Malcolm Morrison

Malcolm Morrison, former dean of the Hartt School outside the Fuller Building on the University of Hartford campus. (Tom Brown, Hartford Courant / February 16, 2006)

Coming to America

With his rising profile in academia, Morrison found himself being wooed to help start theater academies in the U.S. In 1976 he became dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts.

It was a ``weird'' time for American theatrical training, he said. ``There were endless improvisatory classes that didn't seem successful unless someone had a breakdown or took off their clothes. What I tried to do was help structure a program and get back some essentials such as: If you can't be heard, it's not worth doing. I got some sensible movement and literary training into the curriculum so students would know what it is they're acting.''

Morrison said he was merging ``the adventure and dare that American actors are so good at'' with solid training in the classics.

``It was a combination of the traditional and the eclectic,'' said the multiple Tony Award-nominated actor Terrence Mann (``Cats,'' ``Les Miserables,'' ``Beauty and the Beast''), who was a student there in 1976. ``Malcolm took the `Englishisms' out of Shakespeare and made you come at it from your own sense of what that poetry meant to you. But along the way, you sure were taught how to handle verse, too.''

Added Morrison: ``It seemed to me there were two theaters in this country at the time. There were those who wanted to ape the British and those who wanted to do their own thing. But they weren't incompatible. I would hear things like, `American actors can't do Shakespeare' and that was rubbish. They very much could, just not necessarily on the terms that we did it. But there was something kind of bolder, more experiential and experimental about it. The emotions were there even if the scholarship wasn't, but it certainly made an exciting evening in the theater. If you could put the two things together it could be wonderful.''

He brought in fresh and exciting faculty faces, including a professor of dramatic literature whom he met at a Wendy's, where the man was working.

``He wrote his thesis on sexuality and Moliere, and there was something about him as I was served my double burger with cheese.''

While he was dean he also became artistic director of the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, finding a corner of a new convention center to host a theater and finding warmth and support in the American South. ``The community in North Carolina was so behind the school, which they adored. It was a thrilling time,'' Morrison said.

A move west in 1987 as director of the new National Theatre Conservatory, part of the Denver Center Theater, proved less successful, lasting only a year. He said he left because the graduate program always took second place to the theater, he said.

In 1989, he was off to the Midwest, where he was chairman of the department of theater and dance at the University of Wisconsin for seven years.

Off to Hartt

In the mid-1990s, Larry Allen Smith, dean of Hartt and former dean of music at the North Carolina School of the Arts, asked Morrison for advice on expanding curriculum to include all aspects of the performing arts.

Hartt ``was undergoing this identity crisis,'' Morrison said. ``Are we this music school we talk of from the past, or are we a performing arts school that moves into the future? I think that it genuinely didn't know. Clearly what it has become is a conservatory in a university setting dedicated to vocational training.

``But I came not to run things,'' he said. ``I came to get back to the theater. But somehow or another, life changes things and I was offered the job [as dean in 1998].''

Coming from the theater, the appointment of Morrison not simply as the leader of the new theater division but as dean surprised many people -- including some in the music faculty, given that Hartt's stature in that field.

``I am aware for some people it was very uneasy thing, and my appointment ruffled a few feathers on the music side,'' he said, ``but I hope I have been able to demonstrate that I'm actually reasonably literate in and appreciative of music. My role is not to dictate what's done but to facilitate how we determine what is done, and that's a very different thing. I try not to interfere. Occasionally I do, but the artistic leadership of each of the divisions resides with its director.''

Integration of the arts has been his mission as dean, he says, and he points to various productions, performances and workshops that have called upon Hartt's expertise in music, theater and dance.

Morrison said, however, that he was distressed at the lack of arts education among arriving students. ``At one time you could presume a fairly substantial literary background of your students so you could make references to certain of the more popular Shakespearean plays and maybe even the Greeks and everyone would know what you're talking about. I can tell you now that's not true.''

Morrison said the lack of arts education — as well as the changes in professional theater (the loss of resident acting companies, safe programming that avoids difficult classics and the increase in smaller cast and solo shows) — all contribute to "a cultural myopia."

``I'm concerned by the entire education system, that there isn't a substantial preparation for the arts — or even the experience of it. I think there's something to be said for sitting in a dark theater or listening to a great piece of music to realize that it stirs feelings in you — and that makes the difference.''

Asked if there was a passage in ``King John,'' the play he was directing at the time of the 2006 interview, that he felt a personal connection to, given the issues of mortality he had faced over the years, Morrison thought for a moment and then recited Prince Henry's comments on King John's failing health:

``'Tis strange that death should sing. I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan, Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death. And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings His soul and body to their lasting rest.''

``I like the idea of going out singing,'' he said.