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BWW Interview: Chair of Wayne State University's Department of Theatre and Dance John Wolf

BWW Interview: Chair of Wayne State University's Department of Theatre and Dance John Wolf

John Wolf chairs the prestigious Theatre and Dance department at Detroit's Wayne State University, creating well-rounded and meticulously educated students turned theatre professionals.

Wolf has devoted his career to educating and exploring the power of theatre in all realms of art. He spent 20 years as professor of lighting design and director of production for University of North Carolina Greensboro. He has been both administrative vice president and chair of design for the Southeastern Theatre Conference and sat on the boards of directors for the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival Region IV and Stillwater Theatre in Raleigh.

As resident lighting designer for Triad Stage, Wolf designed 35 different productions. His work has appeared on the stages of Theatre Row, Trinity Theatre, Symphony Space, Lincoln Center and more.

Wolf took a moment to speak with us at BroadwayWorld about the program he oversees and how he encourages the future generations of arts professionals.

What makes Wayne State's Theatre and Dance program unique?

Detroit. We are in the heart of the cultural center of Michigan. All major presenting theatres, museums, sports complexes, are within a mile and a half of where we're at. The resurgence of Detroit is well documented as beginning with artists coming here and buying up loss resulting in this great arts community that's been embraced by the companies that have put forth the funds to help the city begin to flourish. We are centered in that arts world, so our students have access to a lively and diverse arts community. When you study theatre here, you're not just studying theater. You're living in a very vibrant arts world.

What opportunities do you provide for students outside their university study?

We have internships, but Detroit is not a city that produces theatre nearly as much as it presents theatre. We have internships with those presenting houses and the one producing house that's near us. And alll of the local organizations embrace our students, provide discounts, sometimes free tickets. Not only are we in the middle of it the arts world, we are well-connected too.

What do you look for in students when admitting and then prior to graduation? What makes a well-educated theatre student?

In applicants and current students, we look for passion to be part of a group that tells a story. We want students who fundamentally understand that we are story tellers and who want to be a part of that in whichever they want to be a part of that. What I hope they discover while studying here is that there are many ways in which you can be a member of that team. Each student can find their path through our bachelor of arts degree with any number of minors or with the bachelor of fine arts where they're perhaps specializing in performance, design, or stage management. My hope is that at the end of the day when they're done that they are better collaborators, better members of our community both within the theatre world and beyond, that they understand group dynamics, and that they understand that through their commitment they have the ability to participate in whatever venture they elect to move forward with after graduation.

How do you think your real world experience informs your teaching? Is that something theatre teachers should have?

I think it absolutely should be required. The great fortune that I've had to have professional experience has done nothing but inform my teaching. It helps me stay relevant with trends in our theatre world, it helps me to create additional contacts that I can help and guide students with and introduce them to the networking world. But it also creates a legitimacy for faculty members so that students can trust and believe that their instructors are relevant in the industry in which they hope to someday be employed. I think that relevance, that example, as well as what I can bring back to the classroom, is just vital when mentoring young people.

You had an extensive career in North Caroline before heading north to Wayne State. How was that path forged?

Throughout my life I have always somehow ended up in leadership and management positions. Ironically when I was hired in my very first academic job, the woman who hired me said 'one day you're going to be a dean.' I thought why in the world would anyone tell me that? But it just happens that I continued to find myself there.

Throughout my twenty years in North Caroline where I started as an assistant professor of lighting design then in two years was assistant professor of lighting design and production manager and in X number of years was tenured and then director of production and then ultimately carrying responsibilities of an assistant chair: responsible for all facilities, oversaw three giant renovations, moved the department twice. It became clearer and clearer that this was where my life was headed.

Then I reached a point in life where quite honestly I did some soul searching. I didn't believe I was being the best teacher, the best example, and the best professional that I could be. I was on the verge of burning out. I decided that what I needed to do was take a deep breath and recommit myself because I thought I could do better than what I was doing. It was time to seek new challenges. So when the chair position came up at Wayne State, I left my home of twenty years and threw my hat into the ring. I was honored, humbled, that they chose me for this position. I'm the first chairman of a merged theatre and dance program, so there's been a lot of change, a lot of growth by all of us as we have learned to live together and find ways in which we intersect. It's been a great adventure with some incredibly collegial people that I'm very grateful to have been able to serve in this position and help make this transition.

How do you make sure that your program is as relevant as it can be? What resources do you have for staying connected to the industry?

We are very fortunate to be able to provide funds for guest directors and designers that we bring in. This year we have had three guest directors, one from New York, one from Little Rock, one from LA. We've had a guest designer from New York. Beyond that, we have alumni who love to stop by. That's really quite fun. They just drop in when they're in town because many of them are born and bred Detroiters and they'll drop by while visiting.

We also have a large endowment provided by the Nederlander families that allows us to celebrate someone of note that has made significant contributions in the theatre. We've honored people like William Ivey Long, Elaine Stritch, Neil Simon, Patti LuPone, and Mandy Patinkin. This year we'll present the award to Natasha Katz. It's a great opportunity because these professionals come in and meet with our students and present to our students. It's really a special day and then we hold a reception after which we'll go see Natasha's work in SCHOOL OF ROCK, which is playing at the Nederlander theatre here in town. We're very fortunate to provide a lot of opportunity for our students to work with and meet professionals throughout the country.

Why do you think a theatre education is important?

It will help you learn to be a broad thinker. At the very foundation, when we are deciding how we are going to tell the story that we've chosen to tell, a diverse group of people gather to discuss this. We call those design meetings. There are multiple points of view about what this story could be and how it could be told, and through great collaboration that begins to mold into that story. Everyone hears all of those points of view, so you can't help but be broadened as you discuss it. When we move it into rehearsal, we bring in another group that begins to respond to that storytelling and how we're doing it. I think it's true not only in how we deal with this when we're actually producing, but throughout the education. 80% of theatre classes involve discussion of literature, and it is through that literature that we become made aware of any number of issues, historical and contemporary. Through those conversations we become broader thinkers, and through the process of what we do, we become collaborators and disciplined artists and/or employees if you move in a direction outside. I think the best part of theatre education is that we are going to help you think. We are going to help you think creatively and to understand other points of view. And that makes great people.

To learn more about Wayne State University's Theatre and Dance program, visit

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From This Author Julie Musbach

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