GCU theatre alums proud of program’s revival
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
Sunday’s final performance of “Into the Woods,” the final show of the 2013-14 Ethington Theatre Series, turned out to be an emotional occasion for members of the musical’s 1999 cast who were in the audience.
Claude Pensis, the director of both versions, didn’t have such an easy time, either.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” said the dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production at Grand Canyon University. “Some of these faces I haven’t seen for a long time.
“This speaks volumes for who we are — and who we’ve always been.”
The reunion of the “Woods” cast from ’99 was initiated via social media by Jason Hammond, who played Jack in the show as a sophomore and now works as an actor in Chicago. About 20 theatre alumni made it back to Ethington on Sunday, enjoying the chance to catch up with one another and meet GCU’s current crop of student actors.
“I feel like nothing has changed, in a good way,” Hammond said after the show. “It’s the same caliber of effects, performance and direction. This was emotional for me, seeing a show I had done (at GCU). And it was in the same building. I spent more time in this building than anywhere else on campus. This is our home.”
Even the ’99 edition of Milky White, Jack’s cow, turned up for a photo op, thanks to Kim Livsey, who played the voice of the Giant in the earlier show and had stored the papier-mâché cow in her mother’s attic locally.
The reunion “raised the stakes” for the current cast, said junior Josh Vanderpoel, who played the Mysterious Man. “We had to do a good job. It was a lot of fun to see their reunion and think about ours someday.”
“Into the Woods” was the last production at GCU for ’99 graduate Jason Sluyter, who now works in a variety of capacities for the Norris Center for the Performing Arts in the Los Angeles area.
“This was my favorite show I ever did here,” said Sluyter, who played the Baker. “This took me back 15 years and put me right onstage again.”
Sluyter began at GCU as a pre-med major but switched to theatre midway through his time on campus. He said there was nothing like learning from Pensis, who began the University’s theatre program in 1982 and oversaw the return of the performing arts in 2010 after a four-year hiatus.
“Claude is a mentor and an inspiration,” Sluyter said. “Everything I do — acting, directing, lighting — I learned from him. Going to Canyon was such a great opportunity.”
He said Pensis even helped him overcome his fear of heights, insisting that he scale ladders in order to work on Ethington productions. “He said if I was going to be a theatre major, I had to do it,” Sluyter said.
Hammond said that when he caught a GCU production of “Doctor Faustus,” his college decision was made.
“I had never seen anything like it, the acting and singing,” he said. “I knew instantly that this was the place I needed to be.”
Sluyter said GCU’s elevated profile in recent years has been a source of pride.
“People know where I graduated from now,” he said. “I was so happy when I found out the arts were coming back (in 2010). Seeing the school itself and the campus is amazing.”
Jeff Gray, a former music major who was part of the ’99 cast and helped publicize the reunion, said he plans to work on bringing back arts alumni on a regular basis.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].