The Dirty Confessions of a Theatre Nerd

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Time warp yourself back to 1995 and you’re at the Strayer-Wood Theatre.  You see a brooding young man with dreadlocks.... facial piercings, combat boots up to his knees in shorts and all black, smoking a cigarette and scowling at the world around him.  That was me.  My name is Gabe Wilkinson and I am a proud alum of the University of Northern Iowa’s Theatre Program.  My story and history with the Strayer-Wood Theatre starts in about 1995.  It actually starts a little bit before then, but this is when I officially became a student at UNI.           

I came from a developing theatre program at NIACC under another UNI Theatre graduate by the name of Tim Slaven.  He convinced me that UNI was the place for me so I agreed and headed to Cedar Falls.  But this really isn’t about that; it’s about Strayer-Wood Theatre and my experiences there, and how it helped shape me into the man I am today.  It's about why I’ve decided to give back to the program, and the people, the professors, educators and the school that gave me so much.           

Now jump forward a bit to my senior year.  Its 1998, I’m touring with a rock band, bartending at the now defunct Steb’s Amusement.  I’m 26 years old and I’m pretty sure I know it all.  I want to do dangerous theatre -theatre that pushes boundaries, that makes people think and that pushes people’s buttons.  I’ve officially burnt out on academic theatre and I’m ready to do “real” art.  I remember seeing a show in St. Louis with Jay Edelnant that was something I really thought was amazing.  It was a student piece and it was spectacle and horror and challenged the audience, Jay reminded me that every playwright’s first play is about how much they hate their father… he was right again.           

I seem to be drifting away from my core thesis here, something I often did and Cynthia was often reminding me to reel it in.  Tangents... I often tend to meander on tangents. Eric remembers that for my first lighting design piece where I created a crucifix out of found wood in the shop and played a song by Strapping Young Lad at maximum volume in the BMT while everyone sat there with their jaws hanging down.  Or the time I did a performance art piece called “What the F**K I’m Naked” and performed it in the BMT, which Leonard often reminds me of when I see him about on campus.           

Wow do you see what I’m getting at?  The theatre department at UNI gave me so much more than just a solid education.  It gave me so much more than training for my future career.  What it gave is completely immeasurable in monetary amounts.  I’ll be paying my student loans back until about 2095 but I could care less. What I learned from the theatre and what the theatre gave me far exceeds the money I spent on my education.           

First and foremost the theatre gave me training for the future.  Do I work in the field of theatre now?  Not in so many words.  I work at KWWL as a commercial producer, but the theatre got me my job at the station over 10 years ago.  My knowledge of live production and the ability to communicate over a headset gave me a leg up on the competition.  It also helped that I had experience with audio in the theatre and I could handle the stress of live production.  From there I moved on to commercial production, where I write, shoot, edit and direct commercials for local clients-  all skills that I acquired while at Theatre UNI.  I learned to write from Cynthia, I learned to direct from Jay, I learned to compose a scene from Leonard and Eric.  All of these people touched me specifically and taught me ways to do my job today, even down to something as simple as three point lighting for KWWL’s annual Best of Class presentation that I’ve been lighting and shooting now for almost 11 years!           

The theatre also gave me a network of professionals and friends that work throughout the country that I can call on for help or advice.  I developed stronger connections and friendships with staff and students in my three years at UNI than I did in all 13 years of my primary education in small town Iowa.  Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the class sizes are small or that the program is incredibly hands on and student driven., Whatever the case is, I learned to depend on my fellow students and staff and they learned to depend on me.  As a team we achieved some pretty amazing things. (By the way, I still haven’t found that ghost cat that I swear I saw hanging a false proscenium with Leonard, Eric and Cory Shipler for Die Fledermaus).  The biggest thing that I learned about my fellow students and staff though was respect and trust of the professionals you were working with.  Did we butt heads at times? Sure. Did I get along with everyone? Absolutely not. But I respected what they brought to the table and that carries over into my professional life now.           

The last thing, and perhaps the most important thing I gained from my experience at the Strayer-Wood Theatre, are the lasting relationships.  I decided to stay in Cedar Falls and raise my family; I know it’s tough to believe that the dreadlocked Goth kid decided to stick around the small town, but I did and the theatre continues to be a huge part of my life.  Eric and I often get together and have lunch.  I see the staff at community functions, I still try and go to shows and most importantly I’m still around to provide help and to get help when I or they need it.  I recently worked on a documentary about Jay and Gwendolyn’s production of Marat Sade and their work with the textile artist Cat Chow.  Eric helped me build a new deck.  I worked on video installation for the production of The Laramie Project; Eric let me borrow his truck to haul junk to the transfer station.  Sometimes I almost feel like the theatre and the people there are more of a family to me than I ever thought.           

So what’s this all leading up to, you might ask.  It’s a nice story, Gabe, but get to the point.  Well here’s the point.  The scrawny angry kid that just wanted to get the hell out of school in 1998 is now the slightly plump father of two and a professional in the Cedar Valley, and really a large part of that is due to my training and the relationships I developed at the Strayer-Wood Theatre, both professionally and personally.  So what did I decide to do?  I decided to give back.  I currently sit on the Board of Directors for STAGE Inc. as the Vice President.  For those of you not familiar with STAGE Inc. it's a group of individuals from the Cedar Valley from all different walks of life who get together and try and raise awareness for the Strayer-Wood Theatre and at the same time try and raise scholarship money for deserving students that apply for it, but that’s not all!  We also raise funds for strike food and theatre enhancements as well.  We volunteer our time to meet up, come up with creative ways to get you, the public, involved and get you to give back.  I’m giving back by sitting on the board.  The Strayer-Wood Theatre, its students, its staff, and the University of Northern Iowa gave me more than I will ever be able to pay back. So this is my way of giving back to this organization, nay not organization, but this family that taught me so much and gave me so much. 

So what I’d like to do today is to ask you to give back, too.  I would love it if you would make a donation to STAGE Inc., or better yet become a full-fledged member.  Whether you are alumni, parents of alumni or even just a fan of the program, I ask you to give back.  In the world we live in today, more and more money is being pulled from public schools to cut programs in the arts.  If you give to this program you are helping to make sure these students, these future professionals in many different careers have a chance to grow and express themselves - to find out who they are and take their talents to the next level.  I am forever grateful to the Strayer-Wood Theatre, the faculty and the University of Northern Iowa for giving me a chance, for teaching me, for letting me grow, for letting me fall on my face more than once, but for always being there to give me another chance - to let me prove that I wasn’t a dumb ass.  So please take the time to give back today and make a difference in the future of another me.


Gabe Wilkinson

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