CONSIDERING THE ALTERNATIVE
No one expected Megan Dillingham, a KU English graduate student, to beat out thousands of Theatre Arts majors from across the country and win the most sought-after award of the prestigious American College Theatre Festival. But Professor Paul Stephen Lim's English Alternative Theatre has now been serving up surprises and unusual, unique-alternative-visions for a decade.
It is the evening of January 20, 1999. At some point during the Region IV Irene Ryan acting competition taking place this day in Ames, Iowa, virtually all 250 Theater Arts Department student-competitors from universities and colleges across the Midwest have been performing breathing, stretching, and acting exercises in preparation for their five-minute performances which will determine who advances to the national finals at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. All, that is, except for the eventual winner, Megan Dillingham. Megan is not a Theatre Arts student but, instead, an English graduate student representing the University of Kansas English Department's English Alternative Theatre (EAT). Instead of engaging in pre-performance stretching, according to Paul Lim, Associate Professor of English at KU and founder and artistic director of EAT, "Megan was over in a corner doing her homework."
Within a few hours, after a scintillating performance with her fellow English graduate student, Alice Robison, of the French scene from Shakespeare's Henry V and a monologue from Israel Horowitz's The Primary English Class, Dillingham was handed the regional trophy?and the right to compete in April in the nation's capital, the first University of Kansas competitor to advance to the nationals in twelve years and the first ever to represent EAT. A high and rare honor. But not as high or as rare as the award presented to Dillingham twelve weeks later on April 25?Women's National Acting Champion and Winner of the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship of the American College Theatre Festival. With this award came a cash prize of $2500 to apply toward her KU tuition, a stage workshop fellowship, the privilege to attend a national audition, and the not-inconsiderable opportunity to be seen and judged by the agents and producers who officially or unofficially attend the festival.
Somewhat lost in the celebration surrounding her overall win is the fact that Dillingham also won the competition's Classical Acting Award, based on the high quality of her Shakespearean selection. On the night of the contest, this award was presented first. Dillingham recalls that, following her acceptance of the classical award, she was in the center of a circle of well-wishers backstage when the overall acting awards were announced. "Did they say Megan?" she remembers asking incredulously.
Directors at various educational levels had been 'saying Megan' for several years before Dillingham's triumph in D.C. A Kansas native, Dillingham played Beatrice in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, among other roles, at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park. At Emporia State University, she majored in French but pursued a theater minor ("along with several other minors") and performed in numerous college productions. Her most memorable theatrical experience came when she was asked to perform a medium-sized role in Alan Ayckbourn's Woman in Mind?on less than one day's notice! One of the actresses in the play had broken her leg walking to her car after a show. A one-a.m. phone call revealed that the Theatre Department had Megan in mind.
After graduation from Emporia in 1997, Dillingham entered an M.A. program at KU in Anthropology, but soon switched over to English. Hr program emphasizes dramatic literature and 20th century poetry. To her surprise, she also found a theatrical outlet within the department. Paul Lim, ever on the lookout for theatrical talent lurking within English majors, noted Dillingham's unsuccessful audition for a part in EAT's full production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and soon asked her to play a part in his annual Final Four original play competition (more of which later). Dillingham took the role, and then, in the fall of 1998, was cast in EAT's production of KU student playwright Laura Graham's shattering drama, Victim Art, which was entered into the American College Theatre Festival original play competition. Three performers from each play entered in festival competition can be nominated for the Irene Ryan award by the adjudicator(s) and the director (Lim, himself, in this case). Lim nominated Dillingham.
Surprised at the opportunity, Dillingham certainly did not react with grim determination. She describes her attitude as, initially, "nonchalant," a frame of mind which carried over into "piece" selection. She was told that anything by Shakespeare was an unwise choice. She selected Shakespeare. She was told that employing a foreign language was impolitic. But she spoke French well (her heroic partner, Alice, did not speak it at all before the competition) and she liked the French scene. She was told that performing two comedy selections would not be prudent. She settled on comedy for both. Having thereby quite consciously "eliminated" herself, Dillingham rode to Ames with two ambitions: "meet some people and have a good time." Her success at the regionals?and the nationals -- was doubly delicious for being so unexpected (one judge in Washington told Paul Lim that her selection was unanimous).
She describes the experience as "a lark," and has not quite decided how it might affect her long-term plans. For now, she will perform in A.R. Gurney's Sylvia at the Lawrence Community Theatre in June 1999 (she will play the title role--a dog!) and then spend the 1999-2000 academic year as an English Teaching Assistant at Université de Franche-Comté in Besançon, France. Whatever she decides to do, she will be able, years from now, to look back fondly on a magical few weeks at the turn-of-the-century (yes, our turn-of-the-century) when she was briefly anointed as the queen of American university acting.
Megan Dillingham's personal achievement, though, is only the most current and high-profile success story associated with English Alternative Theatre. Now in its tenth year of existence at the University of Kansas, EAT is unique among college drama programs in the United States--a consistent, ongoing theatre-producing arm of a major university English Department. According to Grant Goodman, KU professor emeritus of History and long-time EAT supporter, participant, and benefactor, there were no other English students competing or English departments represented in Ames and Washington D.C. "because there is nothing else like EAT anywhere in the country."
English Alternative Theatre is the brainchild and labor of love--because there is no extra compensation--of Professor Paul Stephen Lim. Of Chinese ancestry and raised in The Philippines, Lim worked in the advertising business in Manila before emigrating to the United States in 1968. Enticed to study English at KU by friends, including Grant Goodman, Lim obtained an M.A. and had begun work on a Ph.D. when his first play, Conpersonas, won the 1976 American College Theatre Festival original play competition. At that point, Lim decided to devote himself more fully to playwriting. Since that time he has had 11 plays produced, two Off-Broadway, the rest regionally and in England. His most recent play, "Report to the River," a fact-based one-act meditation on a sensational murder which took place in Lawrence in 1987, will be given a staged reading at the Edward Albee Theatre Conference in Alaska this summer.
Appointed Assistant Professor of English at the University of Kansas in 1989, Lim was given the charge to develop a playriting program within the department to complement the poetry and fiction courses already being emphasized. As a working and produced playwright himself, Lim understood that playwriting students, like other creative writing students, need to have their work explored and critiqued by others in order to grow as artists. Plays, however, are generally meant to be performed and are written with a theatrical component in mind. Thus, an original play cannot be fully appreciated--or adequately analyzed--on the printed page. Most playwriting teachers recognize this difficulty and require that student plays be read aloud in class. Some arrange for group readings with an audience or, in rare instances, student productions.
Lim wished to do more for his students. From the start, he contemplated a producing organization within the English department which would perform cold readings, staged readings (completely "blocked" and directed productions where the actors use scripts), and full productions. But his concept did not stop there. He also envisioned a program which would produce non-student professional scripts that could not be performed by a pragmatic and necessarily market-oriented university stage company. In so doing, he hoped to serve the university community at large, as well as English students, and give voice on campus to a number of "marginalized" writers--playwrights of color, women, gays and lesbians. In the fall of 1989, in Lim's first semester, he directed full productions of two provocative one-act plays about AIDS?Susan Sontag's "The Way We Live Now" and Terence McNally's "André's Mother"--performed as a double bill entitled "Two From the Hurt." Proceeds were donated to the Douglas County AIDS Project. In the spring of 1990, the name English Alternative Theatre (EAT) was chosen for the producing organization.
Since 1990, English Alternative Theatre has produced 76 staged readings and 33 full productions. Over half of these plays have been the work of student playwrights. In the spring of 1991, Lim, flashing his legendary originality, sense of humor, and marketing acumen, debuted what has become a KU institution--The EAT Final Four. Inspired by what he calls the annual "hoopla about hoops," four student plays are chosen each spring for a staged reading. On a Friday evening, two of the plays are performed. After the plays, the audience votes on which script deserves a second production. On Saturday night, the process is repeated. On Sunday night, the two winners face off and an overall winner is selected.
By 1994, Lim felt that his playwright-development process had progressed sufficiently to begin entering EAT scripts and productions in the American College Theatre Festival original play competition which he, himself, had won 18 years before. Ken Willard's Graf Spee was EAT's first entry in the ACTF contest?and it was selected as a regional winner. Since that time, EAT entries have advanced to the regional competition in every year except 1996. Winners include Canvas by Sarah Zercher and The Beadsman by Brian Boies in 1995, The Devil's Game by Bo Price in 1997, and Upright by James Hilburn in 1998. The 1999 entry, English Ph.D. student Dan Kulmala's April in Akron, was produced in May, but will not receive word about the competition until December. No play has advanced to the national competition, a fact which Lim attributes partly to the "unsettling, edgy--perhaps risky" nature of the plays submitted.
EAT's non-student productions have also been daring and exciting. Lim recalls fondly productions such as Martin Sherman's Bent and Charles Marowitz's adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. EAT has also reached out to coordinate performances with other departmental and university organizations. At the request of the Western Civilization program at KU, English Alternative Theatre helped celebrate Western Civ's 50th anniversary by performing Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, frequently taught in intoductory English classes at KU, was produced in conjunction with the English Department's Freshman-Sophomore English program. Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun will be produced in 2000 as part of the same relationship. EAT may also produce a 19th century play by a woman or about women's issues as part of the international British Women Writers Conference scheduled to be hosted by the University of Kansas in 2001.
Megan Dillingham's victory in the Irene Ryan acting competition is a source of special delight for Paul Lim. He is ecstatic that EAT sponsored KU's first national acting award winner, though he is quick to give credit to Professor Harry Parker at Emporia State for much of the theatrical training and expertise which Dillingham exhibits. He remarks, though, that Dillingham possesses an indefinable attribute which makes her special. All acting students learn to present a facade to an audience; it is a necessary part of the craft. With Megan, though, Lim says, "there's a quality that comes from within--a genuineness that comes through on the stage so wonderfully." For her part, Dillingham states that meeting Professor Paul Stephen Lim is "without question the best thing that's happened to me at KU." Many student playwrights--and theatre audiences--at the University of Kansas might be tempted to say the same.
--Robert F. Elliott
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