Elevating the Stage

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Denison The Register-Guard

On May 29, Bob Barton will take his final curtain call as a director at the University of Oregon, bringing that part of his career full circle.

That will be the final performance of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," which opens its run Friday in Robinson Theatre.

"Much Ado" was the first production that Barton directed here, and it will also be his last, although he will teach for two more academic years before formally retiring as head of the university's acting program.

However, his career in theater will be far from over even then. The author of a highly regarded introduction to acting, Barton is now at work with Annie McGregor of Penn State, once his student, on two books: "Theatre in Your Life," an introduction to all aspects of theater, and "Life Themes," an anthology of plays that will include his adaptations of "Much Ado," Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" and several other plays.

He also would like to write a book on acting comedy.

Barton says he "stumbled" into the business of writing books years ago after being approached by acquisition editors who had seen his students perform in competitions. He began to write his first book, "Acting: Onstage and Off," while on a sabbatical at home, serving as primary caregiver for his newborn son. He's now working on the fourth edition of that book, due out in 2005.

"It just escalated," he says.

Barton also has written extensively for academic publications, on a range of topics including "Vocal Emotional Intelligence," "Gogging: A Model for Theatre Pedagogy," "Director Modalities" and "N.L.P. (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) for Actors."

He worries, in fact, that the amount of writing he's been able to do will create unreasonable expectations for his successor as head of the UO acting program.

After teaching theater here for more than 23 years, Barton says he feels that the university "has never supported our art," and he's not the only one who sees it that way.

Look at the buildings that are being constructed to serve other disciplines, he says, and take note of the fact the theater department has the highest course evaluations but the second-lowest salaries on campus.

Theater faculty members find it difficult to publish as much as tenure committees might like, he says, "because they have day jobs and night jobs" to make ends meet. "There's just a lack of comprehension of what we do," he says.

A liberal arts acting program, Barton says, is not as much about "overtly preparing" people for work in a profession with a very high unemployment rate as it is about self-analysis, discovery and personal growth.

"It's about getting people back in touch with the child in themselves so they're able to play again," he says. "It's about undoing the powerful self-consciousness and fear that life always induces, to help people relax and be in touch with their playful side."

Barton says one major placement agency has told him that its staff members love to find jobs for theater students - not just in theater, but in corporate positions.

"They can deal with the public, maintain poise and multi-task," he says. ``All of the qualities desired - discipline, dedication, collaboration - theater students learn of necessity. All the stuff you want to be able to function in various universes - theater has all that in spades.''

Training individuals for the kind of teamwork that theater requires has become more difficult over the years, Barton says.

"The worst students are what we call the high school hot shots," he says, "students who come to us from bad high school programs where they've been rewarded for being hammy and loud and dishonest. …