October 03, 2020

Day 2: Sarah Shippobotham and Jane England

"Bob Week" is a weeklong celebration in honor of Bob Nelson, on the occasion of his retirement. "Bob Week" runs from 10/2/2020 to 10/9/2020.

Sarah Shippobotham: Professor/Co-Head of the ATP, Department of Theatre  |  Phone interview with Aaron Swenson


So the first thing we should probably do is get a condensed version of how you became acquainted with Bob, right? So we can get a bit of a frame for everything else?

Yes. I met Bob when he came to be chair of the department; I don't think I'd met him before that. Actually, I think the first time I saw him was…I think he gave a Theatre History lecture when he came to be interviewed to be chair. So I knew him first as a colleague. Then I was lucky enough to work with him twice—once as a director, and then once as an actor when were in Spring Awakening together. We played all the bad adults and had a lot of fun doing that.

When he stepped down from being chair and came back into faculty, his office was next to the office that I had when I was head of the ATP, so there was a little enclave of Jane England, Bob, Sydney Cheek-O'Donnell, and me. We'd see each other and chitchat, and he's somebody that I would always go to if I had a university question or writing question, for his superior knowledge and experience and his generosity with his time. He was always very willing to just stop what he was doing and listen and help out.


That’s been a consistent theme—that Bob has this generosity and an expansiveness to him, not only in the sense of the time he spends with people, but also the scope of his practice and interest in theatre.

Yeah, I always felt that he knew a lot about—and was interested in—so many different things. He took on the responsibility of rounding up all the shows that were going on in the Valley over the semester and posting them so that we all had access to what was going on elsewhere. Obviously, he's a huge advocate of KCATCF, and he actually managed to convince me that it was a good idea. I'd had varying degrees of success, partly because I have little patience with people who don't understand that being involved with something like that is a privilege. When people just go to party and don't make the most of what's...for me, my experience was that it was often a pain in the butt.

Bob's enthusiasm for the organization and what it offered…he convinced me. He really values new work, and he is such an advocate for new work, and for having an arena in which to develop it and for people to respond...I think Bob appreciates how KCATCF can widen people's horizons, how it can widen the number of people that actually get to see the work that's being done.

Actually, my best memory of that…well, I remember one of the times we went, we drove in the same van and we stopped in Vegas or in the outlet mall to go shopping. He allowed us to go shopping. That was a lot of fun. I think it was on the same trip that we stopped for cheese curds. I can't remember if it was because Bob really likes them or whether it was somebody else on the trip, but it was my first introduction, because I didn't know it was a big thing. So he's willing to step out of boundaries to give people a better experience, like making unscheduled stops on the trip back.


Speaking of his kindness and essential good-naturedness…I'm trying to think of how to frame this as a question…I guess I'm trying to ask whether it's common to find somebody who is so kind and generous, who also happens to be an exceptional educator, practitioner, administrator, etc. in a theatre setting?

I think the short answer is “yes.” I think to be able to educate and be so willing to give time to the students, one has to have a sense of caring outside of oneself, and be interested and compassionate toward other people and their experience. I think some of the most beloved artists have a reputation for being incredibly kind, generous people. People want to be around them. He taught some very specialized subjects, but I think the people that took his classes enjoyed working with him, particularly on, say, Shakespeare and directing Shakespeare…I can't remember specific titles of courses, but I think the students found them to be a special experience.

I just think kindness, in the sense of the teacher being interested, will draw the students out. The risk we take is that maybe they'll run rings around us, but I think that's a risk one has to take. I think he's always struck me as someone who is incredibly interested, and his door is always open.


Speaking of acting and craft, it seems like Bob has always managed to keep his hand in as both an actor and a director, which I imagine also really informs his teaching. You first worked with him as a director, correct?

Yes. He directed Wit, and I was lucky enough that he wanted me to play Vivian. And the students got to play students, obviously, and some of the...Nick Zacharias played the older doctor and Marilyn Holt played the professor, Vivian's professor. It was a mix of community, faculty, and students. I was flattered and thrilled that he wanted me to play Vivian, because it's pretty much the role of a lifetime. He was wonderful to work with. He was gentle and generous, and he took a huge risk, I think, because he allowed me to do the nudity. I asked at the beginning that we be allowed to the nudity at the end because I thought it was integral to the meaning of the play. I don't remember him trying to say no. He went to bat for us, to do that.

And he made that moment very easy for me, that transition from doing it fully clothed to the naked moment at the end. It was incredibly easy. And what's interesting is that, prior to all this now—the intimacy work, and the notion of keeping actors safe—I always felt incredibly safe with Bob. Obviously I was in my forties by then, I think, very much an adult who totally knew what she was doing. And I think it was by my instigation that we did it, but he was totally supportive and created a very supportive atmosphere as well in rehearsal.

Then at one point, I'd been working—exercising—with an LDS trainer and I thought that actually, it might be useful to do one performance without nudity, so that if there were people who wouldn't see the play because of their beliefs, or not wanting to see their teacher naked, that we could allow that to happen.

Again, he was very supportive of the idea and was extremely generous to listen to me. It was great because we really were colleagues. We worked together very well. He would listen to me and welcome my experience into the room. It was really a wonderful experience, and I felt nurtured and taken care of, and given room to explore.


On that note, I loved what you said earlier, when you were talking about the fear that making space and creating a welcoming environment could let students run rough-shod over you, but that there’s a difference between that and wishy-washiness, or being a doormat. It seems to speak to…just a deep trust in one's own abilities and experience and aesthetic sense, and also a deep trust in the actors. Like, less of a fear of being drowned out by so many voices, more of a belief that those voices will strengthen the work?

Yes. I stand by what I said about the idea that his generosity as a human being...He's got so much to teach people. He taught difficult subjects in a difficult program, where the students might not otherwise have wanted to take some of the classes that the BA required. There were people who probably fell in love with Bob because of his generosity. As a colleague, he's been amazing. I feel the loss of his presence, and I will miss his knowledge and his wisdom and his generosity. I will miss him being around. So I'm very happy to contribute to this remembrance. Thank you for asking.


sarah shippobotham XL




Jane England: Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Theatre  |  Phone interview with Aaron Swenson


Aaron: Hi, this is Aaron calling for Jane.

Jane: Hi Aaron.


Hi Jane. How are you?

I'm okay. How are you?


I'm good, thanks. I should ask before we start if you're okay with me recording for transcription purposes?

Sure. That's fine.


Excellent. So. If you don't mind, could you start out with a quick sketch of how you and Bob met, maybe like a timeframe for that to contextualize things as we go forward?

I'd probably date knowing Bob to the early 1990s.


Oh wow.

Yeah. In fact, probably the late…well, certainly by about 1990. Yes. I was a grad student down in the English department at BYU at the time. And Bob taught at BYU for years—in fact, I believe he was the department chair. And he was one of the theatre professors, along with Tim Slover, who participated in the Study Abroad Program.

So, I first remember him at that time as…not only as a theatre teacher, but also as an actor, because he would act and direct on stage at the university and in other productions. I would see him on stage, but we also knew a lot of the same people in the theatre community down there. Probably about 30-plus years I've known Bob?


Excellent. And then…let's see here…and then you ended up sharing an office at the U? Is that correct?

Yes. When I first started…well, I'd done some work for the U in advance of that, but I first started assistant teaching and teaching in 2011. I was teaching [my own courses], but I was also assisting on Bob's…I want to say Theatre History course? Gee, he had a huge course. And so I got to work with him, be there in the class, watch him teach, grade alongside him. I did a little bit of teaching in that class, but it was his class. So I got to know him right away when I first started in the department, by virtue of working with him on his course, and then also sharing an office space.


And did your paths cross a lot? Were you sort of like ships in the night, or did you actually get to spend time together in the office?

Oh, I think we were both there at the same time a lot. And during both semesters probably, where I worked with him on classes, we were in his class together. So it was a lot of time [together] in the classroom that first year, and then also in shared office space. Yeah. We were both there at the same time.


Was he a good office mate, or…?

[laughter] Yes, he was! Bob has always been very cheerful, positive, considerate. I mean, I…you know, I was coming in new, so I was always worried if a student wanted to come in or whatever, and he was always like, “if you need the space,” you know? And even though we had a bit of a divider between us, we would call back and forth above the bookcase and check in on things, or share articles, or talk about contemporary politics or... yeah, I'd say we had a very congenial, very positive interaction at the office.


Even if it was perhaps a little disembodied from time to time.

Yes, yes! [laughter] It was often without…I mean, I often didn't realize when I came in, because you can't immediately see the back area where his space is…sometimes I was caught by surprise to realize he was there. But when he started riding his electric bike…[laughter] Yes. As soon as I entered, I saw the bike, and I always knew, oh, if I peek around the corner, I'll see that Bob is here. So I behaved appropriately—I wouldn’t speak on the phone too loudly or conduct personal conversations…[laughter] But he's a very quiet and interesting office mate. So yes. Always a positive experience sharing the office with him.


And then, as you mentioned, you had a lot of opportunity to observe him in the classroom. And I'd love to know what you took from his teaching style, and what impact that had on you as an instructor and on the department.

Bob is very thorough. He always did a quiz, which I also do, and had learned from other people as well—like, to start the class, do a quiz. I appreciated that. His quizzes tended to be more thorough than the ones I gave, they got into more detail. And he does excellent handouts. I've occasionally shared handouts with him that I've used for my class, and vice versa, and…I mean, his legacy partly exists in his handouts, which he usually dates and has his name on. So if somebody wanted to do a history of Bob's teaching just based on his handouts, they would have a lot of material and information to work with! Just incredibly thorough, and not the obvious kind of information.

I remember a handout that was just so…he had a quarto version—like a bad quarto version of a Hamlet speech, next to a folio version. And there were footnotes, it was a scholarly handout, but it was accessible, and he also had students create their own handouts and do different projects. During the course I assisted on we were talking about Everyman. [His handout] had these really interesting details about the characters, and translations from the older style of language of Everyman to more contemporary, colloquial language. And Bob had an activity where students broke up into smaller groups—because, again, it was a really big class, as Theatre History classes tend to be. So students broke up into groups and created skits to tell the story of Everyman, then they performed them in the class. And Bob has taught Shakespeare, and directing, and he’s acted in Shakespeare, so…I mean, him giving students the chance to act in front of the classroom as a way to learn the material, or to make the material more interesting, was really useful. He really encouraged the students. And I’ve tried to adopt [those approaches], and that kind of thoroughness and encouragement.

While we're on his contribution to the department, I have to mention his editing skills. We would be grading research papers, and Bob was so committed to giving really rigorous editing, that students would actually learn from, and I think that's great for any teacher. But students would come in, and Bob would really spend a lot of time going over their writing, and that's an indication of a really generous teacher, to spend time personally on students' writing—not just edit them, but actually show what they can do to improve their writing.

Another thing that comes to mind is his involvement. He's been so involved in judging and participating—in KCACTF, I believe? And during all those years that I shared an office with him, he was always going off to see productions and be on juries and just supporting theatre by going to tons of shows. I mean, we go to productions at Pioneer or SLAC or whatever, but he was also going down to productions in Utah County, to the less obvious or convenient choices. And whether he was just interested or it was connected to his responsibilities, I was felt like he was always very engaged in the larger community.

And in his own acting, and as a director—all the way back to his directing at BYU—he always chose interesting productions to work with. He's always bringing in…I was teaching A Doll's House and he goes, “Oh, well, do you know this production where the characters are played by smaller people,” or another time it was a French version of Antigone that was really interesting. And I thought I knew about a lot of productions, but Bob was always bringing up more ideas of productions and performances to teach from. And this translated over into the London Study Abroad program, because Bob is on the mailing lists for so many interesting theaters, and he would say, “Oh, what did you hear about this production? Would this be something that would be good for the student programs?”

He's just very aware of what's going on in Salt Lake, and in Utah, and beyond. Just really interested. He's not like…I think a lot of teachers after years of work can get a little less energetic, and Bob always seemed interested in more, in always knowing more about what's going on. About things around like bringing more diversity into the material in class, or being better informed on the current conversation. I think he's very interested in social issues and how they affect his discipline.


That's fantastic. So to narrow the focus a bit, do you have a particular favorite memory of Bob, of working with Bob or seeing him on stage—something that is, sort of, indelibly Bob?

This is my—I hope he's okay with this—but my first memory of Bob is before I actually met him or knew him personally. He played an Old Testament prophet in a church-produced film. So I think of Bob as an Old Testament prophet. [laughter] And so every time I see him, in every manifestation—of course, I've seen him play other characters on stage—but I always go back to that in my mind. And he didn't really have a long Old Testament beard, but probably longer than what we've mostly seen. Then all of a sudden, he looked like George Bernard Shaw. And I was wanting to see him play George Bernard Shaw. I don't think he’s ever played him as a character; he may have been in a Shaw play, but visually my memory of Bob is seeing him as an Old Testament prophet. And Shaw.


Personality-wise, is there anything that would indicate that he would make a particularly good Old Testament prophet?

Well. He's not a somber person, not a dour, serious person in that way. He's interested in issues, or talking about the campaign or whatever, but…so I ran by his house the other day, and this was right after the wind storm. And he lives on one of my favorite streets in Salt Lake, really leafy, lots of sycamores. And I wanted to see if the street was okay because it's just such a beautiful street. And we were chatting in front and he's just always pleasant to run into. Even away from campus, it's always good to run into Bob on the bus, or at a play, or on his own.

But he has a great voice for [being a prophet]. And he’s a brilliant person when it comes to that subject—I mean, I've been to his Sunday school classes. He's a great Sunday school teacher. He has the knowledge to back up the character. And he played that role, like, 30 years ago when he was…well, they had to make him look older as a prophet, so he could play a prophet more convincingly today. And his voice, his voice is authoritative, even though he's not a pushy person. His tone could indicate the authority of a biblical prophet.


So there'd be fewer prophetic declarations and more sort of, like, gentle encouragements?

[laughter] Yes. There you go. He could be a very democratic prophet.


jane england XL