Concerned about departments’ future

To the editor:

I’m writing to express my grave concern over the possible discontinuation of the Southwest Minnesota State University departments of Theatre and Music. When I first heard of the possibility that the SMSU Theatre and Music departments might be dissolved, I was shocked! This was the place where I first truly found myself and people like me. The first place I ever felt like I truly belonged was in danger of being taken away. I made many deep and abiding friendships during my tenure there. I also learned the many skills, both technical and artistic, that have made me a sought after theatre artist in the thriving and very competitive world of Minneapolis theatre, as well as a successful commercial actor. My recent credits include The Minnesota State Lottery Money Machine campaign and the upcoming Twins 2014 Season Campaign. I was also cast in the holiday show at the famous Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis, the launch pad for actors Cedric Yarborough, Louis Anderson, Mo Collins, Penn Jillette and Sen. Al Franken. Without my education at the theatre department of SMSU that would not have been possible.

I can honestly say, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Southwest Minnesota State University Theatre and Music Departments are directly responsible for the person I am today. I learned from Professor Emeritus William Hezlep, what it takes to be a professional in my chosen field of acting; diligence, imagination and dammit be on time! You may have heard the story that it is his own hand in the first ever pop-top beer can commercial.

I learned from retired Assistant Professor Ray Oster, the beauty and artistry that can be attained through the technical side of theatre. I will never forget the mammoth yet agile steel set for the then SSU production of Westside Story and the gorgeous lighting that lifted us out of our reality and set us down in a world not our own. This same set I had the great privilege of disassembling piece by piece as I spent 3 years as Scene Shop Foreman at Ray’s side learning skills that have proven invaluable time and again.

I learned from Professor Sheila Tabaka a sense of family. Sheila and I began our time at SMSU at the very same time, she as the new costuming professor and I as the unsure and undeclared freshman trying to find his feet. I began in her Introduction to Theatre class and remember meeting her then newborn son Eukariah, then the size of a loaf of bread, now almost legally able to drive a bread truck. I remember Sheila having to leave the technical rehearsal of our production of Godspell because she was in labor with her oldest daughter Sally! I remember the joy of her annual Christmas Party and the welcoming warmth of a home away from home provided by her, her wonderful husband Jim and their five magnificent children; Eukariah, Sally, Maggie, Lilly and Jed. Those five children, to this day, still call me by the best nickname I’ve ever been bestowed with; Squeaky boots. So earned and coined by Sheila during a production of Romeo and Juliet where my calf high boots refused to stop squeaking during the very somber scene where Count Paris (my character) visits the tomb where Juliet (played by Katy Kelly) is laid out before burial. You’ll be amazed to know that our Romeo and Juliet, Katy Kelly and Jim Sustacek are actually married in real life and would never have met if not for the SMSU Theatre department. I, of course, also learned every costuming skill I have from Sheila. I recently employed these very same skills to make sleeves for some rather ridiculous extended arms for a character in the Minneapolis Horror Festival’s production of Spooky Town, written, directed and starring the two heads of the Brave New Workshop Student Union and writers on MPR’s popular quiz program Wits.

Regrettably my time with Associate Professor Nadine Purvis-Schmidt was admittedly short as a student, but my relationship with her after graduation has had a profound effect on my professional career. Were it not for Nadine, I would never have gotten my first paid acting work in my entire career as an Actor/Educator for Climb Theatre Inc. It was from that first casting that my entire current success and happiness grew and I will be eternally grateful for that. I also gained from her my first ever on-camera acting experience in her acting for the camera class. This experience has made me extremely competitive in the industrial and commercial film industry of Minneapolis.

I was also a member of the SMSU Concert Choir during my time at Southwest. Under the direction of Dr. M. Michael Suzuki, I learned what it took to be a great musician and was granted the extreme privilege of touring to both London and Paris for a concert tour which was capped with a performance in Notre Dame Cathedral. This is an experience I will never forget. It made me more curious about our world and the rest of its people. I also learned the value of perseverance as some of Dr. Suzuki’s more difficult choices of music without fail proved to be the most rewarding upon performance. The music I learned is still with me and there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not thankful for my time in that amazing choir.

I can not express to you the meaning those departments have for me. There are not words for such gratefulness as I have for their existence. They are my past, present and hopefully future. When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favor of the war effort, he simply replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”

Ryan Robert Nelson

2004 graduate of the SMSU Theatre Department