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For a Director: Greg Abbott

There are all kinds of people who shape and direct our lives: family, friends, lovers, co-workers, political leaders, educators, etc. I want to talk about one director who has helped shape our lives: Greg Abbott. DramaTech has meant a lot to me. A huge part of that was Greg. Since his untimely death, I have been reflecting on what made Greg such a memorable director in my life. I hope that my story will ring true for many of you.

In my first semester at Tech, Fall 1993, I auditioned for DramaTech's production of The Skin of Our Teeth. I was offered a small role, which was not in the original script. For anyone who saw that production, you know my casting had nothing to do with acting talent. It's not a coincidence that this was both my first and my last time on-stage for a DramaTech scripted play. Greg cast me, not for the sake of the show, but to give me a chance. Had I not been cast, I probably would never have joined DramaTech. Since then, I've been a part of over 25 DramaTech productions.

Chances are important. While my contributions to The Skin of Our Teeth may have been forgettable, my future contributions would not have happened without that opportunity. Like many incoming freshman, I was annoying and clueless. I had to work to be likable and competent. There are many people who would not have given me a chance. Greg did. That is one lesson from Greg that I try to incorporate into my own life. Give others a chance, because they may deserve it more than is readily apparent. If there's a freshman that's annoying you, give him or her a chance, a second chance, a third chance even. If others are like me and have benefited from a chance given to them by Greg, please repeat after me: Thanks, Greg. Thanks for giving me a chance.

Theatre can be a cruel world of limited opportunities. There are only so many parts to be cast. There are only so many technical positions available; many of these positions cannot be filled by newcomers, as they require experience. Occasionally, an extra role can be created, but that strategy does not scale. A better strategy is to create entirely new kinds of opportunities. It is perhaps with this in mind that Greg twice recruited Robert Lowe to conduct a set of improv workshops. These led to the forming of DramaTech's own Let's Try This Players, now the oldest college improv troupe in the South.

After The Skin of Our Teeth, there was no place for me in the next main-stage production, Agnes of God. It 's a small show with an all female cast. Instead, I started attending improv workshops. On my bookcase at home, I have an award that reads, "Let's Try This! Lifetime Achievement Award." So, it worked out okay.

Let's Try This! is only one of the groups that formed during Greg's tenure. Greg noticed that much of the cast who worked so tirelessly on the musical each year had little to do the rest of the year. To give them a new creative outlet, Variety Tech, our own song and dance troupe, was created. Greg transformed DramaTech from a community theatre to a student-run college theatre. Because of this, there have been an increasing number of dedicated alumni. Friends of DramaTech was formed to support this network of alumni, allowing them to stay connected and contribute back to the theatre. Let's Try This! Variety Tech. Friends of DT. Each of these groups has matured with strong leadership, standard practices, and common values. If others too have benefited from the existence of these groups like I have, please repeat after me: Thanks Greg. Thanks for these opportunities.

Theatre can be a self-centered narcissistic practice. The "me first" attitude is quite pervasive. Those who have power and experience often look down on those that don't. So, why is it that the person with the most power and experience was so humble and so willing to let others have the power? DramaTech is foremost a student-run theatre. We run the place. We choose the plays. We do the work. That was important to Greg. He didn't want to be the sage on the stage, leading us. He wanted to be the guide on the side, enabling us to lead ourselves.

For a time there, the club picked some plays that Greg didn't connect with and his direction was consequently uninspired. Still, it was important to him that we pick the plays. He worked out a solution that would lead to better performances and keep us in charge. He, as artistic director, would get to pick one play a year and the club would pick the rest. If he felt that he couldn't do a good job of directing a play that the club picked, he'd hire others to do it. Personally, I've always looked forward to the "Greg play"; it is consistently one of our strongest outings.

During Greg's tenure, DramaTech has become a stronger institution. We moved from the old church to the Center for the Arts Complex. The quality of the shows has improved; we now take ourselves seriously enough to have an awards banquet every year. Several strong secondary organizations have formed. These milestones did not happen because of bold leadership on Greg's part. They happened because the members of the theater made them happen. Greg just provided the right support and encouragement to let that happen. Thanks, Greg. Thanks for putting us first.

As an educator, Greg realized that people learn best when they have real responsibilities. Unlike the practice field of the classroom, your work in DramaTech has real consequences for others, for the show, and for the theatre. DramaTech members learn to work with others towards a common goal. They learn to become competent at various skills by actively engaging in them. Finally, they learn to pass on those skills to the next generation.

In my time here, I've had unprecedented opportunities to stretch my creative muscles. My favorite work has been in the position of director. I take my philosophy of directing from Greg: It is the director's job to make sure the right people are in the right spot and the right support is there to allow them to succeed. I applied this philosophy to Faustus. The best thing I did for that show, my favorite show ever, was surrounding myself with capable people and letting them do the work.

When we moved Tommy over to the Center for the Arts, Greg went all out, making sure the show would succeed. If there was no right person at DT, he brought in alumni, friends, and professionals. It was an awesome show. I remember a classmate of mine coming up to me afterwords and saying, "Wow. That was a good show." After I thanked him, he persisted, "no really. I don't just mean it was good for a college theatre. It was a really good show, period." Everyone agreed. The room was standing before the final note had sounded and before the bows began. Greg was a great director, in the classical theatre definition of that term. Tommy is just one example of that. Thanks, Greg. Thanks for the direction.

Part of being a guide on the side is realizing that small things matter. Acknowledging and supporting can be just as powerful as leading and directing. I was working on 3 Walls, No Blinds, my other favorite show at DramaTech. It was a small show that ran for only two days. Greg realized that he couldn't make it on those days, so he joined us for the last rehearsal and gave us feedback. It wasn't necessary, but it was important to me. The last time I worked with Greg, we were hanging an extra curtain for the Black Box Improv Festival, 2006. It was crunch-time and we needed to get the space ready. Greg knew it was crunch-time and that he could help best by being there and doing the small work that so many others could have done.

The last time I saw Greg was the day before he died. It was a poorly-attended Thursday-night LTT! show, following the Variety Tech performance. I'm sitting in the audience and I hear Greg's unmistakable laughter at the side of the risers. He didn't need to be there; I'm sure that others missed him. He was just there to understand the current state of Let's Try This! and support us. That will be how I remember Greg—laughing at a poorly attended improv show. It was a small thing, but all the small things are important. Thanks, Greg. Thanks for the support.

We are all directors of others' lives. Greg meant a lot to us and I hope we can continue his legacy by following his example. There are so many small things you can do to support others. It takes very little time and effort to see a show to show your support. Let people know what you liked and how they improved. It takes very little time and effort to show up to a dead-week Friends-of-DT dinner and share your stories and wisdom with the next generation. Never be too proud to hang an extra curtain for someone else. It makes all the difference in the world.