Theatre professor Claude Pensis stages his 40th year at GCU

Claude Pensis' first job out of graduate school in Wisconsin was at Grand Canyon University, where he has taught theatre and directed plays for four decades. He is known for lighting design. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Claude Pensis studied violin for 17 years.

He wasn’t meant to be a violinist.

“For me, it was not my passion,” said the Grand Canyon University professor of theatre from his office in the College of Arts and Media, its shelves packed with theatre books, photos of old plays and, just to break up the theme, a baseball.

Pensis’ mom played violin; his dad, a music professor and conductor at Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri, played oboe.

“You wouldn’t know it to hear,” Pensis said of his violinist days and foray into the family business. “And the world is a better place with the violin in its case.”

One of Pensis' first initiatives was establishing the five-production Ethington Theatre Series, still in place today. (Photo by Darryl Webb)

The thousands of students he has taught in the more than 150 shows he has directed at GCU would agree and shared that what he taught has remained with them on — and off — the stage in a 40th anniversary celebration of his career recently at Ethington Theatre.

“The outpouring of love and appreciation for Claude was so impressive,” said the college’s dean, Dr. Craig Detweiler. “Alums from so many different eras reunited to sing, dance and perform in his honor, and those who couldn’t attend sent in stellar tributes. What a vivid demonstration of Claude’s fruitful teaching and mentoring.”

Before he discovered theatre, Pensis played sports in high school.

“Then everybody got much taller,” he said in his calming, pleasant Claude Pensis voice.

And working in a camera store, he embraced photography, too.

But those weren’t his passions, either.

Pensis congratulates a graduate at Commencement in 2017.

“This is going to sound silly, but back then, you spent half your professional life in a dark room. I love photography and the art and the science of it, but I’m much more of a people person, and theatre is a people business, especially educational theatre.”

It wasn’t really until his senior year of high school that he fell in love with theatre.

The first play he performed in was “Androcles and the Lion. “It was undoubtedly horrible, but it sparked an interest,” Pensis said, so much so that he studied communications with an emphasis in theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Coming from a family of artists, he knew it would be a challenge making a living. But Pensis’ parents found their way, “and my brother (a music major) and I found our own way.”

Pensis arrived at GCU right after graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received his master’s in stage direction and studied stage lighting with Gilbert V. Hemsley Jr., a distinguished Broadway light designer and professor.

“GCU lost their theatre teacher, and they were searching high and low, and I was very fortunate. Across the country, there were 47 or 48 positions (advertised), and that was it.”

Alumni of the Theatre program perform at Pensis' recent 40th anniversary celebration.

In those early years, Pensis, who was known for his work in lighting design, was the entire theatre department.

“I was basically a one-man band, and for a number of years, I directed and lit five plays a year here, as well as taught a full load. Then there came a time when I started working professionally, so I’d do five shows here, lighting and directing, then I’d light five shows off campus.

“I was a younger person. I don’t know how I did it.”

Pensis, who would rise in his career to serve as the college's dean for many years, slowly built the theatre department, first hiring a costume designer on a show-by-show basis, then adding a scene designer and technical director.

Pensis volunteers for Habitat for Humanity in 2017. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

One of his first initiatives was to create the five-production Ethington Theatre Series, still in place today.

Pensis never ventured far from GCU, even during the time he calls the “medieval period,” in the early 2000s. The school was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2004, and less than 1,000 ground students were enrolled here.

The theatre department was shuttered in 2006.

“At that point, we didn’t have the arts program, so I was working, pretty much, events, and did some lighting things also,” Pensis said.

Thankfully, GCU president Brian Mueller brought the arts back in 2011.

Of the 150 plays he has directed at GCU, one of the productions that stands out is “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which he has directed three times, the first as a junior in college and the last time in January at GCU.

It’s interesting, he said, how he has seen the play differently at different times in his career. In college, he saw it as a comedy and this last time, he leaned toward the more tragic, dramatic side “as I get closer to the other end of life.”

Michael Kary, who was one of Pensis’ students, has done off-Broadway work and was part of the original cast for “Fame on 42nd Street.” He now teaches at GCU.

GCU theatre instructor Michael Kary (right) performs at the 40th anniversary celebration honoring Pensis.

Kary wrote an original tribute play for the 40th anniversary celebration that included a fictional, humorous plotline of composer Stephen Sondheim losing parts to Pensis and living in his shadow. It came complete with original songs, such as “The Ballad of Professor Claude”: “For 40 years, he paved the way for students who wanted to be in a play, and in this song we reminisce of Claude Pensis.”

“He taught us by example that the best work is wrought by humble hands, that excellence and sacrifice are symbiotic, that the people slinging a wrench on an unstable 20-foot ladder are just as important as those taking bows, and that there needn’t be a difference between a mentor and a lifelong friend,” said Kary of how Pensis has built a legacy of artists. “… Mostly, he created a place where students, parents and artists could discover that what we do … was noble, was noteworthy, was necessary for the teaching, the bonding and the healing of humanity.”

William Symington, the College of Arts and Media's Assistant Dean of Theatre and Dance, worked with Pensis at Sedona Shakespeare and ASU before coming to GCU.

Pensis also hired William Symington, Assistant Dean of Theatre and Dance, who worked with Pensis at Sedona Shakespeare and at Arizona State University when GCU’s theatre department went dark during those medieval years.

“We just had great conversations about theatre and art and music and life, and those things grew and grew,” he said of their time at Sedona Shakespeare and their walks to Starbucks on the ASU campus when they worked on shows together there. “While I was not a student here, I’ve certainly been a student of Claude’s. I’ve been here 12 years and I feel like I’ve done some of the best work I’ve ever done, and that’s no small part to Claude’s influence.”

In one of the many student tributes at the anniversary celebration, Elizabeth Grasham, who was a student at GCU from 2002-06 and is now a minister, said she wished every minister had studied with Pensis: “Your acting classes taught me to dig deep, to understand somebody else’s motivations, and that has taught me how to have compassion for even the most difficult people.”

In addition to his theatre work, Pensis (third from left) is the University's Faculty Athletic Representative. (Photo by Travis Neely)

His influence can be seen outside of the Ethington stage, too. Pensis still loves sports and has been the University’s Faculty Athletic Representative for close to 20 years. He represents the student part of student-athlete, he said.

He speaks of the arts’ many homes through the years, from the Colter complex near the Colangelo College of Business, to “where we are right now (in Building 35), which is quite nice,” and he might be one of the few faculty members who remembers the Smith Arts Complex, which was where the Student Advising Center (Building 18) now stands.

“We had a wet lab for photography … the rest was painting and sculpture,” he said, as well as an art gallery and theatre classrooms and costume storage.

It was in those many homes he has served the University in many capacities, including as the theatre department chair, as well as artistic director for the Ethington Theatre series and the college’s dean.

He has guided the college through its many identities, from the College of Liberal Arts and Studies, to the College of Fine Arts and Production, to today’s College of Arts and Media.

And while violin, ultimately, turned out not to be his passion, after four decades, theatre — and GCU — certainly have been.

Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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