The Play Really is the Thing: The Theater Arts Department at GWC

By Martie Ramm Engle

If you have been swept into the drama of The Grapes of Wrath, sang along with Guys and Dolls, laughed at Leading Ladies, or danced in your seat while watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, you have the three faculty members who comprise the Theater Arts department at Golden West College to thank. The Theater Arts department boasts Susan Thomas Babb (department chair, costume designer), Tom Amen (professor, director) and Martie Ramm (instructor, director) who collectively bring close to 100 years of experience in the world of theater to their students as their biographies will attest. The best way to find out how that theatrical magic happens is to find out just what makes these creative artists tick.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to work in the theater?
BABB: I started in 7th grade in acting and stage management but didn’t know I would continue as a career until I went to college.
RAMM:  Since I began performing at age 5, it didn’t occur to me to consider anything else.  It felt completely natural.

Describe your first performance on stage:
AMEN:  The first memorable or significant performance I remember was in “The Time of Your Life” by William Saroyan. I played the role of Tom opposite Michael Bielitz, who played the lead role of Joe. Mike taught me a lot about acting in that show…he was a great mentor and friend. That was over 25 years ago, and we’re still friends and still working together, only now I’ve gone from being the apprentice actor to the director. In fact, I’m directing Mike right now in our upcoming GWC production of “Proof.”
RAMM:  The first one I really remember was when I was a student at UCLA, was lead dancer in a production of “Canterbury Tales,” and the director, the renown John Cauble cast me in a role where I had to speak.  I usually only danced and sang but had never spoken a word on stage ever.  I refused at first but this director would not let me get out of it.  I can still remember my face turning bright red every time I spoke a line.  I was absolutely horrified that this director was making me act and was completely horrid in my “acting” debut.  However, I got over it and found that I loved acting as much as dancing and singing.

Who is the most famous theater person you ever worked for or with?
BABB:  Famous in what manner?  Mrs. Sally Reed began as my junior high school teacher then transferred to high school where I had the opportunity to be inspired by her for 4 more years. In college, I met Herb Camburn who mentored me and many professional Broadway and Disney designers working in all aspects of theater.  If by famous you mean celebrity, consider a strange pair of names like Steve Martin and Bob Englund (Freddy Krueger).
AMEN:  The late H. Wynn Pearce, a former Broadway and television actor. He was the man responsible for getting me into theater, and, as my first acting teacher in college, was the man who inspired to teach and direct at this level.
RAMM:  There have been quite a few but Broadway director/choreographer Michael Bennett, Broadway director Harold Prince and famed dance choreographer Jack Cole would top the list.

What is your most memorable theatrical moment here at GWC?
BABB: Too many to name.  Our production of Jesus Christ Superstar incorporated lasers in the lighting design which were quite new and caused quite a stir in the audience. There are also many little moments and scenes that are memorable such as the final scene in “The Grapes of Wrath,” the interplay of colors and characters in “The Liar,” and the dynamic music in “NINE.”  It is rewarding to see the students work together on and offstage to create a solid production.
AMEN:  The ensemble spirit that came together one night while working on “The Grapes of Wrath.”  We were having a very difficult rehearsal.  Everyone, myself included, was angry at the way it was going.  A huge storm was raging outside so it sounded like the roof would blow off. So, both within and without, it was not a pleasant night at the theater.  Suddenly, a very shy, mild-mannered young actress (probably trying to “fit in”) let out a string of curse words more appropriate to a drunken sailor than a timid foreign exchange student.  This immediately caught everyone off guard, the actress included and suddenly we all burst out laughing, and remembered why we were there…to have FUN!

If you could pick three plays or musicals you would love to direct, act in or design (and money is no object), what would they be and why?

BABB:  Top of my list is “Les Miserables” and Alan Ayckbourn’s “Taking Steps” or any of his plays.   I would like to do a restoration comedy and/or commedia dell’arte play as I feel it is important for students to learn styles of mannered plays.   I would like to consider Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.”  I am also looking at contemporary and multi-cultural playwrights such as Lynn Nottage, David Henry Hwang, and Maria Irene Fornes.
AMEN:  I would like to direct “Moby Dick,” “Sweeney Todd” and/or “The Three-penny Opera” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
RAMM:  I would like to star in “Mame,” and I would like to again direct “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and direct and choreograph “Show Boat.”

What was the most valuable thing you learned while studying theater arts in college?
BABB: I try to pass on to my students  that it is necessary to have a positive attitude and to have respect for yourself and your peers as theater is a collaborative art which is constantly problem solving in the creation of a production. All students who participate in our program learn communication skills, creative problem solving, time management and team collaboration. These “life skills” will serve them well in any profession they choose.
AMEN: That theater is a very difficult profession in which to make a living. Of all the people I studied with, only a handful of us continue to work in the theater for our bread and butter. What does this mean? To me, it means that talent is never enough. You have to have the tenacity to hang in there and you have to be unwilling to give in to failure. You have to abandon the proverbial “fall-back” position. It’s something I try to pass on to my students.
RAMM:  I didn’t learn a lot while studying theater arts and dance in college or graduate school because I was already treated like a working professional in every show or class I was part off.  I wasn’t treated like a student there to learn.  However, once college was over, I learned a lot.  First, that you need to like what you do and hopefully that passion will actually allow you to feed your family.  Second, that if you did not get that role or even do a good audition, it is not personal and maybe it is just not your turn on that day for that role.  Third, that while singular focus on your craft is vitally important, development as a well-educated, knowledgeable, clever, smart, kind and interesting human is more important.  If not, then once you are no longer “hot” or starring in the latest play, TV show or film, what will you have?

What is your number one wish for the future of the GWC Theater Arts Department?
BABB:  I hope the department continues to train students in all aspects of theater and support productions which challenge our students and our audiences. I would like to start offering courses and  productions for young audiences as there is a lack of resources available for young performers.  TYA (Theater for Young Audiences) could be a valuable training area for students, performers and future audience members.
AMEN:  To see it grow in the diversity of student participation, to see our course offerings expand and to see increased financial support for our program.
RAMM:  To create a place where student actors, designers and technicians learn in an environment that promotes learning experiences and maintains very high expectations.  To have the GWC community understand that there is great and substantial value in the study of theater arts, music, art and dance. Yes, it may look a lot more fun perhaps than math or science, but its value is absolutely no less and the amount of work one must put in to achieve creative success is positively no less.

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