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A new year always brings thoughts of self-improvement or changing one’s life course, but making life changes are not always as simple as they may seem.

This month, Creative Writing Professor Michele Merlo is making a fresh start in a familiar place. Merlo had a long career as an actor in New York City before she began teaching English at Southern in 2011, and because of her love for the stage, she is now returning to that career, marking a new chapter in her professional life.

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Michele Merlo (Photograph by Julia Gerace)

From January 25 to February 11, Merlo will appear in Schreiber Shorts, this year’s 10-minute play festival – an annual tradition — at the renowned T. Schreiber Studio in New York City. Established in 1969, the T. Schreiber Studio is recognized as one of the foremost professional theater studios in New York City.

Terry Schreiber himself is Merlo’s former acting coach; she was first a student of his over 20 years ago. “The studio has a great history,” Merlo says, adding that Schreiber has been in the business for 45 years.

Merlo, who grew up in New Haven, fell in love with the theater after high school, when she worked in the box office at Long Wharf Theatre. A friend had moved to New York to become an actress and encouraged Merlo to join her and give the stage a try. Merlo found success, and acted professionally in New York for 20 years, in off- and off-off-Broadway theater. Some favorite theater credits include La Ronde, The Miser, Miss Julie, and The Wild Duck. She also appeared on television, in principal roles on NBC’s Another World.

“I love the rehearsal, the process, the frustration, the discoveries” of acting, Merlo says.

Then around 1999, Merlo’s parents back in New Haven became ill. “I came home to look after them,” she says. She moved back to Connecticut, got a job at a New Haven law firm, and decided to pursue her second love – writing and English literature. She earned her B.A. in English at Albertus Magnus College, where she was valedictorian of her graduating class, and then came to Southern for the M.A. in English, with the creative writing concentration. She was accepted to become a graduate teaching assistant under the mentorship of English Professor Will Hochman, for whose guidance she is grateful, and she has been teaching composition and creative writing to Southern undergraduates ever since.

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Michele Merlo and Kevin O’Connor in Moliere’s “The Miser” (Photograph by Joseph Clementi)

Merlo says she took the M.A. program for her own enrichment and “didn’t ever think about teaching, but it presented itself to me,” and she found she loved it. “Teaching is something like acting,” she says: both require preparation and performance. Although she’s very happy teaching English at Southern, she decided over the past two years that her love for the stage had not left her and she wanted to get back into acting.

Although she missed acting “with every bone in [her] body,” she says she was “scared because I knew how hard it would be.”

She called Schreiber – “whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years” – and “he said ‘welcome back,’ like I’d never left.” To prepare herself to audition, she worked with SCSU theatre alumnus Raphael Massie, ‘99, resident artist and curriculum supervisor of Elm Shakespeare Company.

To cast Schreiber Shorts, the studio held three days of auditions for people who had studied there. Merlo auditioned, and a few days later, got a callback. She was thrilled to be cast in the show.

“I’m having so much fun,” she says, admitting that in this new chapter of her life, she’s lucky to have the best of both worlds: acting in New York and continuing to teach at Southern.

For more information about Schreiber Shorts and tickets, visit the T. Schreiber Studio website. 

At the recent John F. Kennedy Center American College Theater (KCACTF) Festival, Region I, the Theatre Department continued its long track record of producing award-winning students and productions. “We outdid ourselves” this year, says Sheila Hickey Garvey, professor of theatre. Students and their work received the following honors at the festival, held at Western Connecticut State University last month:

KCACTF Region I Invited Production
Almost, Maine

Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Auditions
Semi-Finalists:
Marcelle Morrisey – Candidate
Teddy Hall – Partner

National Institute for Journalism and Advocacy
Region 1 Award Winner:
Kiernan Norman

Dramaturgy Program Note Regional Award for Our Country’s Good
Kiernan Norman

National Award for Excellence in Lighting Design
First Runner-up:
Christine Parrella for Tempus Fugit

Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas Award
Christine Parrella for Tempus Fugit

Merit Awards

Presented to: The Ensemble Cast of Almost, Maine
For Outstanding Ensemble Acting

Presented to: The Ensemble Cast of Our Country’s Good
For Distinction in Multiple Dialects

Presented to: JT McLoughlin of RENT
For Sound Engineering/Mixing

Almost Maine, Theatre Department
Cast of “Almost, Maine”

Directed by Garvey, Almost, Maine was one of just six productions selected for presentation out of almost 150 submissions entered from colleges across New England and New York. Garvey describes the play as “a delightful comedy/romance with cosmic overtones” and says the invitation to perform at the festival was “a great honor.” Written by playwright and actor John Cariani, the play has a small cast of eight and a minimal set, designed for the SCSU production by Theatre Professor John Carver Sullivan, who also designed the costumes.

Started in 1969 by Roger L. Stevens, the Kennedy Center’s founding chairman, KCACTF is a national theater program involving 18,000 students from colleges and universities nationwide. The KCACTF honors excellence of overall production and offers student artists individual recognition through awards and scholarships in playwriting, acting, criticism, directing, and design. It has grown into a network of more than 600 academic institutions throughout the country that enables theater departments and student artists to showcase their work and receive outside assessment by KCACTF respondents.

In January and February of each year, regional festivals showcase the finest of each region’s entered productions and offer a variety of activities, including workshops, symposia, and regional-level award programs.

If you watch the Super Bowl for the commercials as much as for the game – and who doesn’t? — you saw Southern alumnus and former theatre major Erik Stocklin cavorting in the wilderness with an adorable furry critter in the Marmot “Love the Outside” spot.

Stocklin graduated from Southern in 2007 with a B.A. in theatre and during his undergraduate years acted in such productions as Romeo and Juliet, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Arsenic and Old Lace, Pippin, Cabaret, Our Town, and Lone Star.

stocklin1Since graduating, Stocklin has found acting work both on television and in film. He has had regular roles on such series as the CBS thriller Stalker and in season one of the ABC drama Mistresses. He has also made guest-starring appearances on The Vampire Diaries, Bones, and Major Crimes and has done national commercials for Marmot, Apple, Hyundai, Mazda, and McDonald’s.

On the big screen, he has had leading roles in independent feature films Donner Pass and The Bad Guys, which recently premiered at the Austin Film Festival.

And now…the Super Bowl!

What’s the journey from Kendall Drama Lab to Super Bowl stardom been like for Stocklin? About a year after graduating, he “decided to give it a go in Los Angeles,” he says. “I piled what I could into the back of a hand-me-down two-door ‘95 red Saturn . . . and started driving. Alone.  A series of misadventures and three weeks later I arrived in L.A. and have been here ever since.”

Stocklin says the first couple of years were tough, as he worked to get into the Screen Actors Guild and find an agent. Fast forward to the Super Bowl commercial. Stocklin explains the process: “You audition several times against thousands of other actors being submitted for the part . . . You get a call from your agent saying you booked the role . . . You get a call from wardrobe asking about your sizes. Next thing you know you’re on a plane to Vancouver to film a Super Bowl commercial in the absolutely beautiful mountains of British Columbia. It’s a lot of pressure because you know the company is spending upwards of five million dollars just for the 30 seconds of airtime during the big game. Not including the huge production costs. And also 115 million people will see you in their homes at once.”

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stocklin2He says this particular acting job was challenging because his scene partner was imaginary. It took a CGI company three months to add his “sentient Marmot friend” in post-production. “Which meant while I was filming it was just me acting, reacting, and making out with thin air!”

Stocklin credits the varied opportunities he had to get on stage at Southern with him finding himself as an actor. “I will forever be indebted to its sage repertory of faculty for challenging and motivating me artistically,” he says. “Being there also helped introduce me to New Haven’s own professional equity theatre company, Elm Shakespeare, where I worked as an actor four consecutive summers while at SCSU.”

He strongly recommends that all students take at least one theater class during their college careers, and check out some of the Theatre Department’s “amazing productions” on the Lyman Center main stage and in Kendall Drama Lab. “I absolutely loved my experience there,” says Stocklin, “and will always remain grateful for that formidable time in my life and career as an artist.”

The university has entered into an exciting partnership with The Elm Shakespeare Company (ESC) that promises to bring new energy to the Theatre Department and the entire university community.

The Elm Shakespeare Company, recognized as the premiere Shakespeare company in Connecticut and one of the very best in New England, has been offering free professional outdoor Shakespeare performances in New Haven for 20 years. Southern and Elm Shakespeare recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that brings Elm Shakespeare onto campus and integrates it into Theatre Department activities and facilities.

Under the MOU, ESC is officially “in residence” at Southern Connecticut State University. For two decades, ESC has rehearsed its actors and built the sets for its productions at Lyman Center; the MOU formalizes this relationship. As part of the agreement, ESC will reserve three non-union acting or technical positions for Southern students in its summer season; provide a member of its artistic staff to teach a Shakespeare workshop (THR 228) every semester; and offer additional free workshops to SCSU theater students. In addition, when available, a member of the ESC artistic staff will direct agreed-upon Theatre Department productions, and the company will provide formal fieldwork opportunities for qualified Southern students interested in theater education. The university, for its part, will provide office, classroom, and rehearsal space for ESC; allow access to the costume shop and scene shop; and offer the opportunity for qualified ESC staff to teach, direct or design in Theatre Department courses or productions. Both organizations will acknowledge the partnership in their advertising literature and publications.

Steven Breese, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, says of the new partnership, “We are delighted that Elm Shakespeare will be taking up residency at Southern. Our artistic and educational missions are deeply interconnected and, like any good partnership, we strengthen one another by joining our forces.

“While SCSU has, for many years, had a strong relationship with Elm, having the company and its artistic staff ensconced on our campus and interacting with students and faculty every day will be a ‘shot’ of creative adrenaline — something that all artists need and welcome.”

Rebecca Goodheart, Elm Shakespeare’s new Producing Artistic Director, says, “We at Elm Shakespeare are so excited to solidify our long-time working relationship and become the theater company in residence at Southern Connecticut State University. This partnership is the best kind of collaboration. Together we will create more classical performance at the highest standards, and more opportunities for students than ever before. Together, we will ensure that everyone in this great community and beyond has access to world-class arts and education. Together, we will be the example of what is possible in New Haven.”

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Breese acknowledges the efforts of Goodheart and Kaia Monroe, Theatre Department Chair, for the work they have done to bring this partnership to fruition, adding, “It represents a giant step forward for our theater program, while offering a secure home for one the region’s most respected professional Shakespeare companies.”

An official signing of the MOU will take place on March 2, at 4:30 p.m. in the Lyman Center lobby. The signing will coincide with Elm Shakespeare’s announcement of its 2016 season. For more information about Elm Shakespeare, visit its website.

 

Almost Maine, Theatre Department

For the second year in a row, a Theatre Department production has been selected for presentation at the John F. Kennedy Center American College Theater Region I Festival (ACTF). The December production of “Almost, Maine” is this year’s New England Region I winner and will be staged at the festival in late January 2016 at Western Connecticut State University. Directed by Theatre Professor Sheila Hickey Garvey, “Almost, Maine” was one of six productions selected for presentation out of almost 150 submissions entered from colleges across New England and New York.

Garvey describes the play as “a delightful comedy/romance with cosmic overtones” and says the invitation to perform at the festival is “a great honor.” Written by playwright and actor John Cariani, the play has a small cast of eight and a minimal set, designed for the SCSU production by Theatre Professor John Carver Sullivan, who also designed the costumes. There will two performances of “Almost, Maine” at the festival on Friday, January 29, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Almost Maine

The play portrays 20 different residents living in a tiny mythical community located in Northern Maine. At 9 p.m. on December 21, during an occurrence of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, select community members are mystically gifted with a very special opportunity, one that affords them the chance to renew their lives and live them with an open heart.

“Almost, Maine” was developed at the Cape Cod Theater Project in 2002, and received its world premiere at Portland Stage Company, where it broke box office records and garnered critical acclaim. It opened off Broadway in the winter of 2005-2006 at the Daryl Roth Theatre and was subsequently published by Dramatists Play Service. To date, “Almost, Maine” has been produced by over 2500 theater companies in the United States and by over a dozen companies internationally, making it one of the most frequently produced plays of the past decade.

If you would like to support the Crescent Players’ performance at the ACTF, visit this page and in the dropdown menu next to “I would like to support the,” choose “Other,” then type “Crescent Players Fund” in the box to indicate the fund name. Thank you for supporting Southern students!