Curtain Calling: Pensis has Rebuilt GCU’s Fine-Arts Program — And He Won’t Rest
By Doug Carroll
GCU Today Magazine
If Claude Pensis were the type to take a bow and bask in the applause — and he most certainly is not — then now might be an opportune time.
Consider how the last three years of his life’s work have gone. In that span, he has been the engine driving a spectacular revival of the arts at Grand Canyon University, and evidence of the renewal is everywhere you turn these days.
- Ethington Theatre, dark for four years during an arts program hiatus, has come alive with more than a dozen productions since the fall of 2010, everything from Shakespearean classics to Gilbert and Sullivan musicals to Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” which was presented in February.
- The Music Department, long a source of pride for the University, has collaborated with the Phoenix Symphony in bringing “Handel’s Messiah” to campus twice and also has performed Mendelssohn’s challenging oratorio “Elijah,” along with a host of well-received seasonal choral concerts.
- Dance and digital-film programs are thriving, and a pep band was an instant success this year. GCU now has an improvisational comedy troupe, a student-run “second series” of theatre productions and a program in graphic design; none of those three existed before last year.
- It’s one thing to oversee such sweeping change — but quite another to insist that all of it be autographed with excellence. Yet that’s what Pensis has done, and continues to do, as dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production. “Good enough” are words you’ll never hear him say.
Those who know him best aren’t surprised that the quality has come quickly. It’s why they came to GCU in the first place, eager to roll up their sleeves and re-engineer the arts program into something better than what it was before.
Assistant Dean Bill Symington, who has known Pensis for more than 10 years, signed on as the Theatre Department’s scenic designer after 16 years in a similar role at Arizona State University. He teaches classes in design and stagecraft at GCU, working alongside his students in a mentor/apprentice model.
Three Seasons of Ethington Excellence 2010-11 “The Pirates of Penzance” “All in the Timing” “Inspecting Carol” “The Comedy of Errors” “The Frogs” (at GCU pool) 2011-12 “You Can’t Take It With You” “Dracula” “Amahl and the Night Visitors” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” “The Boy Friend” 2012-13 “Much Ado About Nothing” “Comedy on the Bridge” and “Beauty and the Beast” “A Christmas Carol” “The Cherry Orchard” “H.M.S. Pinafore” (April 12-14 & 19-21)
“I was in a position (at ASU) where everything I was doing was accepted and no one was really pushing me to be better,” Symington says. “When you work with Claude, he tries to make the shows the best they can be, and that inspires and motivates you. He’s concerned about everyone’s input, but at the end of the day it’s about making the work as good as it can be.
“He’s a quiet, shy guy, but he knows what he’s doing and what he wants. This is someone who will ask you to do something new, something better. … And he’s as hard on himself as he is on anybody.”
Pensis, 55, arrived at GCU seeking something new — and found it. Fresh from a master’s degree program in stage direction at the University of Wisconsin, he showed up for an interview in August 1982 in a three-piece wool suit that he refused to take off. (He still got the job.)
“The spirit then was as it is now,” he says of the University. “It was infectious. It got me here, and it’s what I’m still here for.”
As chair of what was then called the Department of Theatre and Drama, he initiated the five-production Ethington Theatre Series of three plays, one musical and one opera, hoping to build a program that was as good as the ones he saw up close in Wisconsin, first as an undergraduate in Oshkosh and then in Madison.
This year, he has directed three of Ethington’s four productions to date.
“Early on (in college), I started thinking about directing, primarily because I wanted to say more than I could as an actor,” says Pensis, who studied the violin and photography and played four sports while growing up, discovering theatre as a high school senior.
“You have to ask, ‘Why are we putting on this play, and what do we have to say?’ Get a bunch of theatre people together and you’ll find they are driven by something, and that’s ultimately to reveal some sort of truth.”
Alumnus Michael Kary, who
went on from GCU to an acting career and is now a theatre instructor at the University, says Pensis has “a keen sense” of the big picture.
“He’s really intense about the College of Fine Arts and Production, but he’s equally so about its function in the University as a whole, and he doesn’t stop there,” says Kary, who recently played Ebenezer Scrooge in a strong Ethington production of “A Christmas Carol” and will direct “H.M.S. Pinafore” in April.
“In his mind, theatre at GCU (is) a viable part of the Phoenix arts landscape.”
‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ Part of Guild Fundraiser The GCU Guild, a volunteer organization established in 1994 to support and encourage students through prayer, scholarships and campus activities, will hold its annual fundraiser in conjunction with the Ethington Theatre production of “H.M.S. Pinafore.” The Gilbert and Sullivan musical is the final production in the theatre series for 2012-13. The fundraiser will start with a silent auction at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, followed by dinner at 5 in the Arena and the performance at 7 in Ethington. Tickets are $60 per person and $500 for a table of 10. Proceeds will go toward the GCU Guild Scholarship Foundation and the Student Emergency Fund. For tickets: www.GCUArena.com/GuildGala.
Pensis allows that there are certain limitations for a college theatre troupe, such as its inability to play a range of ages in a production. He compares the difference between college and professional theatre to the one between college and pro sports, and says he’ll take college-level passion every time in both.
“This has got to be bloody good theatre, period,” he says. “We’re a college producing the best that it possibly can, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may. I’d never say (to a student), ‘You’re doing well — for a college actor.’”
Last spring, Christina Cullers got a taste of the perfectionist in Pensis when she played the female lead in the musical “The Boy Friend.”
“Working with him is intense,” says Cullers, an opera singer by training. “He’ll get you to where he wants you to go. He was relentless in pulling me to do my best. He has every piece (of a production) mastered, and he’s invested in you as a student.”
Indeed, Pensis thinks nothing of spending an hour and a half with an actor, one on one, to get it just so.
“If you didn’t understand,” he says, “you might think that person was being picked on. Sometimes it’s an actor who has accomplished things but hit a plateau. When we get close to a performance, I have to remind myself to praise what’s working.”
He also has to remind himself that plenty of things are working.
“The goal is to represent Grand Canyon in the best way that we can and to reflect as much honor and achievement as possible,” Pensis says. “We’re in the ballpark. We still have lots more work to do. We’re going to grow and mature and continue to progress, and that’s exciting.
“I don’t want to do three steps forward and two steps back. It’s full speed ahead.”
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].