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Thoughts on theater

Peter Hackett looks back. Moves Dartmouth forward

Every day as I walk to my new office in Shakespeare Alley, I pass the portraits of the extraordinarily dynamic teachers who served in the Theater Department years ago. One of them, a gentleman with an impish smile and an irresistible twinkle in his eye, is Professor Rod Alexander, the man who guided me to a life in the theater when I was an eager young Dartmouth student.

Peter Hackett
Peter Hackett '75, Professor of Theater. Hackett will direct several performances of J.M. Barrie's Dear Brutus this month. (photo courtesy of the Cleveland Play House)

A consummate comedian and master teacher, Rod knew exactly what to say and when to say it. For example, after the final dress rehearsal for his production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, the cast, as usual, received acting notes on small pieces of paper torn from Rod's yellow legal pad. All of us received stacks of comments except Ty Nutt '74 who was playing the lawyer and narrator, "Alfieri." Ty hadn't been given a single note in weeks. That evening, he received just one slip of paper that read, "more dynamic throughout!" Ty and I still marvel at the thoroughly energizing content and exquisite timing of that note.

During one of the last rehearsals for my senior directing project, The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, Rod and I watched with dismay as the chorus of urchins tripped and shuffled their way through their dance numbers. After the final blackout, he leaned over to me and whispered, "put glitter on their shoes." By this time I had learned how wise it was to follow his advice even if I didn't understand it. Sure enough, on opening night, with the stage lights sparkling on their rainbow colored feet, the urchins danced with a nimbleness and precision I had never seen before. As I watched them fly through their numbers, I realized that Rod was a motivational genius.

But his timing was never better than when he wrote me this note on the opening night of his production of Guys and Dolls. I was a freshman and "Benny Southstreet" was my first speaking role at Dartmouth.

Dear Benny,

What a trooper you are! Wow! Keep it up for a few more years the way you are going now and you'll be on top of the heap. You are a real funny man. Now keep him real, believable and charming-never think yourself funny (that kills it)-only be amused and surprised that the audience would find you funny. After all, everything you do is most probable and honest and sincere.

With all my love,

Rod.

For an 18-year-old in need of guidance, encouragement and a major, Rod's words were thrilling. I promptly disposed of my pre-med aspirations and began an extraordinary theatrical apprenticeship. An apprenticeship with Rod was characterized by an abundance of passion, support, joy and laughter, both on-stage and off. I am convinced that some of the Dartmouth Players' best comedic scenes during those years were created spontaneously in Rod's office, the green room, the paint shop, in Shakespeare Alley or on his farm in Orford, as well as in the Moore and Warner Bentley Theaters.

On the afternoon of my graduation from Dartmouth, I had lunch with Rod at the Hanover Inn. He was big-shouldered and strong-armed, with shocking white hair and beard. He looked like King Lear. There I sat, like the Fool, not knowing how to say thank you or good-bye. Finally, while reaching over to sign the check, he casually asked me, "So, Peter, what are you going to do for the American theater?"

Once again, Rod's timing was impeccable. Now, 30 years later I think I've found an answer that would have pleased him. After 25 years in the professional theater, I've come back to Dartmouth to follow in his footsteps.

During our work with him, Rod always made us keenly aware of the theatrical tradition that connected the many generations of American artists and audiences. To help ensure the future vitality of the art form, I believe that those of us who are theater practitioners have an obligation to pass on what we have learned to those actors, directors, designers and craftspeople who will come after us.

Rod Alexander and his remarkable colleagues in those portraits inspired me with their passion for the theater, challenged me with their standards of artistic excellence and gave me the skills to create a life in the vocation that I love. I hope I can give my students even a small part of what they gave me.

By TIMOTHY PETER  HACKETT '75

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Last Updated: 12/17/08