Q&A: Stan Denman

Q&A: Stan Denman

After serving as the chair of Baylor’s theatre arts department for 18 years, Dr. Stan Denman (MA ’89) stepped down as chair in the fall of 2018 to concentrate on teaching and directing. In this Q&A, Randy Fiedler talked with Denman about his time guiding the University’s theatre program and the legacy he has left behind. 

What was it about Baylor that persuaded you to come back and teach after having been a graduate student here?

When I came to Baylor as a student working on a master’s degree I was very impressed with the undergraduate program. I thought that the students were reading things in their sophomore year that I had not yet been exposed to. Even back then it was a good, solid program that department chair Bill Cook and his wife, professor Patricia Cook, had built, modeled on the University of Texas drama program back in the 1940s. It was a strong program, academically and artistically as well. I also liked the idea that it was at a faith-based university, because that was and is still a big part of how I identify myself as an artist –– as a person of faith who understands the tension that goes on between art and religion, and between faith and creativity. So Baylor seemed like the perfect fit.

How is Baylor able to have faith and artistic creativity coexist within its theatre arts program?

Sometimes with great tension, for people who don’t understand the arts. I believe that the gifts of creativity are spiritual gifts that go all the way back in the Bible to Exodus, where God chose the first men to build and decorate the temple. God said that He had given them the gifts of artistry and filled them with His spirit, so the first people in the entire Bible said to be filled with the spirit of God were artists. If we look back to that as our touchstone, then the gift of artistry and creativity is the divine spark we inherit. Artists have an important role in society and in a faith culture. Once people understand that, they understand it’s not about getting the arts to behave well. It’s about getting the arts to plumb the depths of our humanity, to explore our spirit. When people don’t understand that, they think that in order for the arts to be compatible with Christianity they must show nothing controversial or offensive. The thing that I believe moved Baylor Theatre into a new era was when we began embracing the idea that, as artists, if our faith has any relevance in the contemporary world, who else should be asking the toughest questions? We should be. That’s why we don’t believe in dividing the world into the secular and the sacred.

Has that philosophy been difficult for some people to accept?

Sure. There have been times when we have raised a few eyebrows when people have said, “You’re doing what play?” But we never want to take our audience by surprise, and we’ve always tried to let it be known that a certain production is a play for adults that examines an adult topic such as racism, sexual assault or infidelity. These are things that adults and communities of faith need to talk about –– what are the dangers of adultery or greed? There are times when we just want to be entertained and there is great value in that, but there are also times that, to borrow from the apostle Paul, we want to go for the meat of the Word and not just the milk. A Christian writer once said that artists are the prophets of today –– not because they foretell the future, but that at the risk of the audience’s displeasure they communicate to them the secrets of their own hearts. We risk displeasing our audience by showing them the truth, but if we’re doing our job as artists there are times we celebrate the creation and other times when we warn the congregation.

Are there other elements besides the coexistence of faith and art hat sets Baylor’s theatre arts department apart from theatre programs in other schools?

What I tell people is that we try to fall into the gap between the state schools and the Bible colleges. We try to be a place that is not hostile to Christianity, and which wants to actually deepen and strengthen people’s faith. But at the same time, we’re like large state schools in that we provide quality artistry and our standards are just as high. Our goal is to not compromise on either front. There are other things that set us apart as well. Because of our faith mission we have a very close relationship between our faculty and our students. We really build a supportive community here. And while a lot of theatre programs, like our entire industry, are infected –– and I use that word purposely –– with celebrity, very concerned with what famous actors or actresses might have studied there, we tell our students that celebrity is not the hallmark of success. Instead, success is being gainfully employed and respected by the people that you work with. While we are very proud of our alums who do gain a level of celebrity, we are more concerned that they are doing good work. 

Who are a few of those alumni doing good work now?

Beau Gravitte is the artistic director of one of the most famous acting studios in the world –– The Actor’s Studio in New York, where Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward went. Chris Coleman is the artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the largest nonprofit theatre in the United States, and Stephanie Ybarra just became artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage. Because our academics are strong we graduate smart people with a strong work ethic. They are in leadership positions, moving and shaking and molding what the theatre is like today in the United States, but people won’t know who they are because they’re not celebrities. However, some of our alums are more well-known –– people such as Derek Phillips, who was on “Friday Night Lights” and “Longmire,” Allison Tolman, who was nominated for major awards for her work on the TV version of “Fargo,” and Kara Killmer, who is on “Chicago Fire.”

Are there any Baylor Bears on Broadway?

Yes. Sherri Parker Lee was on Broadway originating a Tennessee Williams role, with Trevor Nunn as the director. Elizabeth Davis has done quite well for herself in New York, doing shows off and on Broadway and receiving a Tony nomination. Christopher Henke has been several Broadway shows. Rob Askins was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play in 2015. Jason Hindelang has probably been our most successful Broadway stage manager, doing maybe his eighth or ninth Broadway show now, but because most people focus on actors, you don’t hear as much about the tremendous success of our folks behind the scenes. And Doug Rogers, who had one foot in art and one foot in the theatre while he was at Baylor, is an art director and designer whose career spans from Broadway musicals to animated Disney and DreamWorks films. These are just a few of our successful folks that immediately come to mind. I am certain there are others that I am missing. The list could go on and on with many successes in major regional theatres as well.

Is there a way to characterize a typical incoming Baylor Theatre student? What are they coming to Baylor for?

The majority of our students come because they want to be an actor on Broadway or in film. That’s what they want because that’s basically all they have seen and known. They don’t know all the other ancillary theatre jobs there are that they may find more joy in. I know when I first started I wanted to be a professional actor, but my love and passion is in directing and writing –– being more behind the scenes instead of in the spotlight. So, part of our job when our students come to Baylor is to expose them to all the other avenues of creativity that are within the larger professional world of theatre, and show them how they can use a theatre arts degree toward other ends. 

The popularity of theatre arts as a Baylor major has led to some changes over the years, has it not?

Yes. Twenty-five years ago you could just walk in and be a theatre major at Baylor. You can’t do that today. We had to change to a system of admission by audition and interview because the floodgates were opening and that was about to irrevocably change our program –– and not for the better. Now, not only do students have to audition and interview, but we have to pre-screen them even before that because we’ll see a thousand auditions in a year for 30 to 35 spots. It’s pretty competitive. And admission into the program isn’t simply based on performance or vocal ability. We have to balance that with academic ability and whether a student is a fit for our program. So we audition all across the state of Texas and do national unified auditions in Chicago.

When your students finally leave Baylor, in what ways have they changed?

They’ve learned a lot. They know how much hard work theatre is, and that it’s really not playtime. They hopefully have adopted a strong work ethic. They’ve also discovered that there is a lot more intellectual rigor to success in the theatre than people think, and that their analytical and leadership skills need to be sharpened. There are a lot of students who come in thinking that they are going to be the lead, and hopefully during their time here they have learned what their place in the theatre should be. Some students who come in thinking they are going to be actors leave as lighting designers or costume designers. That’s not a failure –– it’s just that they have discovered another aspect of the storytelling team that they excel at. That’s really what college is all about. 

Baylor Theatre over the years has enjoyed a loyal audience base and a reputation for excellence on the stage, as evidenced by the many sold-out shows we see each year. How have you built that relationship with your audience?

The feedback we get is that 9.9 times out of 10, people are surprised at the level of professionalism and the quality of work that we do. It’s rare that someone comes and is disappointed. Everybody is not going to hit a home run every time they step up to the plate –– that’s the nature of theatre. But, I think we have a remarkably consistent record for excellence in design and technology in the performance, and in the voices we have in our musical theatre program. But that’s really taken building over the years. We try to keep up our standard, and I think that is something our audiences respond to. We have people come and say, “I can’t believe this a student production.” It’s nice to hear that.

Looking back over the time you served as department chair, what are the achievements you are especially proud of?

The growth in the department is one thing. Bill and Pat Cook and all those faculty members before me had built a very solid program, and when I became chair I knew how good it was. I simply began to try to turn our attention outward, to let more people know what a terrific program we have at Baylor, and to begin more intentionally preparing our students for the professional world. As that happened we began to sort of move back into national prominence again, being ranked nationally and mentioned as one of the top undergraduate theatre programs in the country. One recent ranking put Baylor Theatre at 13th among 341 programs compared nationwide. We’ve almost tripled the size of our student body and more than doubled the size of our faculty and staff. Because we tried to have more of a national presence and even an international presence, we began the Baylor Theatre Abroad program and now send students to Europe and India. We’re really trying to fling our green and gold afar. 

Are you optimistic about Baylor Theatre’s future?

Oh yes. My successor as department chair, Dr. DeAnna Toten Beard, is brilliant. She is excellent at academics, and much better at developing curriculum than I was. She will see new opportunities to develop our program that I did not see. She has inherited a highly functional program with an excellent faculty, but you have to constantly be reinventing yourself to stay current. I look forward to seeing what she is going to do.