Playing for Keeps
By Felix Winternitz
If all the world’s a stage, then Cathy Springfield is one happy woman. The ever-ebullient Springfield lives for the theater, and now—as the University’s director for performing arts—she’s got a new one of her own. A theater, that is.
The opening of the new Gallagher Student Center in April included a 325-seat theater that is home to Xavier’s performing arts programs—as well as Springfield’s dreams. “We have been talking in earnest about this new theater for six years,” says Springfield. It has been a long time coming, true. But considering where the program was when she first arrived on campus in the late 1980s, just having a new theater is nothing short of a miracle.
“We used to borrow costumes from a high school,” she says.
Through Springfield’s persistence, though, performing arts are now to the point where students can earn a minor in theater. She can even envision the program being its own major or being big enough to reach across the University and mesh with all disciplines. Because of the theater, she says, “We have an excellent opportunity to create something unique.”
There are exciting signs of promise, to be sure. For now, however, she has plenty to keep her busy. Her various projects include the Xavier Players, the Comedy Toolbox featuring improvisational skits, Blackbox Productions, with students submitting plays for one-hour productions, and Voices for Change, where students create performance pieces based on volunteer activities or social projects.
Her first priority, though, is to make the best use of the new dramatic space. The philosophy has been: “Build a theater and they will come,” she says. They being an audience, certainly. But also future drama students. Finally, after years of holding productions in Kelley Auditorium, the Fieldhouse, Armory or wherever they could find a stage, current and future Xavier Players now have a place to call their own.
And what a home it is. The theater is a state-of-the-art “thrust style” facility, with the stage projecting forward leaving no patron more than a dozen rows from the center of action.
“It’s a much more intimate feel,” Springfield says. The $4 million theater, which the University is still offering naming rights to, also includes an orchestra pit, rehearsal space, lighting and sound booths, dressing rooms and a prop design shop. Exposed catwalks and a full- fly floor provide the ultimate flexibility and creative staging possibilities.
Its long-awaited development had become a source of frustration for Springfield. Not having a great facility for presenting theater, she says, “is like physics students without a lab.” Her frustrations, though, are understandable—theater is her passion, and always has been. Her rich and varied biography includes taking period dance at the Julliard School and stage combat at the Royal Shakespeare Company. She helped start a cabaret, cofounded the American Repertory Theatre of Cincinnati and its Peanut Butter Theatre, and performed as an equity player in regional theater.
Born in Charlotte, N.C., in 1952, she was raised in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Finneytown and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Eastern Michigan University and an education degree at the University of Charleston in South Carolina. And, in addition to all her current work, she’s also pursuing a master’s degree in directing at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Her greatest challenge, though, won’t be directing, but organizing—trying to conscientiously program the University’s performances without overlapping the surrounding college and professional theaters. There is little room for duplicate efforts, and she’s not allowing that to happen. Recent productions included the regional premiere of A Midwinter’s Tale by Kenneth Branagh, as well as Talking With by Jane Martin, The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and the world premiere of the musical The Perfect Game by alumnus John Grissmer. Upcoming productions include To Kill a Mockingbird, which is being done in collaboration with the Children’s Theatre, The Royal Hunt for the Sun and The Cyclops, which is being adapted from Euripides by classics professor George Harrison and presented in conjunction with a classics symposium that’s taking place on campus.
Whether it be talk of expanding professional collaborations with area theaters or—of course—the creation of a theater degree program, Springfield remains enthused and focused. Asked for her one, overriding vision, she seems to keep coming back to three words: “Theater changes people.”
And it’s through that change that she thinks she can have an impact on the University. Chancellor James E. Hoff, S.J., had a great affection for theater, she says, and saw it as a faceplate for the University, an expression of the mission. She agrees. That’s what she sees for the future, and what has kept her going in the past.
“The real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become,” she says, “so it behooves us to talk about this mission—theater as an agent of change. What theater does best is move people. That’s why I’ve been doing this 30 years and still find it fascinating.”