Birmingham-Southern Theatre

Dr. Alan Litsey, Professor of Theatre at Birmingham-Southern College, is a talented and accomplished actor, playwright, director, and educator. The 2014-2015 recipient of Birmingham- Southern's Outstanding Educator of the Year award, Litsey has spent over twenty-five years teaching, acting, writing, and directing on the BSC campus.

 Currently, Litsey is collaborating with a teaching fellow to produce a play on campus sexual assault next semester, and he just enjoyed seeing the American premier of his Nest of Angels, with both roles performed by his former BSC students.

An Acting Program That “Gets It”

Litsey has found the last couple of years particularly satisfying, as he has “been a student again-collaborating with colleagues,” experiencing learning that is both powerful and cross-disciplinary. Right now, he is focused on exploring how critical reflection supports student learning in theatre. Though he has now been acting since 1974, Litsey explains that he is never bored with what he does and says that he learns something every time he walks into a classroom and works with students. “It’s such a privilege to get to do this every day,” Listey adds. “I love what I do, and I’m excited about what I do.”

Former BSC Theatre student Christie Connolly recalls her first year in the Theatre program, where she was-like many first-year students-wondering if she chose the right program and the right school. She had seen other programs where students were treated like “acting machines,” and she knew that felt false. In the first acting class with Litsey, she knew she was in the right place because of the way he crafted the course. Rather than focusing on “always being exceptional” in a cut-throat struggle to best other students to win roles, this program was encouraging being “comfortable, expressive, and creative.” She recalls thinking, “This group gets it.”

Reese Thompson, another BSC graduate, had a similar moment in his first year at BSC. He recalls being incredibly nervous initially, worried if he would be skilled enough to perform and anxious about if he could “fit into the mold.” In his first acting class with Litsey, his worries were alleviated by his professor’s kindness and encouragement.

Thompson calls him an “incredibly gifted educator” with the ability to put his students immediately at ease. He also notes Litsey’s skill in guiding his students to find answers to their own questions as they worked through their process. Thompson explains, “This is truly an unusual quality to find in a director. Most directors know what they want you to do and go ahead and just tell you to do it, but this approach doesn’t teach the actor to learn and discover things for themselves. Alan’s approach teaches his students to be self-reliant.”

As a Vail Teaching Fellow working with Litsey, Laura Scialdone is getting to experience Litsey as both a professor and a colleague. While working with Litsey this past summer to revise the Beginning Acting syllabus, she has learned a great deal about “simplicity and specificity” as ideal hallmarks of first-year syllabi. She also had noticed that the syllabi she was most drawn to as a student would incorporate a professor’s excitement for teaching, so they worked to express that excitement in the new document.

Scialdone shares that Litsey’s passion for theatre is one of the qualities that make him an exceptional educator. She also felt that he was always willing to learn along with his students, a quality she believes sets him apart from other educators. “I never felt that I was being lectured in a class with him,” she adds, “but rather engaged in a conversation because he wants to hear from his students about their thoughts and opinions.”

Producing Probably:A Play about Campus Sexual Assault

When Litsey secured the rights to a student-written play about sexual assault, he and his Theatre colleague Dr. Michael Flowers both realized the play needed the “perspective of a young, insightful person,” and they felt Scialdone was the obvious choice Litsey is not only passionate that students grapple with what is becoming a nation-wide concern, but he is also worried that there’s no clear pathway to justice with many current systems, or that the system is “slow and not transparent.” He believes the problem has become dire, and he is adamant that students have the tools to address the problem straight on.

“In theatre,” Litsey explains, “you can have conversations about difficult topics.” They are also partnering with Counseling Services to use Probably to start a campus-wide conversation about the issue of campus sexual assault, doing shows for students and the wider Birmingham audience as well. Because many campuses avoid conversations about sexual assault, Scialdone notes, “I am so proud that our theatre is taking this huge and brave step in putting this production forward for our campus to see.”

“I believe that this will be a learning experience for all those who see this play, because it is not just people in colleges who don’t talk about this, but it is practically anyone and everyone,” Scialdone explains. Though sexual assault is a topic no one wants to discuss, she adds that campus response must be the complete opposite. She notes, “People are uneducated about preventions, precautions, or even how to act around someone who has been raped, and that needs to be changed. I think Probably is going to be a huge step forward in doing so, and it will get people talking.”

Sara Hoover, Director of Counseling and Health Services at BSC, is also excited about the production and is looking forward to the discussion and reflection that will happen both before and after performances. Hoover notes that she is proud to be part of such an important dialogue and hopeful that the conversations will prove beneficial for students. In addition to the lead-in programs on “healthy relationships” that Counseling Services personnel will conduct, the Theatre department, along with their colleagues in Student Development, is planning a Provost’s Forum dedicated to a discussion of sexual violence. Hoover adds, “This topic is certainly an issue on campuses nationwide, and the more we can discuss openly- have bystanders who say ‘no more’ and stand up to a culture of silence-the better our hope to end sexual violence on our campuses.”

Litsey’s Nest of Angels

About his original work Nest of Angels, Litsey notes how proud and excited he was to see former Birmingham-Southern students, Reese Thompson and Christie Connolly, in these parts. He is the first to admit how challenging the play could be, with the hyper-talkative, back-and-forth between only two actors, which is a “lot of content to get on top of.”

Though it was professionally produced in Bulgaria in 2010, he did not have the opportunity to see it performed. This was Litsey’s first time to see a full-length version performed live, and he had even forgotten some of it since he first penned it in 2007. Perhaps because he is both an actor and a playwright, he does not mind when directors or actors take his content another direction than what he may have initially intended.

“When I work on a piece,” he explains, “I’m aware that it’s like a musical score-actors and directors will make their contributions.” He said that was certainly true of the newest incarnation of his work at South City Theatre in Pelham, Alabama, where he believes the two BSC graduates, along with seasoned director Sue Ellen Gerrells, took it to a new level. In fact, he added, “I’m learning a lot about the play because of the company’s discoveries.”

For his part, Thompson has felt blessed, both to work with Litsey years ago and to now play a role in one of his mentor’s plays. While she was incredibly excited to help bring “Nest of Angels” to life in Alabama, Connolly was also next to terrified-not because she thought Litsey would be a tough audience though. Having worked with him for years at BSC, she knew he would be gracious and kind. However, as Tech Week approached, she found herself “freaking out” and realized it’s that she desperately wanted to do such a strong work justice.

Conolly realized she was scared of failing because she was aiming for perfection in a show with only two people speaking rapidly to one another for two hours. She was imagining forgetting a line or having to ad-lib, and she finally acknowledged that fear, while recognizing perfection was likely not possible and certainly not the most important goal of the production. After the show, however, her first words to Litsey were, “I only skipped two lines!” His response, always a proud educator, was simply this: “Well, if you skipped lines on this one, then skip them again.”

The Best Possible World

Litsey’s son just graduated a year ago from Wisconsin’s Lawrence University, a strong liberal arts school, and Litsey’s daughter started Birmingham-Southern just this past fall. Though it is certainly not every child’s dream to go to college where one of her parents work, Litsey is delighted to have her on campus. He adds that BSC is “exactly the kind of place that I would want my son or my daughter to experience-the best possible world.”

In truth, Litsey believes that smaller liberal arts campuses offer the best possible educational path for students, where “experiential learning” is encouraged, faculty and students collaborate on scholarship, and students develop long-lasting and significant relationships with their professors as mentors. He adds that in theatre they “effectively publish with their students at least four times a year,” when they produce their shows, which are shared with the larger community.

Interestingly, Litsey also works as an actor in these productions so he can “be reminded of how hard this is.” He demonstrates firsthand the arduous work that goes into preparing for a part, something that is “not a graceful process” and instead is “the equivalent of sketching and erasing” as they work through lengthy trial-and- error operations to see what works for a character or what works for the show.

As an actor in the productions, Litsey shows students that there is always vulnerability in these parts-that there is “always a level of discomfort when we are learning and engaged.” That is part of any learning process, Litsey notes, or any time students work toward something creative. Along with that vulnerability, though, there is another benefit-as the ensemble “grows to trust one another” and realizes they are “all exploring together.” Litsey stresses that when young people realize that it is normal to struggle when one is trying new things-and it is acceptable to discard some things and hold on to others-they learn how important the process is. Litsey wants his students to be clear about the individual challenges all actors may have to work on throughout their careers, but he and other Theatre faculty also work to be “transparent about the challenges of the art form.”

“Acting and teaching are both alike,” Litsey notes, “in that we have to be very present and authentic.” Litsey sees teaching as being fully engaged in each moment, just like acting. “It’s a very intimate communication,” he adds, “between a teaching and a learning group”; that same moment-to-moment immediacy is part of any live theatre performance. Just as significantly, an involved teacher or a successful actor can’t pretend to be engaged. Quoting his longtime friend and mentor Tony Schmitt, Listey explains, “You’re doing it, or you’re not doing it.”

Tools of the Trade

For Litsey, teaching is what drives him. Theatre is just the discipline he happens to be in, and theatre is the medium for the learning process. Additionally, his students are learning far more than acting techniques; instead, they are applying tools of their trade to every subject they are passionate about. Litsey helps them understand how specific tools for effective acting relate to their other interests and obligations. He encourages them to consider the applications for those skills in job interviews, presentations, or team collaborations. Ideally, he wants these kinds of conversations to help them with all of their other campus connections.

Scialdone definitely feels as though those connections are happening for students. She notes that the Beginning Acting class they are developing, where they are working with many non-theatre majors, highlights this reality. “We are not only teaching these students how to develop a character, but also to gain self-confidence and a stronger sense of concentration,” she explains.

In short, their collaborative syllabus is not about just using theatre tools of entertainment, but in applying those skills to their professional and personal lives. She adds, “We are focusing on awareness of their bodies, voice, and mind, relaxation techniques, and a higher sense of concentration. It instills determination, concentration, problem solving, empathy, and bravery into a person, and those are qualities that can be used in all walks of life.”

Professor of Theatre Michael Flowers has worked with Litsey for over twenty-five years at Birmingham-Southern, and he calls Litsey one of the most dedicated colleagues with whom he has worked. He notes that his friend’s guiding principle is “what is best for our students and how he can best serve the college.” He also calls Litsey “the very definition of collaboration” in all that he does, in class, departmental meetings, or rehearsals-someone who consciously and consistently values input from all voices.

Flowers has seen firsthand Litsey’s devotion to BSC and his utterly selfless approach to his work. Flowers shares that on many mornings after he gets to the office, he will tease Litsey with a question, “Have you made a difference yet in the life of the college today?” Though Litsey’s reply is usually a playful and humble “not yet,” Flowers knows that on most days, his colleague and friend has likely already made the BSC campus a better place.

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.