GCU Today Magazine: COFAP rebuilt to last

Story by Doug Carroll
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau

Amid the dust and noise of what some have taken to calling Grand Construction University, a completely different — but no less daunting — building project is being celebrated this spring.

Grand Canyon University’s arts program, which closed in 2006 with little hope of being revived, graduates the first significant number of students from the College of Fine Arts and Production, the 2010 reincarnation of a theatre and music program that had a distinguished run back in the day.

The University’s recovery from its near-death experience of 10 years ago has been well-documented. Without the financial rescue undertaken by an investment group led by Brent and Chris Richardson, GCU might not exist today.

However, the arts program did die, and its four-year purgatory is not remembered fondly by alumni.

“I never thought it would come back,” says Michael Kary, one of the most accomplished actors in the history of the program, who himself has come back as a theatre instructor.

Claude Pensis, crushed by the loss of the theatre program he had begun from scratch in 1982, when he was fresh out of graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, soldiered on in a variety of capacities with the University.

“The only hope we ever had was Claude and his tenacity,” says Jeff Gray, a music major who graduated in 2001 and now works for GCU. “He didn’t leave.”

When Brian Mueller took over as Grand Canyon’s chief executive officer in 2008 and decided to bring back the performing arts, he turned to Pensis, who was ready with a forward-looking plan to expand the traditional program to include dance and digital film.

As dean of the new college, Pensis assembled a talented team in Dr. Juan Hernandez (choral music), Bill Symington (stage design), Susannah Keita (dance) and Gregg Elder (digital film). Kary and esteemed voice coach Dr. Sheila Corley returned. Later on, Paul Koch (instrumental music) and Sheila Schumacher (graphic design) were brought on board.

The thinking went like this: GCU students would be trained across disciplines, and the payoff would be a wider range of employment opportunities for them. If they wanted a career in the arts after graduation and were willing to roll up their sleeves, they could have one. At least, they would be prepared well for one.

Along the way to their April commencement, the student pioneers of 2010 sold out Ethington Theatre for plays, packed First Southern Baptist Church for Christmas concerts, and helped turn Thunderground into a hip venue for improv comedy and dance. They landed choice film internships. They bounced around campus for rehearsal and studio space, never having a permanent home but rarely complaining.

They did it all.

“The leadership and faculty built this, but we all grew it,” Pensis says. “These students will forever hold a place in my heart. Four years ago, this is where I hoped we would be.”

Symington, who arrived from Arizona State University in mid-2010 to an Ethington shop that had a broken sink and was barren of tools, says the Class of 2014 demonstrated work ethic from the start, eager to create something great.

“I can’t believe four years has gone by,” he says. “I look back at the volume and quality of work, and I’m proud of it. I’m also exhausted. But isn’t that a sign that you’re doing everything you can do?”

Kary notes that the class functioned like seniors all along, leading for their entire four years in the program.

“They made it through Angel and LoudCloud and brand-new classes,” he says. “They endured a lot. They were like a Petri dish.”

We asked the college’s faculty to come up with four seniors — one each from theatre, music, dance and digital film — who represent the best of the best from the class of 55. None could be transfer students; all needed to have spent a full four years at GCU.

Here they are:

Adam Benavides, theatre

With his song-and-dance performance as a freshman in “The Frogs,” a musical that was staged in the campus swimming pool, Benavides served notice that he would be one to watch. And he was, nailing lead roles in several Ethington productions, including “The Cherry Orchard,” “Twelfth Night” and “Into the Woods.”

During his senior year of high school in Queen Creek, GCU wasn’t on his radar. In fact, he wasn’t even sure where the school was located when he was spotted at a Phoenix thespian conference by Pensis, who was sold on the spot by Benavides’ audition.

The scholarships being offered by GCU were attractive, but the opportunity was even more so.

“There was excitement that (the arts program) was being revitalized,” Benavides says. “There was a clean slate.”

For his first two years, he also served as president of Alpha Psi Omega (GCU’s chapter of the national theatre honor society) and sang in choir. Then he dropped music in favor of film, becoming the college’s first theatre/film double major. He’s not sure which he will pursue as a career.

“I was raised in a family that encouraged you to do what you really wanted to do,” Benavides says. “I’m glad I seized so many opportunities here.”

Natalie Shuler, music

Although Shuler applied to Northern Arizona University and had scholarship money awaiting her there, GCU held an edge because of Sheila Corley, from whom Shuler took private voice lessons in high school. The two even attended the same local church.

“I was super excited to study with her,” Shuler says. “She has a kind heart, and it’s more than being nice. She’s honest and encouraging. When she invests in you, it’s the greatest feeling.

“She doesn’t just care about your voice. She cares about your life. She’s been such a blessing to me.”

Shuler’s beautiful soprano was a highlight of the musical “H.M.S. Pinafore” in 2013, and her senior recital included an aria from Puccini’s “La Bohème.”

She says it’s not enough at the college level to love to sing.

“Music is just so hard,” she says. “It’s surprisingly difficult. The terminology is like nursing. You learn other languages. I read recently that law schools often accept music majors because they know it’s such a hard degree.”

Shuler says she plans to enroll in a graduate music program at the University of California at Northridge, where she already has been accepted.

Samantha Erdmann, digital film

What’s a high school golfer to do when the college coach doesn’t have a spot?

Erdmann had expected to play golf at GCU after finishing 15th in the state as a senior at Millennium High School. When that door closed to her, another one opened in a film program that was so new its courses weren’t even in the computer system when she started.

“I wanted a small-school experience and to be able to mess with cameras from day one,” says Erdmann, who started her messing as a 12-year-old with a Pentax camera from her grandfather. By 14, she was shooting videos.

Erdmann already has several post-graduation opportunities from which to choose, including work with the Arizona Cardinals and with a company in Tempe that does corporate films.

“It went pretty darn awesome,” she says of her time at GCU, crediting Gregg Elder with “pushing us out there to make great films and pursue our love of it.”

Ashley Brown, dance

It’s a good thing Brown reads her mail. Living in Los Angeles, she was undecided about her college plans until a postcard arrived from GCU, mentioning dance education.

She had come to dance relatively late, as a high school freshman, after initially thinking she would be an English teacher. And she knew she didn’t want the insecurity of a performing career.

“You could get injured and that’s it, it’s over,” she says.

With only a half-dozen dance majors at the start, Brown buckled down at GCU.

“We were the first of everything,” she says. “It was tough because we had to do everything ourselves…. As a senior, seeing the others (in the program) grow is what will stick with me the most. It makes me happy to see that those behind me have a good foundation.”

Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].


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