Out of all the places on Illinois State’s campus to spend the last few weeks as a student, John Tovar ’99, M.F.A ’18, chose a small, dingy diner. It was the scene for his final theater project as a candidate in the M.F.A. directing program.

With the help of a $1,000 grant from the Friends of the Arts (FOA), Tovar created a unique theatrical experience for audiences, bringing them onto the stage of the Center for the Performing Arts last spring for an intimate adaptation of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead. The play follows a drug addict and a prostitute who meet in a seedy all-night diner in New York and ultimately fall in love despite their troubling circumstances.

Appears In

“We found that to be able to understand these characters you needed to see them up close for exactly who they are,” Tovar said. “I think that in order for the audience to experience the play how we really wanted to we needed to bring them directly onstage.”

“I think that in order for the audience to experience the play how we really wanted to we needed to bring them directly onstage.”—John Tovar

Tovar and his crew created custom onstage seating by building large staggered platforms and positioning them around the set. The arrangement gave each patron a clear vantage point from which to enjoy the play.

“You could have sat on one side of the house one night and a different side the other night and saw two completely different shows,” he said.

Constructing the platform risers was a labor of love for Tovar. He and the crew spent months building and painting each of the risers. In the end, the project cost about $1,800.

“We couldn’t have done that without the grant; there’s no way that would’ve been possible,” Tovar said. “We are eternally grateful to FOA to be able to have given us an opportunity to bring to fruition what we always saw in our minds.”

Friends of The Arts is a community organization that partners with Illinois State’s College of Fine Arts to provide grants and scholarships to students for events, research, and special projects.

“I haven’t collaborated with FOA before that project, but I actually have a long history here at ISU,” Tovar said. He completed his bachelor’s in acting in the ’90s and returned for his graduate degree after working as a professional actor and fight scene coordinator. This fall, he joined the college’s faculty as a new assistant professor in acting and directing.

“I’ve never felt more at home than I do when I’m doing something involving theater. When I came back for my master’s, I knew as soon as I walked on campus that this was exactly where I wanted to be,” Tovar said.