After a black walnut tree fell in his yard, Director of Theater George Angell carved the lumber into a dining room table and gave it to Professor of Spanish Carmen Wyatt-Hayes.
“It has been one of my great joys,” Wyatt-Hayes said. “It’s my favorite piece of furniture.”
Professor of Philosophy James Stephens has one, too, as does the lobby of the Sage Center for the Arts, where Angell taught, created, and directed for 33 years. This week, the Tower Players perform “All’s Well That Ends Well,” the last of nearly 70 plays he’s directed at Hillsdale.
At the end of the school year, Angell will retire, leaving behind a growing theater department and a host of young actors who benefitted from his experience.
Angell encourages students to study the performing arts. In fact, he recommends all students become theater majors. The discipline he spent his life studying encompasses all others, he said.
“There is not a single subject, single moment that you study that doesn’t cross the stage at some point,” Angell said. “There are either plays about it or plays that incorporate that knowledge.”
In addition to directing, Angell acts, designs sound for shows, writes plays, and teaches courses on acting and directing to playwriting and film.
Theater department chairman James Brandon said Angell gathered many responsibilities over the years. He has influenced every aspect of the department in some way, so much so that Brandon said he expects not to realize everything Angell does for some time. A few years down the road, he said, he’ll wonder who used to take charge of a particular task in the department.
“And the answer will inevitably be George,” Brandon said.
When Angell arrived at Hillsdale in 1984, the department was in danger of dissolution. Instead, the college hired one tenured professor and two part-time adjuncts. After Angell joined the department as an adjunct, he put his experience to work.
Angell ran the theater department for 20 years, from 1996 to 2016.
Besides promoting the performing arts at Hillsdale, he also introduced his students to the broader theater community. Angell took a student production of “Macbeth” to compete at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in 1999. Four times over the last 10 years, he has brought students to the United Kingdom for Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest theater festival. During the 2001 trip, he performed in a student-written one-act play, “Billy Bob’s Garage.” Another trip became an annual tradition — every year since 1990, he’s brought a group of theater students to see professional shows at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.
The theater department now offers one dance performance and four plays annually, one of which is student directed.
Senior Elena Creed directed “The Man of Destiny” last year. After she offered detailed instruction to each of the actors, she said Angell offered her his own instruction: “Let the actors act.”
Giving artists freedom was one of the most valuable lessons he has taught her, she said.
“You as a director aren’t supposed to control everything,” Creed said. “You’re supposed to be there to work alongside people and to shape the play into the vision that you have.”
When he directs, even when he doesn’t like how someone is portraying a character, Creed said, Angell often trusts that the actors will see for themselves what works — and what doesn’t.
Senior Nikolai Dignoti also said he appreciates Angell’s hands-off approach, which allows actors to explore characters themselves.
“You always do feel like it is your character,” Dignoti said. “And he’s very good at getting you there.”
An unwritten part of his job also is to assuage anxious parents fretting over their potentially jobless theater major children. He once had to do the same with his father.
During high school, Angell got a part in a local play in a town next to his. His mom had to drive him to rehearsal every day for six weeks. Near the end of rehearsals, his dad became angry that he was wasting his mother’s time. Then, he saw the show.
“Afterward, he said to me, ‘I don’t care where you have to go. We’ll get you there,’” Angell said.
Before Hillsdale, Angell directed the first stage production of The Who’s rock-opera, “Tommy.” After he arrived, he wrote and directed a musical about the Chinese annexation of Tibet, “Iron Bird,” which premiered at the Markel Auditorium in 1996.
Angell also has traveled. He’s visited almost every country in Europe, he said, as well as many in Asia, Africa, and Central America. He also spent several years growing up in Turkey. He can get by speaking Turkish, but he’s fluent in German.
For his sabbatical in 2008, Angell spent two months in Bali, studying mask-making with an artist. He spent half his time on the island enjoying the culture and learning to speak Indonesian, and the other half sitting in the corner of a shop creating a theater mask, dark-colored with bright blue eyes, that sits now in a corner in his office. Near the end of his stay, his wife, Megan, and his son, Gwydion, joined to see what they thought of the country. He would be interested in going back, he said.
Both of Angell’s children, Rhiannon ’07 and Gwydion ’15, attended Hillsdale, but only Rhiannon majored in theater. She knew her father would be tougher on her than other students.
In addition to mask-making and carpentry, Angell has a host of other talents.
“I’m a — I don’t know whether to say terrific or terrible — hobbyist,” he said.
He enjoys boat building, fly fishing, stained-glass making, beer brewing, and cooking, from grilling at theater picnics to producing gourmet meals.
He’s gone fly fishing with Stephens, and Wyatt-Hayes and her family have benefitted from his culinary talent.
“When my mother was dying of cancer — and this shows who George is — he would buy groceries for us,” Wyatt-Hayes said. “And my mother, as is so often the case with people with pancreatic cancer, lost her appetite, but not for the soups that George would make specially for her.”
Angell’s interests extend beyond performing arts, but they also return to it time after time. Everything from hobbies to intellectual concepts converge on the stage.
“You spend all kinds of time in the world of ideas and theoretical knowledge, and in the theater you get to see it all play out across historical time,” Angell said. “It is a unifier of all the rest of the knowledge that you get here.”
Angell often chose to situate plays in times and settings, such as “All’s Well That Ends Well,” a Shakespeare play which takes place in 1960s France. This highlights the universality of theater, “to clarify the author’s intentions for a contemporary audience,” Angell said.
During the first production performed at the Markel Auditorium, “Romeo and Juliet,” Angell spoke to the performers —students and professors — backstage before the curtain rose. As Stephens recalls, he told them the play would not be the best adaptation ever performed, but that it was their thanks to Shakespeare and their participation in the Western tradition.
“And at least as I remember it, all of us grew about six inches,” Stephens said. “When we walked out onto the stage, we were more than we had been when we came in the theater that evening to get into costume. I think all of us did, but I know I did, learn something about what it means to be at Hillsdale in that experience.”