And the award goes to … Pensis earns special honor
Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Over the course of 30-plus years, Claude Pensis has gracefully and faithfully raised up scores of theatre professionals in various roles on the stage and screen as well as theatre educators in public and private schools.
The dean of Grand Canyon University’s College of Fine Arts and Production has empowered leaders of the college’s other arts programs to nurture graceful dancers, phenomenal musicians, inventive filmmakers and creative digital designers.
Pensis has cultivated a deep loyalty among the expanding COFAP alumni network, planning special events for them that return them, physically and emotionally, to campus.
As a professional stage director and light designer in the Valley’s theatre community, Pensis has lit productions for Arizona Broadway Theatre, Phoenix College, the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, Arizona State University, Shakespeare Sedona, Southwest Shakespeare and Actor’s Theatre Phoenix, among others.
He has earned numerous awards for specific lighting and directing projects and now is receiving accolades for a lifetime of achievement.
Pensis will be given an ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence Outstanding Contribution Award at a ceremony tonight at Tempe Center for the Arts. The award, which has been given to only a couple of dozen artists since its creation in 1992, commemorates Pensis’ investment of time, energy, vision and talent in the Valley theatre community.
Recipients are selected from a broad category of nominated professionals, including administrators, directors, writers, producers, designers, actors, technicians, volunteers, support staff and others who have had a considerable impact on theatre.
“It’s very nice to represent the University and for us all to be recognized for our efforts,” Pensis said in his typically humble way. “I appreciate this so very much.”
He was nominated by Michael Kary, a GCU acting instructor and 1998 alumnus, who aptly summed up why Pensis is deserving:
“Men like this do not usually get the award,” Kary wrote in the nomination. “It is their job to make artists who get the awards, but I think it is time Claude is recognized for his longstanding commitment, his faith in the artistic process and his vision to create teaching artists, all in the face of overwhelming odds.”
A new beginning at GCU
With a Master of Fine Arts in stage direction from the University of Wisconsin, Pensis joined GCU as chair of the Department of Theatre and Drama in 1982. He went all in, implementing the Ethington Theatre Series with five annual productions, hiring and supervising faculty and staff, teaching classes and serving on numerous faculty committees, among other assignments.
The programs grew under Pensis’ tutelage, and in 2005 he became interim dean of what then was GCU’s College of Liberal Arts and Studies. The following year, because of the University’s financial woes, the theatre and drama department was shuttered. However, largely thanks to Pensis’ commitment and leadership and the vision of GCU President/CEO Brian Mueller, fine arts returned to the University in 2010 with the implementation of COFAP.
“The College of Fine Arts and Production was born through Claude’s resolve,” Kary said. “His vision was shared with our administration, and now we are training actors, musicians, filmmakers, designers and dancers in an environment I call ‘a safe place to learn.’”
Kary should know: As a GCU theatre student in the early ’90s, a new door was thrown wide open for him by Pensis — learning classical theatre.
“That opens you up for doing anything in your career, knowing how to handle Shakespeare and the dialect and knowing all the parts of the theatre,” said Kary, who performed in 22 shows during four years at GCU. “That helped me start my career in other ways than acting, and that, in turn, opened the doors to more acting.”
Pensis demands excellence from his students, faculty and staff, Kary said, and even when it’s not his turn to direct a show, he’s in constant collaboration with those involved.
“He’s our artistic director, so it’s his vision we’re supporting with any show we do,” Kary said. “His fingerprints are on everything that happens on stage, whether his name is in the program or not.”
Nola Yergen, COFAP’s multiple prize-winning costume designer, has worked for Pensis for about 13 years — eight years before the theatre department’s closure and five years since its resurrection. She was brand new to costuming when she joined GCU, and Pensis proved to be an ideal mentor.
“As a lighting designer, he understands the technical aspects of theatre and how to communicate with other designers and how to deal with our unique and sometimes prickly personalities,” Yergen said. “Artists are not like other humans, and he knows how to draw out the best work in people. Personally, he’s allowed me the freedom to create and explore and come up with better stuff.”
No one else could have brought the program back to vitality, in Yergen’s opinion.
“Claude knows how to challenge people and to teach them to think critically and solve problems in a nurturing way,” she said. “He demonstrates poise under pressure and patience, too.
“He remembers to be appreciative of your work, and that’s so important because we work long hours and there’s always stress and pressure to get it done and get it done quickly,” she said. “He always remembers to say, ‘Thank you, good job.’ And that’s so simple, so important.”
Beyond the four walls of GCU’s fine arts
Pensis’ influence and inventiveness haven’t been contained to GCU’s campus.
“His collaboration as a lighting designer and director with ASU and professional theatre companies have set him in an ideal spot to take his vision of fostering the most inspiring creative teaching artists in Arizona,” Kary said.
Jeffrey Thomson, a professor of scene design and art direction in the School of Theatre and Film in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, has known Pensis for more than three decades. They have worked together just a few times, including at Shakespeare Sedona, and Pensis has been a guest lecturer in Thomson’s courses.
Pensis’ commitment to keeping the classics alive and making theatre accessible to all types of audiences is legendary.
“Without him, I’m not sure there would be theatre in the West Valley,” Thomson said. “It speaks well of Claude and his work that the University was smart enough to start (the program) back up again. That speaks volumes.”
The most important new aspect of Pensis’ vision for COFAP is his emphasis on education, Kary said, so that students receive the best training possible to sustain them post-graduation. Pensis looks for creative and fun ways to cross-train them — the recent opener of the 2015-16 Ethington Series, Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” is a perfect example. The production, directed by Pensis, opened with a locally shot film collaboration of COFAP’s theatre and digital film students over the summer.
“It isn’t enough that students here are free to explore their methods of expression and inspiration,” Kary said. “Claude wants to train educators to create the same kind of atmosphere in schools across the country.”
Contact Janie Magruder at (602) 639-8018 or [email protected].