New Faces: York College's Theatre Program is Growing

During the Fall 2008 semester, students in the York College Theatre Program gained access to many more opportunities on and offstage with the construction of the Collegiate Performing Arts Center (CPAC). The CPAC includes the 705-seat York Collegiate Theatre and the Perko Playpen Theatre, an experimental black box-type theatre.

Within the CPAC, the growing program enjoys professional dressing rooms equipped with showers, a large scene shop and wardrobe area, student lockers and “plenty of storage,” according to Jim McGhee, PhD, associate professor of English and director of the theatre program since it was established 27 years ago.

In addition to the enhancements offered by the CPAC, the theatre program has been strengthened by the addition of three new faculty members.

“Kent Cyr, Mary Cyr and Dr. Deidre Onishi brought experience from around the country to York College,” said McGhee. “And the courses they teach add new and exciting elements to our growing theatre program.

Kent Cyr

In Fall 2008, the major’s second full-time faculty member, Kent Cyr, was hired as the technical director of the theatre program. Cyr assists with campus productions and teaches courses that introduce students to the tools and materials of scene construction and stage lighting.

“In the Scene Design course I taught in the fall, students read and analyzed three scripts, then created vision statements and ground plans based on their interpretations of the piece,” said Cyr. “At the end of the semester, each student built a model item of the set.”

This spring he is teaching a Lighting Design course that focuses on the basic elements of lighting design as it applies to stage composition, color and other aspects of a specific show.

“Because we have access to the CPAC, an excellent facility fully equipped with sound and lighting systems and a large scene shop, students get a firsthand look at careers behind the scenes in theatre,” he said.

Cyr received his undergraduate degree from Indiana University (IU) Bloomington.  As an undergrad, he worked as a student supervisor in the IU School of Music for the Opera Department. Later, he received his master’s degree from Boston University in technical production. He has had considerable technical experience in opera houses and theatres all over the country including Chattanooga Opera, La Jolla Playhouse, Knoxville Opera, Spoletto Festival and Bard College. He also worked as the technical director for the IU Opera Theatre.

Mary Cyr 

In Fall 2009, Mary Cyr joined the theatre program as an adjunct professor specializing in costume and makeup design for performance.

“Costume and makeup design are extremely important to a production because they help tell the story,” said Cyr. “The key to any production is to do everything you can to help the audience use their imagination.”

In Fall 2010, Cyr taught a Makeup for Theatre course in which students learned how to apply everything from basic stage makeup to makeup for wild fantasy characters. 

“Costumes are only a part of the whole picture,” she said. “Actors never look quite right until they are onstage with all of their makeup and their hair complete.”

Some of the skills students learned while in her class were to make beards (and glue them onto their own faces) and to change their features so they appeared more than 80 years old.

“They even learned how to create very realistic bruises and oozing cuts,” she said. “As you can imagine, they really enjoyed that lesson.”

This spring Cyr is teaching a Costume Crafts course in which students learn how to make handbags, hats and even jewelry to fit a character – small elements that can make a huge difference to a character’s appearance onstage.

“When an audience sees a character, even before that character speaks, they make decisions and draw conclusions about them,” she said. “The costumes and accessories can guide the audience in the right direction.”

During many of the campus productions, Cyr tries to teach student directors and stage managers ways to establish a relationship with the students in the costume area.

“Students need to explain what they need for their shows beyond ‘a dress’ or ‘pants,’ ” she said. “They should identify fabric, style and period of dress in order to best portray the characters to the audience.”

Cyr also educates students involved in a production in the basics of costuming so they can help each other solve problems that may arise during, before or after a performance.

“Students need to learn to help each other with makeup, fix minor rips and tears in a costume, and press costumes that become wrinkled between shows,” she continued. “A wardrobe crew course could teach students many of these basic skills. We will offer a course similar to that in the future.” 

Cyr’s experience as a costume designer began with her undergraduate degree in costume construction technology at Indiana University (IU) Bloomington where she also worked in the Opera Department. She went on to receive her master’s degree from IU, and then became the head of costumes for the IU Opera Theatre. She has also spent time working at Emerson College, the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and the Bard Summerscape Festival.   

Deidre Onishi

Deirdre Onishi, PhD, an expert in non-Western theatre, arrived in Fall 2010 as the newest full-time faculty member in the theatre program. In her first semester at York, she taught Shakespeare I, Acting and Introduction to Theatre.

“I try to add creative elements into my classes,” Onishi said. “Whether it’s taking swords to my Shakespeare I class or having my Acting class pretend to be animals, I find ways to get my students involved and out of their seats.”

In her Acting course she also teaches students the importance of mastering the physical aspects of theatre before they begin to learn scripts. 

“I try to train the inner body,” Onishi said. “Through mastery of the inner body, students learn how best to use their voice and movements to capture an audience.” 

Most importantly, Onishi stresses the importance of effort and hard work in all of the theatre classes she teaches. She said she learned this concept from her father, a director, actor, and scholar of Chinese studies, who introduced her to the world of theatre. 

“He always said the joy of acting came after hard work,” she explained. “You feel joy in what you accomplish.” 

This spring Onishi is again teaching Acting, along with Shakespeare II and Advanced Acting.

“In future Advanced Acting courses, I hope to ask students to create a performance that could easily be brought into a public youth community setting,” she said. “It could be anything from a puppet show or a skit, but it must involve direct interaction with the children in the audience.”

In Spring 2012, Onishi will teach her first non-Western theatre course at York. “I am thrilled that Dr. Onishi was able to add her expertise to the theatre program,” McGhee said. “The disciplined nature of non-Western theatre could only help actors develop their skills.”

Students taking Onishi’s non-Western course will learn about cultures with unique ideals and values, and the many differences between theatre styles and traditions in these cultures and in the United States.

“In the United States, we tend to divide dance, theatre and music into three separate performing arts,” Onishi said. “But in non-Western theatre, they are intermixed. That’s why I try to incorporate singing into my acting classes.” 

Onishi is also working to blend scholarly and practical education in the program by identifying more internship opportunities for students. She believes theatre majors and minors should use the skills they learned at York in a real-world environment before they graduate.

“I love York College’s emphasis on professional excellence,” Onishi said. “And I am glad to see that the theatre program shares these values.”

Onishi’s diverse scholastic background is an excellent match for the growing theatre program. Onishi received her undergraduate degree in Asian studies and music from Carleton College, a master’s degree in Asian theatre from the University of Hawaii-Manoa, a master’s degree in comparative literature and theatre/film studies from Columbia University, and a doctoral degree in drama and theatre from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has also published work through the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People.