BY RUTH RICE
From the day he came on campus at Pitt-Johnstown in 1978, Rodney Eatman was director of theater.
He taught theater courses at a time when the program was under the department of speech and theater.
“The disciplines were closer then, but moved away,” Eatman said.
“We became the department of theater arts and the department of speech communication in the 1980s, but I continued to teach a public speaking course.”
At first, musicals were performed every year under the music program.
Two were produced after Eatman’s arrival, then for several years there were none.
A promised theater in the Student Union building didn’t materialize in time for Eatman’s arrival, so he had to spend a year putting on productions in the large lecture hall of the English and science auditorium.
“There was a table of periodic elements on the wall, but it did have a light board,” Eatman said. “We had to take everything down after every rehearsal.”
Eatman was glad to move into his small theater in the Student Union in 1979, which was a renovated gym.
“The problem with the gym was it was a double gym and had a game room with video games and Ping-Pong on the other side,” Eatman said.
“It had to be closed for every production, and some people didn’t like that.”
As much as he enjoyed moving from the lecture hall to the renovated gym, he was once again pleased to move to the studio theater in the new Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center in 1991.
“We had many perks at the studio theater,” Eatman said. “We had state-of-the-art equipment.”
When he started directing musicals, Eatman alternated between the main stage at the arts center and the smaller studio theater.
“We chose what would fit in the space,” Eatman said. “We had to be certain they were recognizable blockbusters for the main stage, so we could sell more tickets. We were only allowed Friday to Sunday shows rather than two weeks.”
Eatman discovered smaller musicals which charmed his audience for his studio theater.
“I think we were more unique in that way,” Eatman said. “Big musicals are expensive. You need a 16-piece orchestra in the pit, more scenery and lots of people. It’s quite an undertaking, and the first thing you have to do is pay the royalties.”
Through the years, Eatman found he could keep his students longer.
At first, he would have new people for every play, then he had students from freshmen to seniors and was able to watch them grow.
“Some took my advanced acting class,” Eatman said. “As their skill sets enlarged, they could do more difficult plays. I started adding Shakespeare and Chekov – intense, dramatic literature.”
Eatman was the only acting teacher at the time, and a number of students in the theater arts program took his acting course more than once.
“It was difficult to challenge them,” he said. “They grew a lot.”
A number of Eatman’s students have gone on to perform in television and film, while others have become teachers.
“I’m just thrilled to death when I hear something,” Eatman said.
Eatman has seen electrical engineering students become captivated with the new advances in light and sound in the theater.
“It’s driven by rock music whose light shows have devised new and exciting ways of lighting, things that were only dreamed of before,” Eatman said.
Theater courses offered at Pitt-Johnstown during Eatman’s tenure included several levels of acting and voice and articulation, all standard theater training.
“I always wanted to include movement or dance,” he said. “The main benefit would have been for musicals. Many came into the theater through dance.”
Eatman is grateful for the student-driven Golgonooza program, which brought him many good actors.
“They thought it might be fun, short and easy, but once we got them in the door, they stayed,” Eatman said.
He also remembers a time when he took his student actors out into the community to perform plays at local churches.
“I wrote a one-act musical, ‘Daniel and the Lion’s Den,’ and we did that a dozen times in one year,” Eatman said. “We also did ‘The Diary of Adam and Eve,’ a musical about creation. This gave students more opportunities to perform and get better at it. It was done on a small scale on a shoestring in sanctuaries and fellowship halls. I loved for students to meet their audiences, and they learned to like it. It was more down-home to be able to interact with their audiences.”
When choosing plays, Eatman’s first requirement was and still is liking the material.
“I had to find one I really loved,” he said. “I would be asking my students to live with it, too. I had to disappoint those who wanted what I didn’t like because I wouldn’t have been a good director for it.”
When asked about a favorite play he remembered, Eatman said he loved them all.
“I’m proud of the double repertory when we did two alternate plays in a two-week period,” he said. “There was a depth to the program. Some students were in both plays doing different characters.”
Eatman also loved Shakespeare, usually giving the Bard’s work a more imaginative take than a traditional one.
“The bravest play we did was ‘Angels in America,’ ” Eatman said. “It was controversial, but it had important things to say. I was fearful we would be picketed, and there would be protests, but there weren’t. My students played over their heads.”
Eatman has kept scrapbooks of his productions, and former students often want to talk to him about their theatrical experiences at Pitt-Johnstown.
“It’s been a very good ride for me,” Eatman said.
Since retiring in 2009, Eatman has tried to establish a theater group in Johnstown.
“It’s a challenge to organize, but I have some marvelous actors that I taught, and there’s more I’d like to meet,” Eatman said. “There are a lot in the area who love to do theater, and there are some performance groups, but not enough.”
So far, Eatman’s theater group has performed at Arcadia Theater and Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center.
Eatman is theater director at Westmont Hilltop High School.
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