Professors Committed to Community Theater (South Bend Tribune)

Saint Mary's College professors Mark Abram-Copenhaver and Bill Svelmoe pose backstage at O'Laughlin Auditorium on campus.
Saint Mary's College professors Mark Abram-Copenhaver and
Bill Svelmoe pose backstage at O'Laughlin Auditorium on campus.
(Photos by Zara Osterman, Marketing)
This "Beyond the Campus" article appeared in the Tribune July 13, 2014. The series shows ways local college faculty and students make a difference in the community.

By Gwen O’Brien

History professor Bill Svelmoe is one of the most popular instructors at Saint Mary’s College. Students enjoy learning from the enthusiastic, offbeat professor known for breaking out in song when discussing the 1960s and donning Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. Now he’s gaining celebrity status off campus as people recognize him from his many roles in local theater productions.

“That part is kind of strange,” he quips.

Originally a hobby, theater turned into a passion.

“A lot of what we do in academics is solitary…the research and the writing and all that. Theater is such a collaborative art. I love the rehearsal process almost more than the shows themselves,” he said.

You could say Mark Abram-Copenhaver, associate professor of theater, “discovered” Svelmoe, convincing him to take a non-speaking role of King Louis in the 2002 College production of Learned Ladies.

“He put me in tights and said I’d have to do a little dance at intermission. So I did a dance in tights and it was utterly humiliating. But as I was sitting there watching Mark work with the actors, I was just fascinated by it.” 

By 2006, with some small speaking roles under his belt, Abram-Copenhaver offered Svelmoe his first lead role in the Saint Mary’s presentation of Red Herring. “The timing was just right. I was ready to play a larger role.”

Mark Abram-Copenhaver, left, and Bill Svelmoe say devoting time to South Bend Civic Theatre positively affects performance at their day jobs.
Mark Abram-Copenhaver, left, and Bill Svelmoe say devoting time
to South Bend Civic Theatre positively affects performance at
their day jobs.
Svelmoe soon found himself in theater productions all over Michiana, and the community has benefitted from his critically-acclaimed performances. In the past year alone he’s starred in The Great Gatsby and Acting: The First Six Lessons (The Acting Ensemble), The Fox on the Fairway (Elkhart Civic Theatre), Radium Girls (Saint Mary’s College), and Leading Ladies and The Clean House (South Bend Civic Theatre). He also completed a writing project and lecture on World War I for the Center for History.

Acting influences his day job, giving him the gumption to occasionally croon a 1960s rock song in class. It’s also helped Svelmoe with another of his pastimes—fiction writing.

“I think theater taps into that same area of my brain that writing fiction does because when I am writing I can feel the emotions of the different characters,” said Svelmoe, who plans to finish a play and his second novel while on sabbatical this coming academic year.

Community theater has enriched Abram-Copenhaver’s life as well. He spent his recent year-long sabbatical, January-December 2013, as executive director of the South Bend Civic Theatre (an organization he’s served since 2000 in several capacities).

“Now I’m back (on campus) and one of the most interesting opportunities is to keep looking for all the ways that having this theater nearby is a resource to our students.”

Two of his students are in the middle of an independent study called the Frankenstein Adaptation Project. They’re working on the Civic’s fall production of an original adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. So far they’ve taken part in community workshops with a local playwright and written their own adaptations.

Two other students recently completed an independent study in theater arts management. They led a small development campaign to raise $200 connected to the College’s spring production of Henry V. It was a micro-version of the $1 million campaign effort Abram-Copenhaver led at the Civic. The students could only solicit donations from fellow students, a lesson in the challenges of fundraising for the arts. It’s all too easy for students and the public to overlook the importance of theater.

“The danger that theater faces in this age is irrelevance,” Abram-Copenhaver notes.

Not on his watch. He’s made commitments to both the South Bend and Saint Mary’s communities.

“I have the very lucky position at the Civic Theatre of being able to help a region regard theater as a powerful, vital part of what’s going on in the community life,” said Abram-Copenhaver, who maintains a part-time role as artistic director.

“My great opportunity at Saint Mary’s is to have intense involvement in the future of individual students and help them to grow their skills, excitement, and vision of what theater can be.”

Gwen O’Brien is director of media relations at Saint Mary’s College.