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Wednesday, June 25,2014

The professionals

MSU Department of Theatre alumni revisit the boards of their youth

by Paul Wozniak
Kurt Vonnegut once said that true terror is to wake up and realize your high school class is running the country. But what about realizing your college chums are the ones pulling strings in the entertainment world? For some Michigan State University graduates, last weekend was a chance to see just how far a formal theater education got their old classmates — and collectively rub it in the faces of well-meaning relatives who may have suggested somewhere along the line, “Why don’t you major in business instead?”

Their credits include Hollywood blockbusters, syndicated sitcoms and awards ceremonies. They are actors, educators and designers living all over the country, and they’re all MSU Department of Theatre program alumni.

Brian Veit, a 1984 Theatre Department graduate, started a Facebook page that brought his former classmates back to East Lansing over the weekend.

“I was collectively looking for that group that was (in the MSU theater program) from 1980 till about 1984,” he said. “We share our (30th) anniversary with the Wharton, which seemed like a nice tie in.”

Over the weekend, 60 alumni who were in the theater program in the early ‘80s, joined the weekend festivities, which included dinner and drinks at the Peanut Barrel, a Summer Circle Theatre performance and tours of the renovated Wharton Center.

All attendees were in their early to mid-50s and work as professors and professionals in theater or adjacent fields. Greg Checketts, a character layout artist for “The Simpsons,” studied as a design major between 1980 and 1985.

“It’s been fabulous so far,” says Checketts. “You learn a lot about yourself. A lot of it is catching up on life experiences, but a lot of it is just jogging your memory, the little details that made up your day-to-day that you kind of put out of your head.”

Veit, who works as a freelance graphic designer, said the intensity of the theater program created family-like bonds.

“Your sophomore year, everybody is required to take a sophomore theater practicum,” he said. “It is a full day, every day, five days a week. Morning classes, afternoon in the shop and then evening — if there’s a show — either onsite or in the shop. It’s intensive (and it) tends to be a proving ground as much as anything else for people that can actually handle the schedule and the stress and the requirements of working in that industry.

“You can’t help but bond with people. You become a family with the people whether they’re dysfunctional or not.”

When MSU Theatre Department Chairman Kirk Domer led the group through their old stomping grounds Saturday afternoon, they playfully reverted back to students.

“Your (performance studio) is now a mechanical room,” Domer said to a chorus of mock boos. Some stood on the Fairchild Theatre stage and sang while others peppered Domer with technical questions about lighting and acoustical specifications of the renovated spaces.

Martha Marking, an MFA student who graduated in 1985 who teaches costume and makeup designer as a professor at Appalachian State University, marveled that the costume shop remained unchanged. It also stirred up a few memories.

“My favorite was you get to live with the people you’re friends with,” Marking said. “It seems like the actors are more involved with being here.”

Brian Stonestreet, an award-winning production designer for the Primetime Emmy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards, remembers free laundry in the costume shop, “even though we weren’t supposed to.”

It was clear the camaraderie and skill set of the program led many of the former students to art-related field … and the fond memories brought them back to reminisce.

As Veit looked back, he said the friendships and shared history of the Department of Theatre created a lasting bond.

It’s like no time has passed, just a lot of us catching up again,” he said. “And the freedom and creativity that flowed through the Fairchild. It was and is a conducive atmosphere for creativity.”

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