions with our audience about language, about race, about justice. Theater can and should open students to ideas and experiences outside of their own lived experience. All the arts; visual as well as performing, engage students in the expression of living in the world because all art is influenced, not only by the time it is created, but by the time it is experienced.”
The arts have a way of impacting individuals and inspiring them—Abbott herself is an example of that. These chance opportunities are what make the arts so magical to those involved or those viewing, listening, learning.
Many school systems have had budget cuts that impact arts education. In some cases, this results in students whom would love to pursue an education in liberal arts to change their minds in favor of a more socially accepted degree or one that seems to present more job opportunities to students.
“(Students)… are not less interested, but they are more actively dissuaded from them. Theater is always the degree that students have to convince their parents it is legitimate. I think there is such a fear of economic stability for our students that the push to STEM or business degrees overshadows the facts about a liberal arts degree.”
As Abbott said, the audiences only see a portion of the work that goes into these productions. These students are learning effective written and verbal communication, how to analyze a text (in this case, a script) and problem solve, how to manage their time and how to meet deadlines. These are skills that make for a well-rounded employee.
Employment aside, a theater program like Georgia Southern’s grants individuals the chance to take in a production that they might not otherwise be exposed to.
“I think college offers the opportunity to see a live theatrical performance, or an art gallery, or a classical music concert, or any of the art experiences that are available on campus. Sadly, the opportunity after college becomes limited by socio-economic and geographic factors. It may be the only opportunity a student has to have this experience.”
One of Abbott’s goals as a professor is to challenge herself and her students. She looks for plays written by women or people of color.
“We are not just sticking to the cannon of European-style theater although I don’t ignore those plays,” she said.
Abbott enjoys being put outside of her “normal wheelhouse” and exploring other’s experiences. It’s one way that she can create awareness for herself, her students and their audiences.