As the Shakespeare and Performance (S&P) program marks its 20th anniversary this year, the MBU community again has cause to celebrate Mary McDermott.
In 2017, McDermott made a donation to fund a $12,000 annual stipend for a visiting artist to spend one semester with S&P students each year for a decade. Visiting artists are working professionals who take this brief time out from their career to devote themselves 100% to MBU students.
The program has since attracted theatre luminaries who spend a semester teaching, directing, and mentoring MBU students studying Shakespeare and theatre. In addition to the stipend, McDermott provides housing in Staunton for the artists.
The Lumos Networks general counsel and community leader recently made an additional donation so that the program will continue beyond the original 10 years. Thanks to McDermott’s generosity, S&P’s McDermott Visiting Artist Program now has an endowment allowing it to continue in perpetuity. As a result, future generations of students will have access to significant national talent, right here on campus.
McDermott never expected to fall in love with Shakespeare in the midst of her career as a telecommunications lawyer. But as fate would have it, her family’s move to the Shenandoah Valley 20 years ago coincided with two significant Shakespearean happenings: the founding of MBU’s Shakespeare and Performance program, and the opening of Staunton’s Blackfriars Playhouse, home of the American Shakespeare Center (ASC).
With premier classical theatre right at their doorstep, McDermott and her husband took their young daughters to see every show of the playhouse’s inaugural season, and each play in subsequent years.
“Blackfriars has been such a treasure to us,” she said. “I cherish each performance. My daughter Jane said it best, ‘I cried at a play for the first time there. I hammered out my opinions on leadership, honor, and violence while sitting in those seats.’”
McDermott’s connection to Staunton’s Shakespeare community grew stronger in the years that followed — including serving as chair of the ASC Board of Trustees from 2013 to 2016. The company and MBU have a long history of collaborative partnership, and McDermott became interested in enhancing connections between MBU students and expert practitioners of early modern theatre.
“I thought that a professional Shakespearean actor devoting all of their time and energy to students would take student-actor interaction to the next level,” she said.
“I thought that a professional Shakespearean actor devoting all of their time and energy to students would take student-actor interaction to the next level.”
Donor Mary McDermott
McDermott Visiting Artists specialize in Shakespeare graduate studies, but also work with undergraduates. Their role usually includes teaching courses, directing shows, holding master classes, responding to student work, and providing one-on-one tutorials.
One of the program’s primary strengths is to bring unique voices to MBU that complement those of resident faculty members, said Paul Menzer, S&P program director and College of Visual and Performing Arts dean.
“Annually refreshed by the addition of the visiting artist, S&P curricular and co-curricular programs remain vibrant, vital, and responsive to developments across the industry,” he said.
This fall, for example, the program welcomed ASC alumni and New York-based stage and screen actors Gregory Jon Phelps and Sara Hymes. As part of their residency, they directed the first fully staged production of Elizabeth Polewhele’s restoration comedy The Frolicks. The pair specializes in unearthing little known works of classical theatre by women playwrights and bringing them to the stage.
Andrew Knight MLitt ‘22, who played the lead role of Rightwit, relished the opportunity to share in their mission.
“Working with Sara and Greg has made me think about the ‘canon’ of classical theatre in a new way,” he said. Namely that “as theatre artists, we have a responsibility to acknowledge more than just the white men of the early modern period.”
Visiting artists also inject their professional know-how into the S&P program. As a result, students are able to more fully understand the working theatre environment and prepare to launch their careers.
Natasia Lucia MFA ‘21 worked closely with visiting artist Kate Norris MFA ‘20 last spring as she prepared to take on the title role in King Lear. Now a working actor and intimacy choreographer at ASC, Lucia called their collaboration the highlight of her MBU experience.
“Kate exemplified what it meant to be a working artist whose affinity for education enhanced her artistry,” she said. “She taught us by example how to show up prepared, bringing our entire selves [to practices and performances].”
Lucia’s classmate and fellow ASC actor Summer England MFA ‘21 also highlighted Norris’ contagious energy and never-ending enthusiasm for her craft.
“Graduate school was arduous: the hours were long, and some challenges felt overwhelming at times,” England said. “But loving the work made it all worth it. Kate reminded me of that every day I got to work with her, and I still remember it every day now.”
McDermott finds deep meaning in the interactions between visiting artists and students – and not merely because the program enhances each student’s experience here at MBU. The graduates of the program use what they have learned in Staunton to bring live theatre to many people who otherwise would never have that opportunity.
“The visiting artists change lives — the lives of our students, and the lives of people who experience our students’ great work out in the world,” she said. “Material things pale in comparison to the great satisfaction I get from helping to make that happen.”