October 03, 2020

Day 3: Tim Slover

 "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.

Tim Slover: Professor/Theatre Studies Program Head, Department of Theatre  |  Phone interview with Aaron Swenson


Aaron: Sorry, just making sure this is working. Still there?

Tim: Yes, I am.


Excellent. So I was having a conversation earlier with Jean and with Sarah, and both mentioned your connection to Bob, and it just seems like it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t interview you about your connection with Bob across time and space and multiple locations and decades…can you Cliffs Notes for me just, I guess, the beginnings? The meeting and initial...[pause]

Yeah, I can. I first met Bob when I was an undergraduate student at BYU, and he was a new hire. I remember walking across the main floor of the Fine Arts Center and seeing this new, sort of golden, glow-y kind of guy—that's exactly how he came across. And I met him and he said, "I'm going to work here from now on." So I took classes from him as an undergraduate and really benefited from them, and then when I was in grad school at Michigan, I took a semester off and came home and did what I always did back then: I auditioned for a play.

And even though I wasn't a student, it was a play that was being done in the spring or the summer so the competition was light, and it was Bob. He was directing Shaw's Arms and the Man. So I got cast in that, and it was a terrific experience. He is a terrific director because he really understands the historical context of a script. So it was like having a seminar on Shaw, being in that play. His kids were little at that point, and he, and Char, and Christie when she was a baby, and the cast of that play, we hiked Timpanogos together, so there was a lot of camaraderie.

And then when I got back to Michigan, they said, "You're just a few credits shy of what you need at this stage in your graduate program—can you think of anything that you did that could warrant us giving you graduate credit?" And I said, "Well, I was in a production of Arms and the Man." And they said, "That will do." I actually have graduate credit at the University of Michigan because of Bob.

Not much later than that, I got hired at BYU in the Theatre Department, and that began a really strong relationship between Bob and me and the guy that was hired there to do Theatre History, but really was the most formidable playwright there, Eric Samuelsen. And the three of us hung out and mused on things together. And a couple of plays that I wrote at that period, Bob was good enough to direct. So it was a whole different relationship: not director and student actor, but director and trying-to-be-playwright. And he had an enormous influence on the work—particularly the plays that became March Tale and Joyful Noise, both of which he directed. He has such a feel for text. And he also has a real knack for asking the right question to unravel all of your schemes.


For example?

He was never forceful, but he would just ask a question like, “well, if this is happening here, why would this happen over there?” And I would say, "I…don't have a very good answer for that; let me go back to my Macintosh, and I’ll see you later." The two of us team-taught a Playwright/Director/Actor Workshop at BYU. And so once again, we all leaned on him very heavily for what I now understand to be dramaturgy. But he also had a director's eye, and that was really helpful too. He was very much the senior partner in that relationship. And then we fetched up in London a couple of times together while I was teaching with Gene England, Jane England’s father. Our Theatre Learning Abroad program here in the Department was modeled that program. Bob came along as faculty a couple of times and taught a Shakespeare course. And so I had that great experience of going to plays with him and all of that. And then I left BYU and came here, and he couldn't stay away from me. [laughter]

So a couple of years later, he left BYU and came here as the chair, as you know, and that relationship continued. It was kind of uncanny to me. He sponsored a couple of plays I wrote at the U—he didn't direct them, but he would sort of take faculty members aside and say, "We ought to do a Tim Slover play." I've just known him for so long and he's always been a friend: somebody that I felt I could talk to and get guidance from, and wisdom in matters theatrical and non-theatrical. It's amazing to me that I could now be in a world that he's not in.


Indeed. So…do you recall what undergraduate classes you took from him at BYU?



I know, I'm sorry, it's a terribly unfair question...

I mean, if somebody went back and looked at my transcript, I think it could maybe prove me a liar, but I feel like I took Theatre History from him as an undergraduate. And I think he did a seminar—these were all undergraduate courses, but I'm not remembering more than that. I'm sorry. I remember the room it was in.


What room was it in, if you don't mind my asking?

It was this weird room that was on the third floor of the Harris Fine Arts Center that was like a glass box.


I think I know exactly which room you mean.  

Yes. Very strange room—you couldn’t really fit many people in there, maybe eight or nine comfortably, or a dozen. And sometimes we'd have mini-faculty meetings in there, but that was where that seminar got taught. That’s the kind of thing he would have taught: a Shaw seminar. Or maybe Shaw kind of cross-referenced with other social realists, like Ibsen. That was the kind of thing he was quite interested in in those days…


That’s great. And honestly, on that topic I think accuracy of recall is less…I think accuracy is less important than texture.

Yeah. I just always knew that he was somebody that, when I sat in his presence when he was teaching, I would be enormously intellectually stimulated by. I never thought, “oh, I have to go to that class,” or, “what if it's boring?” Because it just never was. And part of it was his breadth of knowledge, but part of it also was this very engaging style where you're asked lots of questions and he would really listen to the answers, and build off of what you said, and make you feel like you'd said something smart. So it was always delightful, and I can't tell which was the greater influence on me: his teaching—that was a big influence on me for the way I teach, and also the subject matter—or his directing. Because he did direct those two rather crucial plays in my development and made them better—like I said, through sort of teasing out these questions.


Another thing that's come up in the interviews that I've conducted so far is that, in spite of the presumable level of conservatism where he was teaching or directing, or any potential influence from the dominant religion, et cetera…that Bob has always had a very open mind and expansive sensibilities, you know, in terms of the stories he consumes and  the stories he chooses to tell. And I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on that? Or perhaps I'm getting it wrong, but…

Well, to me, his approach to religion has always seemed more cosmopolitan than parochial. On the one hand—and I don't think this is true anymore—it used to be that you could go into the temple and hear his voice, his recorded voice. I don't know if that's still true. So he was very much inside the religion, and as far as I know always has been, but on the other hand he subscribes to the doctrinal belief that Mormonism stretches as wide as eternity, that there are no stories to be shied away from and no politics to be eschewed. So I always had that impression as well. When he was the chair of the department at BYU, my impression was that he may have chafed from time to time under some authoritarian reactions that suggested censorship.

I can tell you a story about that—I guess this is as much a story about myself as him, so I don't know if you want it, but when we were team-teaching that Playwright/Director/Actor Workshop, as it was called there, both of us without much discussion decided that we would just choose the plays based on what looked like the best scripts coming in. We didn't really think about anything else--we were just trying to see what seemed that had the most promise, at least that we could understand--not saying that there were some that we just didn't get. And it didn't have really anything to do with content, and it didn't really have anything to do with language. And in those days at BYU, the readings at the end of the year were a bigger deal than we make of them at the U. We got a lot of invited people and they were often done in the Pardoe, which is the bigger space.

And a number of students did a play, and it had a fair amount of swearing in it. And I can remember that the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the time really called us on the carpet and said, "How can you do this?" And both of us said to him, "Well, listen, nobody ever will tell us the words that you're not supposed to say. So if you will give us a list of words, then we'll just give that list to our students, right?" We'll just say, "Avoid these words." This was at the time when Neil LaBute was a student at BYU.


Oh God. 

And he had a play in the workshop. It's where he wrote In the Company of Men. He also wrote a version of Woyzeck, which I think every playwright writes a version of. And so, memorably, I can remember Bob and I looking at each other as the Dean of the College of Fine Arts said, "The problem is, gentlemen, if you don't know the words…if you don't have a sense of that, that's the problem." And we didn't. We didn't have a sense of it. There was no more to be said.

In other words, if the Spirit didn't whisper to you what words were okay and what words weren't, then that was the problem. Well, that was never Bob. He chafed under those kinds of things. Now, he's an amiable fellow and a team player and certainly got along. But you’ll notice that when the time came, he made the jump back up here to the U, which is of course where he started as an undergraduate. He had a very fond view of the Department of Theatre here and wanted to be a part of it again, and he perhaps got tired of stuff going on at BYU.


Before we get too far away from it, I’d like to expand slightly on your description of this “golden glow” that Bob possessed on first impression. And I'm wondering if that's something that was ascribable more to novelty, or was that just his aura or…

I mean, it was a time when a whole lot of the theatre faculty—and again, I wasn't a theatre major, so there were people I didn't have anything to do with—but the sort of “leading lights” of the theatre faculty all seemed to be older men. And it seemed like they hadn't done a new hire for a while. Also, just literally speaking, he was very blonde and very Nordic and very tall and had this very welcoming but also sort of knowing smile that said, “I'm probably the smartest guy in the room, but I'll be friendly, and I'll welcome you, and you can be a part of this too.” I just remember that that was his affect—that was the effect that he had.


Yeah, we talk about “presence,” but maybe we don't think about it literally, in the sense of actually being present and available.

And plus, it just so happened...this changed later on, because this was before Film threw in with Theatre, but the faculty were pretty much all directors. They didn't seem to me to be particularly interested in the, sort of, intellectual pursuit of drama. And here came this guy who was very interested in the literature and the history, as well as being a director. So maybe that was part of it. But it was immensely appealing to me. I mean, as an English major, I was not obligated to take any classes in the Theatre Department obviously. I could just go in and try to poach roles, which I spent my undergraduate years trying to do. But he was a compelling enough teacher that I wanted to take a class from him. I think he's the only Theatre faculty member at BYU that I ever did take a class from.


That’s quite a compliment. Circling back to Shaw for a sec, I had a conversation earlier today with Jean and we were talking about this pre-interview question I’d sent along—basically, if you had to do an impression of Bob, how would you make it convincing?—and it led her to this memory of seeing him play an Old Testament prophet, but also imagining him as George Bernard Shaw. Is that something you could see as well?

Yeah. I think so. I think he looks like Shaw, for one thing, or he used to. But also I think he has those sensibilities, those kind of challenging sensibilities where a play is as much a dialectic as it is an entertainment. And plus, he can talk for a really long time. [laughter] He could have been John Tanner in Man & Superman. I can't do impressions, but my impression of Bob would be him asking some kind of really provocative question, almost a leading question, like he's trying to lead you to some point of view that he thinks will be good for you, but he doesn't want to just directly tell you. That's what I had to suffer with for years.


Fair enough, and my condolences. So, maybe Shaw, maybe a little bit of Socrates as well, with the beard and the questions? Speaking of questions—and I'm worried about monopolizing your time unduly, so we can make this the last one—but do you have any specific recollections of study abroad experiences with Bob? Imagining him in that element is really compelling, I think, and I was wondering if you have any stories to share.

Yeah. Before we settled down to teaching at Foundation House, which we've now done for many years, we were nomads. Our classes were lots of different places wherever we could find them. And one of the places that we found was the LDS church, the Hyde Park building, the one that's on Exhibition Road. And I got to know Sharon Hintze—she was the head of their genealogical library there that was housed in that building, and she just opened a lot of doors for us. I remember that we were…I don't know if you know this play by Edward Albee called The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?


Ha! Okay, yes, please continue.

So that was a play we attended. And I remember that we were in the High Council room—that's where we were assigned to be. So sitting around that big table, it's a wonderful place to have a sort of a seminar. And somebody brought up the fact that this play was about goat-f*cking, and I thought “let's close the door now.” That’s what went on in my room. Well, Bob, his class was called Shakespeare in Performance, I think, just as it is now, but his class was in…I think the Relief Society room? And I went in there one time because my class let out early or something--for some reason that year we had a divide-and-conquer kind of approach because we didn't have that many hours in the building. And I thought, well, I'll go in and sit in on what he's doing, this will be great.

But when I got in there, it was a bunch of people in a sort of choral recitation, reciting Shakespeare. And one of his assignments that he had given them was to memorize a fairly lengthy Shakespeare speech. And so Bob was beating time because he was trying to show the rhythms of the text while everybody did this speech as a sort of choral reading, and it was very loud actually. It might've been the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, that was one he liked to use. And Gene England and I, we were teaching pretty traditional kinds of courses, but Bob was up there, pounding the table, teaching them how to recite Shakespeare. I thought that was pretty cool.


That’s fantastic.

It really has nothing to do with that High Council room story. I just wanted to tell that one too.


I’m so glad you did.



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