Let's face it, Oral Roberts University has a reputation.
Its founder and namesake, a notorious televangelist and leader of the Christian religion's charismatic movement who claimed to speak directly to God, has been regarded as something of a joke in secular communities.
And yet, all joking aside, the university continues to attract students from across the world, accepting roughly 1,346 new students each year out of 2,038 applicants.
Thirteen percent of those students are enrolled as theatre majors -- acting, dancing, singing students who graduate to careers in the entertainment industry.
Even more surprising is that they're good. Really good.
Until four months ago, I had no idea a theatre department existed at ORU.
I had just heard of a new community theatre company, The Playhouse Theatre, started by Courtneay Sanders and Chris Crawford (for more on Sanders and Crawford, see "Eye of the Beholder" online at www.urbantulsa.com), and I planned to review its inaugural production, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which debuted in February.
A few people asked me, "Is that the ORU company?" and I saw that same smirk on their faces I'd seen so many times before.
And although the company isn't directly associated with ORU, its founders are professors in the theatre department and its Romeo and Juliet cast and crew was comprised mostly of ORU grads and students. I wondered what I was in for.
But, wow, what a good show. The interpretation was unlike anything I had ever seen and the acting was extraordinary. It became clear very quickly that the theatre department at ORU was teaching a lot more than just church plays.
In early April, I sat in on an advanced acting class taught by Sanders, who is the director of theatre at the university. It's the second-level acting class offered to theatre majors, comprised mostly of sophomores and juniors; and Sanders is teaching The Meisner Technique, developed by Sanford Meisner.
It's a technique fundamental to the craft of acting but rarely taught to undergraduate students because it requires that the actor is able to draw from intense emotional experiences in order to make his portrayal of a character more real, more believable.
Meisner's theory of acting is that it is "living truthfully in imaginary circumstances."
"I can't imagine not using Meisner, and I think it just puts our students a step ahead of everyone else that they get it so early," said Sanders. "It's very foundational for me because I think they have to be able to tap into who they really are from the very beginning."
Even while observing the students workshopping scenes in class I was moved by some of their performances, awestruck that 20- and 21-year-olds at Oral Roberts University were receiving such rigorous training.
It's a testament to their teachers.
Sanders, Crawford (technical director) and Chris Martin (assistant professor) all have bachelor's degrees from ORU and MFAs from the University of Arkansas; and it has been with their arrival, beginning with Sanders three years ago, that the school's theatre department has grown exponentially.
Laura Holland is the chair of the Communication Arts and Media department, which houses the theatre major, and has been a teacher at ORU for 32 years. She has a bachelor's degree from ORU and an MFA in from the University of Oklahoma in theatrical design.
Dr. Raymond Lewandowski started the department in 1965; a year after the school's opening. It offered a theatre major and a communication arts education major, which certified students as public school teachers.
"When he started, because ORU was really new, they weren't sure what they were going to do with drama. And his first boss really wanted him to just do church drama. And he said, 'Absolutely not. It's a liberal arts school, it needs to have a drama program.' So we've been doing what you would call straight plays ever since its inception," said Holland.
For more than 10 years Lewandowski ran the department single-handedly, until he hired Holland. It remained a two-man department until 2007.
Under the tutelage of Lewandowski and Holland, the department added a degree, Drama, Television and Film Performance (DTF), which is designed to train students in acting for camera and stage as well as behind the scenes, learning the technical side of drama, as well as directing for stage and camera.
Two years ago, ORU incorporated a dance degree and, quickly following that, a musical theatre degree. The entire department boasts almost 100 students, with 40 DTF majors, 10 in musical theatre, 10 in theatre, 30 in dance and seven in communication arts education.
With the addition of new majors, as well as former president Richard Roberts' interest in growing the department (he left his post following the 2007 scandal), a department that took 20 years to grow beyond two educators has advanced exponentially in the last three.
Best in Show
Sanders started as director of theatre in August of 2006, following her May 2006 graduation from grad school. When Holland initially offered her the position, she refused it, she said.
"By my second year of grad school, Dr. Lewandowski retired, and they moved [Holland] into the chairman job, and that spot opened up. She called me and asked if I'd be interested, and I said no because I had another year left of school and I didn't want to go right into teaching," said Sanders. "I knew I wanted to teach eventually, but I didn't want to go straight into it from school."
Sanders had plans to act professionally, hopefully in Chicago or London's West End. It took four more phone calls from Holland, plus a lot of discussions with friends, family and God to convince Sanders to accept the position.
A year later, Holland hired Martin, whose MFA is in playwriting. He teaches playwriting, scriptwriting and theatre history.
ORU had added a worship arts degree, which required drama classes, and, as Holland said, "I had to have teachers."
The degree program attracted 40 students in its first year and 65 in its second. Martin came onboard because of required classes like "Playwriting for the Church."
A year later, the dance and musical theatre majors were added, and it was then that Crawford returned to the school, first as an adjunct professor, as the school was steeped in controversy and on a hiring freeze.
Holland attributed much of the sudden and rapid growth in her department to the school's desire to attract new students by offering courses and programming that would interest them.
She hired Sanders, Crawford and Martin, she said, because she wanted professionals teaching the classes.
"Growing departments are known for a lot of different things, and really, really growing departments are known for producing work," said Holland. "And when I said, 'Okay, who's the next person that we add to cause the program to grow,' I wanted someone who was trained in playwriting. We had an opportunity that presented itself, and I grabbed [Martin] right away."
Martin was looking for teaching positions at universities across the country because, as a working playwright, it's assumed that he can pursue his profession while teaching.
To do that is harder for the actors, Crawford and Sanders, but they still pursue professional endeavors.
After receiving his MFA in acting, Crawford, a winner of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Irene Ryan Award (a prestigious scholarship given to outstanding theatre students), won a year-long fellowship with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.
"So I got whisked away to D.C., and while I was up there I got amazing parts and was going to amazing auditions and meeting amazing people, and the whole time in my mind I was just like, 'Wow, this is so not what I dreamed it would be,'" said Crawford.
After working as an adjunct professor for a year, he started full-time as technical director in January of this year, and he teaches acting for musical theatre, technical production, lighting design, makeup design, scenic design and the Viewpoints (the Bogart acting technique).
Sanders, Crafword and Martin changed their curricula in order to focus more on comprehensive, professional training. In her acting classes, Sanders teaches Meisner, as well as Uta Hagen, Shakespeare, Checkov, Brecht and Pinter.
Sanders said she and Crawford frequently receive invitations to acting opportunities outside of Tulsa, but their schedules make it difficult for them to accept many of them.
"When our schedules permit, we are acting professionally, taking classes ourselves, or teaching classes elsewhere," said Sanders. "We do this usually during the summer months, unless there is a weekend play reading or fundraiser that we're hired to do here and there, those we can usually fit into the school year."
This summer, she said, Crawford will be playing Leo Bloom in The Producers and Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre. In July he'll play Tito Merrelli in Lend Me a Tenor for Playhouse.
In addition, Crawford and Martin will teach summer classes titled "New Play Workshop" and "Actor's Worskop." They'll teach the classes simultaneously, and what will result is new work, written by playwriting students and staged by acting students. Ultimately, the classes will culminate in a performance of new, original work.
"I have been nominated for the Ruth Arrington Outstanding College Theater Faculty Award by the Oklahoma Speech Theater Communication Association, so I am currently undergoing that nomination process," Sanders said. "Because Playhouse is still in its early stages and Chris was already under contract to appear with AST in May and June, I am remaining in Tulsa this summer and directing, as well as acting in Lend Me a Tenor."
Because all three of the department's young professors (Sanders is 30 and Crawford and Martin are 27) received their bachelor's degrees from ORU, they understand firsthand the stigma associated with the university and the general wonder and bemusement that the school even has a theatre department, let alone a good one.
They laughed and nodded when the subject came up.
"When we went to grad school, our teachers said, 'If you have ORU on your resume, it will do one of two things: It will either be positive or negative, but either way, you will get questions about it.' And we were even told to take it off of our resumes," said Sanders.
"But I didn't," Crawford interjected.
"Neither did I," Sanders said.
"At every professional audition I've been to, they've asked me about it. At every audition I went to in New York they asked me about my training at ORU," said Crawford, mimicking a common conversation with a casting director.
"How'd that go?" (Accompanied by a smirk or snicker.)
"I'm here auditioning for you, aren't I?"
But, he said, the people who weren't aware of ORU's theatre department before are now, and "from my ears, the stories are stopping."
On the university's part, it's likely because Christian retail giant Mart Green, owner of the Mardel and Hobby Lobby chains, stepped in to rescue the drowning school by funneling it millions of dollars in capital and taking a seat at the head of its board of directors. The hiring of a new president, Mark Rutland, also bodes well for the university.
The theatre department, though, has been attracting its own positive attention, in part through Sanders' and Crawford's theatre company and by performing two shows of its season in downtown's Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Second St.
A way to attract the community's attention, the idea was Sanders'.
"The students know we're here," Sanders said.
Fall's Moonlight and Magnolias and spring's The Vertical Hour were both performed in the PAC, rather than the department's usual spot in the Howard Auditorium on school grounds.
While I didn't see Moonlight and Magnolias, I did see David Hare's The Vertical Hour, directed by Martin, and was more than impressed.
Starring students Brittany Wilson, Kevin Abrams and Tony Schneider, the play is a weighty one that examines issues of politics, sex, war and humanity. It would be a difficult play for any company to perform, but it's completely audacious for an undergraduate university to mount a production of this caliber of difficulty.
And they did it successfully. The students were incredible, and, in fact, I found myself once or twice forgetting that they were students at all. And I thought it was a wonderful testament to the training they're receiving and to their teachers that they were able to pull off such a production.
Jesus Christ Superstars
The school's roots are in its religion, so the teachers focus on acting and the arts within the church in their classes.
Martin said he adjusted his Playwriting for the Church class to focus less on the "church stuff" and more on the fundamentals of playwriting.
"The one thing I encourage [my students to do] is to ask themselves what do you want to say in this piece or what story do you want to tell? We don't want to be didactic; we want to lean toward the universal, lean toward the transcendent. Lean toward the story that is about the reconciliation of a mother and daughter or whatever the story has to be, as opposed to saying, 'This is what God says and therefore let us push our view onto somebody,'" said Martin.
"Nobody wants to go to the theater and be preached to, in or outside of the church," he said. "So Playwriting for the Church is really an intro to playwriting course. It's just that we have to ask the question, 'Is this something you could use wherever you as individuals end up going?'"
Sanders said they teach their students that, in acting, they're playing real people.
"They're playing people who have wants and needs and desires and are afraid of things and are excited about things. And if they're acting in a church play--I mean, Chris [Crawford] and I are in Victory's illustrated sermon--they're still playing real people," said Sanders.
"It's like, people say in acting classes, 'Well I want to learn more about acting for film' or 'I want to learn more about acting for theater' or 'I'm interested in doing drama in church' and things like that. And for me, the answer is, it's all the same thing. Acting is acting is acting. And your job as an actor, as a performer or a writer or designer is to be the best you can possibly be in whatever arena you're going into," said Crawford.
The goal for the students at ORU's theatre department is to provide them with the best possible training for any career they choose to pursue, whether in film, television, theatre or church. And many of them, Holland said, are interested in going back to the church with their degrees.
"I tell students interested in our program that we don't do Christian theatre. We're Christians doing theatre. And we see a big difference in that," said Holland. "We do have a group that uses theatre in the churches to evangelize, and we have kids who are very interested in that. We have kids who are interested in using it for missions, and our answer is the same: Acting is acting is acting. You learn the craft and then you have the different arenas it allows to open up."
She said that students sometimes come to the university from home schools or Christian high schools and are surprised by the theatre education they get at ORU.
Sanders said her goal for the school and its theatre program is national recognition.
"Our main reason for being is education," said Holland, "but we're expanding that. The whole reason they allowed us to have a drama department in the first place is because every liberal arts college has a drama department, and it's used to educate the students. But we're defining ourselves in a broader scope now, I think, so we have more reasons to exist than just education."
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