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Standing Ovation: Celebrating Five Faculty
As a collective, they represent over 165 years of service to the Department of Theatre and Dance. Leaders in their respective fields, they have shaped and carried the department’s programs of study to national prominence. And, they have touched the lives of countless students who have flourished under their mentorship.
Our colleague, Professor Lee Abraham, announced his retirement after 36 years as an acting teacher. He has requested there be no article. He simply wants to express his profound gratitude to all the students whose path in life crossed his. They taught him more than they’ll ever know.
Dr. Coleman A. Jennings
For Dr. Coleman A. Jennings, the art of storytelling has been a lifelong love. As a youth, he spent hours making films for the neighborhood children in his hometown of Taylor, Texas. Play upon play – from the road shows presented along Austin’s Congress Avenue to UT’s touring production of Moor Born presented at his high school – Jennings was captivated by theatre. This passion culminated into a career as a seminal professor in the evolving fields of children’s theatre and theatre for youth and communities.
Following his study at Temple Junior College and service in the Army Signal Corps, Jennings first arrived at UT as an undergraduate student in the Department of Drama in 1955. Degree in hand, he worked in the theatre as an off-Broadway stage manager in New York. He returned to UT to pursue a master’s degree in directing, and later completed his doctorate in education at New York University.
In the fall of 1963, Jennings joined the faculty of UT’s Department of Drama. Fifty years of service later, his imprint on The University of Texas at Austin, its students and patrons cannot be overstated. Jennings helped establish a mandate requiring theatre arts for all Texas elementary school students, ensuring that all children be exposed to the power of the arts.
During his tenure as department chair (1980-1992), Jennings aggressively recruited a diverse faculty including Amarante Lucero, Stephen Gerald, Omi Jones, Judy Dearing, Ted Shine and Whitney LeBlanc. And through his leadership, the department established several new student scholarships as well as the Theatre for Youth Chair held by Professor Suzan Zeder. With these funds, the Department of Theatre and Dance was able to attract and retain talented artists and educators.
Jennings has received a Texas Educational Theatre Association Founder’s Award, is an inductee into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre of the Kennedy Center, and the College of Fellows of the Southwest Theatre Association, and in 1997 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education. In 2011, he was awarded an Orlin Corey Medallion of the Children's Theatre Foundation of America. This honor recognizes Jennings’ significant achievements in theatre that have contributed to the cultural enrichment of children and youth in the United States and Canada.
Nearing his retirement from full-time teaching at UT, Jennings is busy editing a new anthology entitled Steven Dietz – Five Plays for Family Audiences (University of Texas Press, 2014). He will also continue to teach. He shares, “Through my years in this profession, I have learned that even more satisfying than creating the stories myself, is teaching others to do it.”
Professor Amarante Lucero
If you’ve attended The University of Texas at Austin’s spring commencement in recent years, you’ve witnessed the artistry of Professor Amarante Lucero and his students. From the graduate processional, to bathing the university’s Tower in light, Lucero’s team creates imaginative illumination for this momentous occasion. Light is not merely technology, for Lucero and his students, it is a form of emotional communication.
Lucero stumbled upon his career in theatre by chance. Living on a student’s shoestring budget while pursuing a psychology degree from the University of New Mexico, he took a position as a stage manager for a local concert hall. The part-time job led to an opportunity to work as a lighting technician for Marcel Marceau. Following the famed mime’s performance, Marceau provided Lucero with a generous tip. This encounter, coupled with Lucero’s growing fascination with theatrical lighting catapulted him into his career.
Lucero joined the Department of Theatre and Dance faculty in 1981. During his tenure, he has served as a pioneer in lighting design innovation, particularly in the area of automated lighting, cyberspace, and using the digital world in design and production. Through his relationship with High End Systems, Inc., an Austin-based manufacturer of intelligent lighting equipment, coupled with support from former College of Fine Arts Dean Jon Whitmore, Lucero imagined and built an automated lighting program unique to UT. Since its inception in the early 1990s, Lucero has led the program and automated lighting design lab, the only one of its kind in the United States.
Lucero works extensively in Central and South America with groups such as Costa Rica’s Centro Costarricense de la Ciencia y la Cultura, International Festival De Teatro Por La Paz and La Compañia National De Danza in Ecuador. He is the director of the Institute for Digital Performing Arts (IDPA) based in Costa Rica, which he co-founded in 1999 with Texas State University-San Marcos Professor Bill Peeler. With programming open to students and educators across the disciplines, IDPA provides concentrated study in emerging technologies and their role in new works in the performing arts. This year’s Institute also offers professional development training for high school teachers in theatre and visual art.
Following his retirement from UT in August, Lucero plans to continue his research in cutting-edge technology and work side-by-side with students.
Reflecting on his time at UT, Lucero shares “At the end of a performance, I remarked to the audience, ‘The work that you’re seeing here is their product.’ Then I point to the students and say ‘They are my product.’ It’s a very satisfying moment.”
Professor Yacov Sharir
Professor Yacov Sharir came to Austin in the spring of 1978 to start the American Deaf Dance Company. One day after his arrival he was invited to apply to, and later accepted, a position at UT’s dance for drama program. Thirty-six years later, UT’s dance program (renamed in the 1980s) has evolved into a leading model for other programs across the United States.
A duel citizen of Israel and the United States, Sharir spent his early career as a dancer with the Batsheva Dance Company School, the Stuttgart Ballet, and the Ballet Théâtre Contemporaine in Paris. As a performer, he had the opportunity to work under the direction of many dance legends including Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins and José Limón. While touring with Batsheva Dance Company, he was asked by his peers to teach a class – a first for Sharir. He explains, “I don’t know why they turned to me because there were other company members who had teaching experience. I started teaching that class and have never stopped.”
In 1982, Sharir founded the Sharir Dance Company, the resident dance company of the UT Department of Theatre and Dance. The company, and later, Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks, introduced Austin to exemplary national and international artists whose work had previously been exclusive to the larger markets such as New York City. The perception of dance in the community was forever changed.
With ingenuity and determination, Sharir secured funding to commission a monumental ten-year project with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The College of Fine Arts provided vital space for Cunningham’s rehearsals and in exchange the department’s students had unprecedented access to artists of the highest caliber.
As a choreographer and teacher, Sharir is pioneering the use of new technologies, including virtual reality, intelligent fabrics and interactive systems in performance. His work has earned him prestigious fellowships from the Banff Centre for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
For Sharir, retirement does not mean slowing down. Determined to stay at the forefront of new technologies, he will continue his research and choreograph new works that serve as an incubator for discovery.
“There is a fortune in being a teacher in terms of what you give and what you get,” Sharir said. “To see the transformation in students’ lives is unbelievable. You’re not only teaching dance. You’re teaching your life experience and you’re sharing with them very precious moments. That’s a treasure.”
Following his retirement in August, Sharir will be in the studio, excited to educate the next generation of artists.
Professor Suzan Zeder
As a graduate student at Southern Methodist University, Professor Suzan Zeder was encouraged by Professor Charlie Helfert to write an adaptation of Wiley and the Hairy Man, a Louisiana folk tale. That play, now 40 years old, continues to be Zeder’s most produced play and helped direct the path of her accomplished career. She is recognized nationally and internationally as one of the leading playwrights for young and family audiences in the United States.
Recruited by former Department of Theatre and Dance Chair Coleman A. Jennings, Zeder joined the UT faculty in 1991. “At that time the profession really needed a safe place to develop new work,” explains Zeder. “The concepts of ‘what is a dramaturg’ and ‘what is new play development’ were just dawning on theatre for young audiences. I realized through the resources of my Theatre for Youth Chair that UT could be a home for that developmental work.”
Zeder forged UT’s New Play Development Workshop, partnering the university with national theatre companies and professional artists to develop new works. Projects included a two-year collaboration on David Saar’s The Yellow Boat with Metro Theater Company (St. Louis, MO) and Childsplay (Tempe, AZ); and Wesley Middleton’s Tomato Plant Girl, jointly premiered at Metro Theater Company and Idaho Theatre for Youth (Boise, ID).
With the untimely passing of UT Professor David Mark Cohen in 1997, Zeder became head of the department’s playwriting program. Championing Cohen’s commitment to new work, Zeder shifted resources to support student playwrights, using the same professional standards executed in the New Play Development Workshop.
In 1999, Zeder formed a coalition of students, faculty and local artists to imagine a festival honoring Cohen and supporting new plays. The Cohen New Works Festival was born. The biennial event, now one of the largest of its kind in the country, serves as an incubator and celebration for student-generated works in all mediums.
After 22 years at UT, Zeder has placed the Department of Theatre and Dance firmly center on the national stage. As a playwright, she continues to delight audiences of all ages with stories of characters struggling with and conquering real world issues, and she encourages her students to do the same.
Professor Steven Dietz, who Zeder recruited to join the faculty in 2006, shares, "Beware the student playwright who says, in passing, 'I've never written a play for young audiences, but I'm toying around with an idea for one.' I can promise you that this sentence, uttered within 20 feet of Suzan Zeder, will not only result in a play, but with Suzan's remarkable guidance and encouragement, will likely result in a play that will garner awards and acclaim and change the trajectory of that writer's career. The answer to hundreds of questions about the success of 20 years of UT writers is this: Suzan Zeder."