By Barbara Fitzgerald
The success stories include an opera singer on his way to stardom, a music teacher who performs with some of the leading orchestras on the West Coast and theatrical designers working on some of Broadway’s biggest hits.
These Richmond alumni had no idea they would end up in their present performing arts careers.
Keith Phares, ’96, arrived on campus with a trumpet in his luggage and a psychology degree on his mind. He anticipated a career in industrial psychology and, if lucky, an occasional chance to play trumpet in a pit orchestra. A decade later he debuted at the Met—not playing trumpet, but singing on stage.
“Baritone Keith Phares is emerging as one of today’s most promising artists,” boasts the Web site of the Metropolitan Opera National Council.
While at Richmond, Phares took trumpet lessons, saw his first opera and discovered he could sing. Encouraged by his success in summer stock musicals, he auditioned his junior year for Dr. Jennifer Cable, associate professor of music, who accepted him on the spot as a voice student.
“She was very positive,” he recalls, “but I would also say careful and constructively critical as well. She knew how brutal the world I was looking at would be. But without my knowing she was doing it, she was guiding me to the right path.”
Guiding is the operative word because music majors must consider a variety of possibilities, says Dr. Gene Anderson, who chairs the music department. “As a liberal arts department,” he says, “we try to prepare students for a number of options. They mostly come to us from performing backgrounds. That’s what they’ve done in high school, what public schools encourage, but those who go on to perform professionally, like Keith Phares, are the exceptions. Knowing that, we teach a program with depth and breadth, including the history and theory of music, as well as performance.”
In Phares’ case, Cable helped him apply to high-end graduate programs, such as Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music.
“It was encouraging to me that she had me applying to these great schools,” Phares recalls. “She said, ‘If you don’t get in, then you may consider doing something else.’ I got into all of them, and for the first time I thought … maybe.”
Phares has since won many vocal awards and accolades, and he has performed with some of the best: the New York City Opera, the San Francisco and Fort Worth symphonies, the New York Philharmonic and the Wolf Trap Opera. His solo recitals included one this spring on campus—a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Camp Concert Hall.
Performing and teaching
While Phares switched from trumpet to voice, Karen Wells, W’82, came to Richmond with a clarinet and left with one. She was the only graduate in her class to major in performance clarinet.
Despite the odds against a career as a clarinetist, she says no one tried to move her gently over into music education, where most of her classmates were focusing. So she finds it ironic now that at least half of her professional life involves teaching. Last year her Berkeley High School orchestra received the highest possible score from the California Music Educators Association, a “unanimous superior” ranking.
Her students earn their applause, and so does Wells. She plays regularly with a number of philharmonics, orchestras and opera companies across California, still enjoying the performance aspect of her life as much as she did in college.
“Music at Richmond was great,” she says. “It was a small department that afforded opportunities I wouldn’t have had in a larger school. For instance, many musicians I played with weren’t students but community members.” Wells played in the University’s orchestra, band and chamber music groups. “I played in the clarinet choir at VCU and substituted with the Richmond Symphony,” she recalls. “The faculty worked hard to get me in wherever I could play.”
Wells went on to Ithaca College for a master’s degree in music. Then she returned to California to freelance on the clarinet, playing gigs and giving private lessons before taking on the job of re-establishing the orchestra at Berkeley High School.
“I always thought I would have to do all kinds of jobs to make a life in the arts,” she says, “and that has proven to be true.”
Not job training
Bruce Miller, R’74, and Phil Whiteway, R’74, know a thing or two about doing all kinds of jobs. Together they have created and built Theatre IV, the largest nonprofit professional theater in Virginia and the second largest children’s theater in the country. Their touring companies hit 32 states last year, playing everywhere from the Kennedy Center to the Grand Ole Opry.
Miller planned to major in English, and Whiteway expected to study business. Both graduated as theatre majors, but the theatre department claims no credit for steering them into lifelong careers so closely built on their college experience.
“An arts program in a liberal arts school is not a job-training program,” explains Reed West, associate professor of theatre. “Our students are getting a theatrical education in a liberal arts setting. This program is just another way of understanding and exploring the world. After all, the focus of theater is the human condition, and you don’t have to be a talented actor to study that.
We train our students to be creative people, whatever career they choose.
“If they do lean toward a professional career of some kind, we steer them in that direction—to summer theatrical programs and regional theaters, to auditions. ... We steer them to summer internships all over the world. Our students have interned at the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage and at theaters in London. We steer them to good graduate schools, but we don’t do job training.”
Miller and Whiteway are using their original majors almost as much as their theatre degrees. Along with his other duties, Whiteway, the erstwhile business major, handles the business end of Theatre IV, a $5 million annual operation. And Miller, the almost-English major, has written a number of original scripts, all produced and some highly acclaimed. In 2002, the Department of Defense invited him and the company to the Pentagon to perform his Buffalo Soldier on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. It was the first professional theatrical production to take place inside the Pentagon.
Lights, computer, action!
Edward Pierce, R’92, is another showbiz pro who makes good use of his liberal arts education. His double major in theatre and computer science serves him well as the lighting and scenery designer for Wicked, one of the hottest shows on Broadway. Pierce says the computer side of his education has come in handy in ways he never anticipated.“There’s a conceptual aspect to design, a process of breaking things down to a binary level,” he explains. “A computer background brings an approach to thinking—logic, organizational skills—that is well-applied to the arts. Also, technology has seeped into my theater world. Scenery is automated, and lighting is controlled by computers. We also use computers in front-end design.
“In fact, I find I make use of almost everything I studied at Richmond. You find a way to use whatever you know in the field you’re pursuing, and pulling all that in is a good way to keep your mind active.”
Pierce says Richmond “has the perfect theatre program” for a liberal arts university. “It’s professional enough that you can get a good footing and knowledge of what theater is all about but extracurricular in nature so that people who are not going to be professionals can have a place there, too. After all, the arts are for everybody, aren’t they?”
The post-graduate careers of Pierce and his former roommate, Brian Mears, R’92—also a theatre major—followed a similar course. Both went to Ohio University for master’s degrees in fine arts. Then they headed to New York to perfect their crafts at a professional level. Pierce has now done lighting, scenery or both on a number of Broadway hits, including Aida; Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk and now Wicked. Mears is vice president of a costume design studio headed up by William Ivey Long, a four-time Tony Award-winning designer. The company’s shows include The Producers and Hairspray.
Like Phares, Pierce has brought his talents back to campus in recent years, teaching classes in set and lighting design. He is impressed by the progress the theatre department has made following his graduation.
“Combining dance with theatre is a real step forward,” he says, “and the Modlin Center is great.”
Born to dance
Gretchen Wagner, ’02, agrees on both points.
“Every place I’ve performed,” she says, “makes me realize how wonderful the Modlin Center is. I haven’t found anything that compares with it yet.”
Myra Daleng, director of dance in the Department of Theatre and Dance, says Wagner is extraordinarily talented.
“Very rarely do I encounter a student and know immediately that dance will be her professional path,” Daleng says. “Gretchen was one. She was so talented, even when she came in. It was just in her to dance.”
So why would a born dancer choose a liberal arts university without a dance major?
“There’s a breadth of knowledge here, a broader experience,” Daleng explains. “At a conservatory, you get pigeonholed, you get tunnel vision. Dance is all you do. But if you do more than dance, you have more to talk about as an artist. … The rigorous academic challenge works for performing artists who appreciate the discipline and competitiveness of it. Artists are used to working very hard.
“Also, our program is well-balanced and diversified. Students can do tap, jazz and modern. Many places focus just on modern. Most of our students don’t plan to dance professionally, but everyone fits into our program. I really encourage those who have a desire to go on. And if they don’t have the talent, I still encourage them. Sometimes ‘stardom’ means being in the right place at the right time. With determination you never can tell. The important thing is to find an outlet for the passion.”
For now that outlet for Wagner, a sociology major and dance minor, is teaching as an assistant professor of dance at the University of Kentucky. “And whenever I can dance,” she says,
“As soon as I was accepted for graduate work at NYU,” says Wagner,
At Kentucky, Wagner has about 400 students each semester.
“They fulfill one of their arts and humanities requirements with my course, so they range from beginners, who’ve never moved or danced, to some who have been dancing all their lives,” she says. “I don’t have any at the moment who would pursue dance professionally, but when I do, I will introduce them to what’s out there and to things they can’t get in their current community. That’s definitely what I got at UR—that and the strong encouragement. And those are things I want to pass on to my own students.”
Barbara Fitzgerald is a freelance writer based in Richmond.