Season of Five Productions to Bring Ethington Theatre to Life
By Doug Carroll
The 17-year-old award hangs on the wall outside the office of Claude Pensis at Ethington Theatre.
It’s one of those dubious-distinction things, recognizing Grand Canyon University’s productions at Ethington as the “Best-Kept Theatrical Secret” in metropolitan Phoenix.
Pensis has been around long enough to see both sides of the equation.
“You’re glad somebody came to see you,” he says, “but you’re upset everybody didn’t.”
From early indications, he’d better be planning for somebodies, plural.
The much-anticipated revival of the College of Fine Arts and Production under the direction of Pensis, its dean, will put Ethington back on the map for theater lovers. An ambitious, five-show schedule for 2010-11 will open on Aug. 27 with the popular comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance.”
Pensis and Assistant Dean of Music Juan Hernandez conducted auditions for “Pirates” this week at Ethington as they plan for a large show with a cast of more than 30 performers. Onstage will be new and current students, GCU staff and even alumni such as professional actor Michael Kary and Scottsdale drama teacher Joanie Colson.
However, the show is only one of many things filling Pensis’ calendar as the college returns in a new form to GCU after a three-year absence. A digital film major is even being offered in the new configuration.
“I’m a director by training and trade,” Pensis says, “and I’ve always been a juggler. The thing costing me sleep is the mental checklist of making sure all the balls are in the air. It’s logistics, logistics, logistics.
“Yes, it’s a brand-new college, but there are individuals in and around the University with a wealth of experience to help get things on their feet.”
Pensis, who has been with the University for 27 years, says he anticipates a college enrollment of more than 100 students, almost half of them theater majors and about 80 percent of them freshmen.
“We’ve got some top-end students coming,” he says. “We’re getting them from high schools, but we’re also getting several transfer students from Phoenix College. It’s like they’ve come over and decided they want to live here now. That’s unique and wonderful and will help season us a little.”
One of the transfer students, Shane Geant of Bullhead City, auditioned for “Pirates” and has a goal of becoming a theater professor and playwright.
“We call ourselves ‘The Company’ because we’ve been working together on shows for the last year,” he said of the Phoenix College group. “It’s exciting to be a part of this, the beginning of a program. The enthusiasm is uplifting. The arts take a lot of hits in our culture, so it’s nice that this program is not only wanted but being promoted.”
The season will consist of five comedies, which Pensis says is by design. It concludes with the musical comedy “The Frogs,” which will be performed in April in the swimming pool on campus. (That’s right.)
“Everything is very light,” Pensis says. “We’ll save ‘Macbeth’ for later. I want everything to be a gala, an event.
“We’ll also have at least four choirs, and I want all of their concerts to be events, too. We’ll do things like impromptu concerts at the Student Union and rehearsals on the Promenade. The idea is to do these things not just for ourselves, but for them to become part of the ground-student experience.”
Lisa Wright, who is studying for her master’s degree in psychology at GCU while working as a financial counselor in the Military Division, can’t believe her good fortune. Wright, who has vocal experience and has directed church choirs, auditioned for the cast of “Pirates.”
“I’ve been anticipating this for a long time,” she said of the return of theater to Ethington. “I looked at the calendar for our shows, and it’s aggressive but doable. A lot of these shows aren’t being done elsewhere. People will want to come see them.
“Auditioning is a happy kind of nervous for me. I’m excited about the possibilities.”
So is Pensis, even if it keeps him up at night.
“If I didn’t try to control my excitement, I’d be dead,” he said. “Theater and music are things I’ve done for a long time, but we’ve never had dance before and that’s the cherry on the top.
“This is timing like you wouldn’t believe. I really want us to enliven and enrich the student experience at GCU. I want us to hold up our end.”
Reach Doug Carroll at email@example.com or at 602.639.8011.