Note: this article was published in the November 2009 issue of KC Stage Magazine.
Beate Pettigrew, the artistic coordinator for the Johnson County Community College Theatre Department, loves working for JCCC.
“There is something invigorating about being on a community college campus,” she says, her slight Southern accent lilting through her voice. “Its mission is different from a four-year school. We get the student right out of high school, generally, and then they leave us after two years. So, we have to work quickly to prepare them for a transfer program.
“The other exciting thing about working at a community college is that you get non-traditional students all the time. Your classroom is full of people who are over the age of 50, and they bring to the educational environment experiences that you cannot get on a four-year campus when you’re sitting in the same classroom with the same generation. So, that’s really exciting.”
Pettigrew was an air force brat growing up, traveling the country as she grew up. She landed in Kansas when her father retired, and so attended college in Kansas. She attended Emporia State, getting her BFA in theatre and a BSE in speech/theatre, receiving a degree to teach high school theatre.
“But after my student teaching, I was heartbroken,” she says. “I was devastated. I thought everybody would have the same passion as I had for the theatre. I realized no, that’s not what it’s like. I realized I do want to teach, but I want to teach people that are a bit older, people that are really serious about being trained in theatre.”
So, Pettigrew went on to get her MA in theatre from the University of Kansas, and followed that with an MFA in theatre direction from UMKC.
“You know, even though I’m trained professionally to be a director,” Pettigrew says with a smile, “my heart’s in the classroom. I hope my kids don’t hear me say this,” she says with a laugh, “but I’d rather teach acting class than direct a show, because I am most interested in the process of theatre, not so much the product, you know? I want to know how you got there, and I want to be a part of that, and I want to help people hone their process, develop that process. That’s what’s exciting to me: the rehearsal hall, you know?”
Directing has its challenges, though, but Pettigrew is quick to explain she’s excited about them. “It can be challenging when you’re working with actors you don’t know. Exciting, yet challenging, because you’ve got to quickly figure out what their process is. What’s the language that will click for them? How am I going to communicate with that particular actor so he or she can be at their optimum? Because you can’t communicate with all actors the same way. So, it’s always a challenge, but it’s a real exciting challenge to figure that out.”
The biggest challenge to directing, though, is what she sees as a growing trend. “So many actors nowadays have other things going on in their lives, you know?” she says. “In an ideal world, you leave all that behind at the door when you come into rehearsals, but the reality is that many people don’t know how to do that or just don’t want to do that. So, you have to find the balance, the fine line between nurturing and … I don’t want to say totalitarian behavior, but you know, you want to get the job done and you want to model proper behavior. And you know, that has become more of a challenge over the years. I think it’s just because it’s just the way that we are as a society, you know? I find it really frustrating that discipline and work ethic are not as standard as they used to be. It’s the whole internet mindset, you know? The quick fix, the get-it-to-me-now mentality, rather than really working hard for it.”
Pettigrew admits to being “uber critical” when she watches shows. “I am, because I get frustrated when I see shows where people are having a good time but that’s it, you know? You get a sense that you’re doing this because you just want to have a good time. Well, there’s more to it than that. I want to go to the theatre to see actors sweat. I want to see characters bleed on stage, and that just takes it to a different level.”
Part of this comes from the fact that she sees so many shows a year. Pettigrew averages sixty to eighty shows a year, many of them due to her role as a respondent for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, which started around 15 years ago when JCCC hosted a regional festival. Pettigrew was the workshop coordinator, and was asked to become a respondent and help coordinate different aspects. This then turned into her becoming the chair of region 5 (which is currently Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas). After six years of that, she was asked to help at the national level. So, now she not only is a respondent, but she also is the coordinator for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship and is the coordinator for when the festival is hosted by JCCC in January of 2010.
“This will actually be the third time that this college has hosted the festival,” Pettigrew says with pride. “We’ll have between 1,400 and 1,800 people here for a week full of workshops and shows and competitions.” The festival is a favorite of hers for the opportunities offered to the students. “You have the opportunity to have your students write plays, to have them enter dramaturgical projects, stage management projects, lighting designs, costume designs …. It’s a festival that celebrates academic theatre in all aspects.”
Offering up opportunities to the students comes up again when the conversation turns to JCCC’s current production, Almost, Maine, by John Cariani. “It is probably one of the top five plays produced across the country in the last two years at the high school and the college level,” Pettigrew says. “High schools, I think, really enjoy it because it’s a newer edgier play that doesn’t have language to deal with or situations that are inappropriate in the high school situation.
“It is a very sweet, sweet little play. It’s a play structured in nine scenes – actually nine vignettes. The characters are different in each scene: there is no repetition of characters. It is set in an almost-real place called Almost, Maine, set out in the middle of nowhere, dealing with ordinary people and their everyday lives. And it deals with very simple things, like love found and love lost and the charm of all that and the hopefulness and the regret. What is so endearing about this play is that it is non-realistic. It’s real people in real situation, but extrapolated into magical moments, you know?
“It’s a terrific acting vehicle, which is why we chose it for this season. We’re always looking for shows that serve our students, because that’s our number one priority when we choose our season. This particular play is actually written for four actors, and it’s a tour de force for those four actors, because there are 19 different characters. We are doing it with nine. We don’t want to do it with four, because that’s kind of limiting for us, but I didn’t want to do it with 19, because I wanted the actors to have the challenge of doing two distinctly different characters.”
While Pettigrew, as artistic coordinator, is the main force behind choosing the five plays JCCC typically does in a season, she also makes sure to include the rest of the faculty, the two full-time staff of the department as well as four adjuncts. “I’ve got us on a three year cycle, so we’re now looking out for three years,” Pettigrew explains. “I structured that three year cycle so that during those three years we’re looking at an adequate number of musicals, an adequate number of classical plays, children’s plays, contemporary plays, and chestnuts. Even though we’re a two-year school, a lot of our students are here for three years, so I want to make sure they have a wide range of genres to draw from and play in.
“One of our commitments is, because we merged with the music program in the spring, I’m committed to doing a musical every year. Musical theatre is one of the main money-making opportunities for anybody in theatre. You’re either going to make money doing children’s theatre or musical theatre, you know? That’s where you can make money. I feel we have to train our students for that. So, we do a children’s play every year that we tour to elementary schools in Johnson County and we are going to do a musical every year.”
Not that that’s the reason Pettigrew teaches theatre. “I don’t have aspirations of creating professional actors,” she says. “That’s not what my classes are about. I want to help you be a better person. I think you’re going to get that in an acting class, because it helps you take your blinders off. It helps you see life from another person’s perspective.”
Of course, she’s quick to also talk about how difficult it is to make it as an actor in today’s world. “I think if you want to be a professional in the world of theatre, you should think twice about that, frankly. This country is saturated, oversaturated with graduate training programs in theatre. It’s oversaturated with actors who don’t have work. So, you should not even think about being a professional performer unless you really believe you will die if you can’t do it.”
However, Pettigrew knows that you can do theatre non-professionally. As a past president and immediate-past artistic director for The Barn Players, Pettigrew is perhaps a little biased toward community theatre. “There is a whole niche of theatre that you can do: it’s called community theatre. And community theatre embraces everybody who wants to do theatre. You don’t have to have a degree, you just have to have a love for it, and the beauty about community theatre is that it brings together this eclectic group of people who know a little bit about everything, who have a life, who have families, who pay their mortgage, and they have an itch to scratch.”
Pettigrew has a husband who’s a pilot, and has two daughters, one getting married in December and the other going to UCM majoring in music education. When she’s not doing or watching theatre, she says she reads – but “I only read plays. I read plays, I read acting books and I read directing books. I don’t really want to read anything else: I don’t want to.”
However, as all of us do, Pettigrew has a guilty pleasure that, in her words, “goes against the whole industry,” and that’s reality TV. “Top Chef and Project Runway: I just love all that trashy stuff. I will even catch myself watching the really trashy stuff, Rock of Love: it’s like watching a train wreck. I’m just amazed. And I’m always watching: ‘you guys know you’re on camera, so are you dramatizing what you’re really saying?’ Which obviously they are: they know they’re on camera. So, I’m always looking to see where’s the truth in you? How much of that is for the TV? I get the biggest kick out of that.”
To see Beate Pettigrew’s students in action, Almost, Maine is at JCCC November 12-14 and 20-22. For more information, visit www.jccc.edu/theatredept or call 913-469-8500.