Kathryn Ervin directs “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Although she received her master of fine arts degree from Illinois State University nearly 27 years ago and last visited campus when the Center for the Performing Arts was a mere hole in the ground, Kathryn Ervin’s memories of her student years are vivid.
Ervin is a professor of theatre arts and assistant department chair at California State University at San Bernardino. She is on the ISU campus this semester to direct August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opening Feb. 23 in the CPA Theatre. Tickets are available at the CPA box office or by calling (309) 438-2535 from noon to 5 p.m. weekdays, or on line at CPA and clicking the Ticketmaster link.
The production is the ISU School of Theatre’s tip-of-the-hat to Wilson, the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright who died in late 2005. The production also represents the varied offerings of the school – a French satire, Kabuki Othello, Shakespeare and, in April, “West Side Story.” That lineup pleases Ervin.
“The range of productions was part of the reason I was so delighted to come as a visiting artist,” she said. “The first production of an August Wilson play I saw was ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’ presented by ISU as part of the Black Theatre Network conference in Detroit. It was amazing, and I was so proud of you all!”
Enrollment in ISU Theatre in the late 1970s meant contact with the department’s “big four” – Calvin Pritner, John Kirk, Jean Scharfenberg and Ralph Lane – but Ervin also fondly recalls her contact with Don LaCasse, current director of the School of Theatre. “Under the most insane of circumstances, he was always calm.”
Alvin Goldfarb, who is now president of Western Illinois University, was her MFA committee chair, and, she recalled, “encouraged me to keep digging into the Black Theatre and see the connections of history – that all these stories of people and places keep tying back to each other.”
Ervin said design courses with Bill Ruyle and Doug Koertge introduced her to the magic and mystery of the world on stage, and she called the late Frank Vybiral “a wizard.” “There is a lot of Jean Scharfenberg in my teaching of acting and directing,” she said, “and (Professor) Sandi Zielinski and I laughed that we are both still using an analysis method we learned from John Kirk.”
As a young woman, Ervin acted, wrote and directed in a youth theatre company and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University. She especially loved her directing classes because, as the former camp counselor and rec leader admitted, “I’ve always been intrigued with organization, order and communication.”
Two years ago, the San Bernardino NAACP gave Ervin its Pioneer Award for bringing the theatre department to another level in regard to community awareness. Typical of the projects the NAACP cited was Ervin’s work on a hip hop play, “Keep Hedz Ringin,’” a hip hop retelling of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” The play, which was embraced by San Bernardino’s ethnically mixed community, was workshopped and produced at Cal State and went on to be a finalist at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in that region. The play also was read at the Hip Hop Theatre Festival in New York.
“Art and culture are very valuable resources,” Ervin said, “and sometimes that gets lost in the civic eye, especially during economic and social hard times. That’s why the development of ‘Keep Hedz Ringin’ was a rather remarkable series of events.”
Being back on campus, she said, triggers a flood of memories of classmates, roommates and friends – living in Watterson Towers, grabbing a cigarette with friends in front of Centennial and enjoying meals in the elegant International House dining room when it was housed in Fell Hall. She also lived in Bloomington and remembers long walks around Franklin Park with her roommate, discussing art and theatre.
“Part of my education then was what I learned from my classmates as we worked together in the theatre program,” Ervin said. “I’ve stayed connected to so many of them in the years since I graduated.”
Ervin believes that one thing she loves – education – can be achieved through another thing she loves – theatre.
“Storytelling is one of the most important things people do. It’s the way we know who we are, where we came from and what we value,” she said. “Theatre puts our stories into live flesh and blood in front of us. When the subject or the performer is of a different community, what happens is that our awareness expands. Theatre provides a very profound way of knowing. It’s a very important part of an educational experience.”
Alumni Relations is sponsoring an special alumni event to see “An Evening with Ma Rainey. To register, click on Rainey.