At Towson, it's the end of the lines Theater: Teacher C. Richard Gillespie continues to take the direct approach as he heads toward retirement.

October 13, 1997|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Kelly White stands in front of an audience in a classroom at Towson University and tries to read a sentence from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the 10th time. Before she can get to the end of the sentence, C. Richard Gillespie stops her yet again.

"You are losing the sentence with the details in the middle," says Gillespie. "Let's try to hold on to the sentence."

White nods and tries once again. This time she is going too fast, Gillespie tells her.

"You can't race through the details to hold on to the sentence," he says. "You have to make the details subordinate to the nTC sentence."

White nods and tries once again.

And so it goes for more than 30 minutes. One would think White, a theater major, would be frustrated to the point of never wanting to see another play by Shakespeare. Or at least never wanting to read another Shakespearean line in front of C. Richard Gillespie.

But, in fact, she is grateful. Gillespie is her teacher, and she is there to learn. And who better to teach than a man who has been at it for more than three decades? This school year will be different for the man who founded the university's academic theater program. It is his last.

"It's time," Gillespie says about his impending retirement. "I may come in and do some specialty courses. And I am the photographer for the plays. But I don't have to hold on to anything." It all depends, he says, on the wishes of the new, yet-to-be-named chair of the theater department.

Gillespie came to Towson University in 1961, thinking he might be there for only a few years. Those few years stretched into 37, and now, finally, the venerable professor of acting is stepping aside at the end of the school year.

The cliche just seems so fitting: The curtain is coming down.

He has taught students -- most notably Tony Award-winning actor John Glover and actor/director Charles Dutton -- who have gone on to successful acting careers.

He is teaching a new crop of students who hope Gillespie's guidance will lead them in Glover and Dutton's footsteps.

"I think he is brilliant," says Kristin Barnes, 19, a theater major. Lest she be accused of trying to get on the professor's good side, she also called Gillespie "intimidating" at times. "But if you get to know him, it's OK," Barnes says.

Gillespie, who will be 68 when he retires, looks far younger than his years. He is a rather slight man, with gold-rimmed glasses and a neat, gray beard. The theater, he says, has been his love ever since he was pressed into a spur-of-the-moment acting role while a college freshman.

Before then, Gillespie assumed he would be either a journalist or an aeronautical engineer. "Acting was not a lifelong ambition," says Gillespie, who was born in Baltimore and attended Principia College in Illinois.

"I went to see a play, and they were short-staffed," he says. The play was about Joan of Arc, and he was cast in the role of her younger brother.

"I only had a couple of scenes, but that was it." He had found his calling.

It was the perfect outlet for a man who considers himself shy. "I always was introverted," he says. "One of the worst punishments in the world is for me to have to go to a party." Acting, he says, allows exploration of oneself and allows him to step outside of himself. "An artist has to pull from himself. I fell in love with the artist life."

When Gillespie arrived at Towson, there was a theater but no academic program for theater majors. "I didn't know if I wanted to stay," says Gillespie.

Then he was given the opportunity to start the academic program at the school, where he also met and married Maravene Loeschke, the acting dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication at Towson University.

Starting tonight, he directs "Something Cloudy, Something Clear," his final production on the university's main stage as a full-time staff member.

For those unfamiliar with the teaching of acting, Gillespie's method can be almost daunting, as soft-spoken as he is.

"Start with the text. Mean the sentence. Say the sentence. Let your imagery play in your head. Allow your imagery to have the moment in your mind. Stay with your commas. Have more texture." These are but some of the recent suggestions to his students in an "Acting II" class.

The students admit the course is a challenge.

"It's very difficult," says 21-year-old Michael Barbaro, who has just finished acting a scene from the play "The Wool Gatherers." Barbaro is a senior majoring in mass communication and minoring in theater. "He knows a million different angles. And he knows every single Shakespeare play. It's amazing."

"I've gotten a lot out of the class," says White, 19. But it is not for the faint of heart. "He is very up front about his comments. And he will tell you right away. You have to be able to take it. And you cannot take it personally."

Gillespie says it's better he be tough on his students than for them to go out on the stage unprepared. Even if actors are prepared, he says, critics can be brutal.

Gillespie has taught courses in all levels of acting, directing, theater history, dramatic literature, dramatic theory and criticism, playwrighting, general study courses in humanities and the creative processes.

He has written plays and works of theatrical history and is writing a book about the history of railroading in Maryland. And, of course, he has acted.

Gillespie is fortunate to have made a career out of acting and teaching acting.

He knows it won't be that way for most of his students.

"Maybe one-tenth of these students will still be in the theater 10 years from now," he says.

'Something Clear'

What: Final production directed by C. Richard Gillespie before he retires

Where: Towson University, Fine Arts Building's Main Stage, Osler and Cross Campus drives

When: Tonight through Saturday, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $10; $8 seniors, students

Call: 410-830-ARTS

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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