Who better to fill the shoes of retired Weatherford College theatre instructor Nancy McVean than one of her former students?
James Brownlee, a WC student from 1995 to 1998, officially took over the college’s theatre department this fall and is excited about the possibilities.
“I’m looking at expanding the program as much as I possibly can,” he said. “I’m interested in reaching out to the community. I’m interested in making this institution better and making the department bigger and better. Weatherford College has been very good to me, and I want to give back.”
That includes recruiting from area high schools and finding ways to reach out to children in the community to keep the theatre in use during the summer months.
“How that is done remains to be seen,” Brownlee said. “But I’d like to offer something here for Weatherford’s artistically inclined kids.”
Brownlee was 12-years-old when he was bit by the theatre bug. He had gone with his mother and one of her friends to a production of “Macbeth” at Shakespeare in the Park and the start of the play captured his imagination.
“If you know that play, there is a reference in the very beginning to a battle that has just been fought,” he said. “The way it’s written, you don’t see the battle but you hear it being referenced. But in this particular staging of the play these guys wearing armor ran on stage with broadswords and battle axes and started wailing on each other. That’s what my brother and I did at home. I was like, ‘Wow! That’s a profession! You can get paid for that!’”
As a student at Arlington Heights High School, theatre became what motivated him to do well in all aspects of his life,.
“I started in the summers apprenticing with the local Shakespeare company so by the time I came to WC as a freshman I already had some regional theatre experience,” Brownlee said. “Then I started doing plays with Nancy and did that for three years.”
After he left WC, Brownlee worked as an actor in theatre, film and voice work while completing his undergraduate degree at Tarleton. He then went on to study Shakespeare overseas in London and Stratford with actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company and with scholars from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He also spent two weeks studying at The Globe Theatre.
“Eating, breathing and living Shakespeare takes on a whole new meaning when you’re treading on the same sod that Shakespeare did 500 years ago,” Brownlee said. “Shakespeare is very personal to British actors because he’s a fellow countryman to them—you see a love and dedication within them so beautiful that you want to absorb it and make it your own. I loved Shakespeare long before I went to Britain, but I can’t deny that had a new light within me when I returned.”
Now that he’s on the other side of the stage, Brownlee is looking to make some changes to the theatre program at WC. The first change is moving the annual musical, the college’s largest production of the year, to the spring semester where it was two decades ago. In fact, the theatre department is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Alkek Fine Arts Center by producing the first musical performing in the facility, “Into The Woods.”
For Brownlee, the show will be nostalgic since he was a member of the 1998 cast.
“I love the musical, so I’m really looking forward to working with Rob [Laney] and getting that off the ground and making it a good production,” he said. “We’ll be bringing back some alumni from that original show to do some pre-show entertainment.”
This semester, he is working with his cast for “The Actor’s Nightmare” while alternating stage time with Joe Nicikowski’s children’s production “Heads and Tales.” Once those shows are completed, he will start working on their November production of “Rumors.” For a full schedule of show times visit the college’s website, www.wc.edu.
He’s also looking to expand course offerings for theatre students to include stage craft and theatre history.
“As the city of Weatherford grows and the college grows, it stands to reason that new outlets for art begin to manifest,” he said. “I firmly believe that the college should be a center for cultural growth not just unto itself, but to the community as well. That is my goal, to bring more theatre, to educate whoever is willing to listen about theatre, and in doing so, give back to the community that shaped me.”