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Pro­fessor of Theatre George Angell will retire at end of season. | Courtesy

 

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.”

  • Nikolai Alexander Dignoti

    George Angell has been the most won­derful mentor I could have asked for, some days it truly amazes me to remember that I am priv­i­leged to call him my teacher.