Professor takes on his next career: acting in N.Y.

Teacher: `If not now, when?' wonders James Dockery, a drama instructor at Loyola who is retiring early so he can pursue his dream.

March 07, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

New York City, if it comes to know him at all, will know him as Seamus Dockery. That's how his name will appear on the resume and, with a few breaks, in theater reviews and programs. So life begins anew at 62 for James E. Dockery, Loyola College drama instructor and veteran of the local theater scene who leaves town this summer to pursue acting full-time in New York.

As Dockery sees it, if not now, when? Twenty-six years have passed since he joined the theater department at Loyola College. Check that. Dockery was the theater department at Loyola College, a one-man band directing shows in sundry campus spaces before the school built a theater and later hired a second drama instructor.

It's been a while. Without bitterness Dockery says: It's enough.

"Loyola is very good to people who want to retire early, and that's what I'm doing," he says.

No great agony about the decision, he says. He'd been considering it for some time. You want to get serious about movies or television, you think about Los Angeles. You want to get serious about theater, you think about New York. Manhattan was always beckoning from the wings, an image crossing his "peripheral vision," as Dockery puts it.

It's familiar territory for Dockery. He grew up in Brooklyn, although you'd never know it from the way he talks. Such a voice. A smooth, resonant instrument suitable for Shakespeare and adaptable to four foreign accents: Irish, Yiddish, German and British.

With his thinning red hair and blue eyes, Dockery makes you think of Robert Young, a slim and graceful man looking younger than his years. He figures he can play characters from 45 to 80 years old.

He'll need the range, the accents, the voice, the skill and all the luck he can arrange. He's been around and knows the odds. He'll be hiring an agent and joining the Actor's Equity Association, which has about 22,000 members in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

At any given time 85 percent are not working on an Equity theater job, says Equity spokeswoman Helaine Feldman.

Daunting? Not necessarily, says Dockery.

For one thing, he'll be living rent-free at a relative's place in Brooklyn, meaning he won't be waiting tables or "temping" in an office or doing any of the other things aspiring New York actors do between auditions, acting classes, more auditions and, on certain magical occasions, actual paid stage work.

For another, the clock is ticking. At this point, he says, "I've done what I could do here, so there's no sense in spinning my wheels."

Advocate for theater

He's just finished "Carousel," the 37th student production he has directed since 1974. The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical played the last two weekends in February at the 300-seat McManus Theater, a scaled-down version of Center Stage's Pearlstone Theater that did not exist when Dockery came to Loyola.

When she thinks about Dock-ery's impact on Loyola College, fine arts department chair Janet Headley says she thinks about "the degree to which he oversaw construction of the McManus Theater."

The theater makes a monument of sorts to Dockery's legacy at Loyola. Not long after he moved from director of campus ministry to head of theatrical productions in 1974, he started pressing for a permanent home for his newly founded Evergreen Players.

"We were a roving, vagabond theater company," he says.

The student group performed in the chapel, in a space in Jenkins Hall once used as a library and occasionally outdoors. This changed when Baltimore lawyer George McManus, a Loyola alumnus, made a big donation to the school and specifically designated the money for theater construction, which eventually cost about $1 million.

Dockery was sent on a tour of Jesuit schools across the country to check out their theaters. When architects were selected, Dockery worked closely with them on the design.

When the theater opened in 1985, Dockery directed the first production there, "Celebration."

That also was the year Dockery, who had been ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1981, left the priesthood. He says it came to a choice between being a priest and being an actor, which under Canon Law is considered an unsuitable profession for a priest.

Dockery says he could have asked for an exemption from the diocese but dismissed that as "taking a baby step. Either you're going to do it or not do it."

For Dockery, not acting seemed too much like not living.

"I would say my drug of choice is acting," he says.

For 15 years he's been a mainstay in local theaters. He's done classical and contemporary and shown considerable range. In separate productions of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," he played the benevolent royal servant Camillo and the violently jealous Leontes, King of Sicilia.

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