On a mild Friday night in early October, Professor of Theatre Gregg Stull watched with keen eyes as a group of students worked through a scene of Steven Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” which opened in Klein Theatre Thursday, Nov. 1.
The musical is a coming-of-age story featuring the fairytale characters most anyone will remember from childhood: Cinderella, the Baker and the Baker’s wife, Jack who traded his cow for some magic beans. But life is not a fairytale; a vengeful giant is on the loose and has already claimed a number of victims.
Stull, the chair of the department and the director of the play, rose from his seat during a particularly poignant scene between a widowed Baker and Cinderella. But Stull wasn’t sure the pair was quite conveying that. He posed a couple of questions, told them to try again. He returned to his seat.
“Good, good, good,” Stull said.
It is a historic theater season at the University of Mary Washington. One hundred years ago, on Dec. 16, 1912, the school staged its very first production – “Alice in Wonderland.”
This year UMW Theatre celebrates its centennial season by drawing from the diverse and lengthy list of past performances. “Into the Woods” was last performed on campus in spring 1995.
For the students and faculty involved in production, the centennial is of little significance during grueling rehearsals, which run six hours or more six or seven days a week.
But, “there’s been theater on the hill here for 100 years,” Stull said. “That’s worthy of noting – how vital theater has been to this community.”
Ask Mary Washington theater alumni what helped to mold them into the successful professionals they are today, and time after time they point to the professor they call “Gregg.”
Stull challenged them, former students said, and he elicited the best from them. He made them stretch in ways they could not have imagined. And from the very start, he treated them as colleagues.
“I will tell them the truth,” Stull said.
If something is not working on stage, he lets them know. He gives them an honest, respectful critique.
Theater students leave Mary Washington with an understanding of the entire theatrical process, from back stage to center stage. They leave, Stull hopes, with a better understanding of themselves. And that means that sometimes, “skill is the least important objective.”
Stull first came to Mary Washington as a student and soon found his way to the theater department. After UMW, he went to work in professional theater and earned a master of fine arts from the University of Maryland. In 1989, he returned to his alma mater to teach a class. In 1991, he joined the faculty.
“I’ve always been drawn back to teaching, to live the life of teaching. It seems to be my destiny. It suits me well,” he said. “Every single day is different.”
In 2010, concerned that he could no longer relate to those he taught, Stull took a sabbatical “for the sole purpose of learning how to be a student.” He chose to study culinary arts, which he knew virtually nothing about.
“I get it again,” Stull said of the experience, “in a way I maybe have lost touch with over the years.”
Three hours into the Friday night rehearsal nearly a month before “Into the Woods” premiered, Stull asked students to perform parts of scenes two times, three times, four times – gently prodding, asking questions, making suggestions.
With practice comes mastery. They do this six days a week, then seven, until opening night.
When they don their costumes and step on the stage of the Klein Theatre filled with parents, professors, and friends, they will be ready.
Stull will make sure of that.
-by Kristin Davis