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The Deacon Blog

A magazine staff blog with news of alumni and the WFU community

Gaye Taylor Upchurch (’96) on theatre, “Escape,” and the creative process

Opening at La MaMa on East Fourth Street in New York City this weekend is “Escape,” Susan Mosakowski’s play in which three dramas occur simultaneously in adjacent rooms on the same stage. You’ll find an actress held hostage by a terrorist, an elevator repairman and the chained grandson of Harry Houdini, all seeking liberation. As The New York Times said this week, “The director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, has her work cut out for her.”

Gaye Taylor Upchurch ('96)

That’s nothing new or daunting for Upchurch, a 1996 alumna from Jackson, Miss., whose maiden name was Hederman and artistic passion was dance at Wake Forest. She came late to drama — “my life took a left turn” — but she has been on a luge ride ever since with accomplishments galore. I sat down with her over Indian food in Midtown recently to discuss her journey from Wake Forest to Manhattan.

Typically, her memories of Wake Forest center on small class sizes and professors who took the time to know her, feed her dinner at their houses and teach her how to ask probing questions about literature. “But (Wake Forest) also had a sense of fun,” says the S.O.P.H. Society member. She camped and hiked in nearby mountains and “spent a ton of time in the Scales Fine Arts Center when I wasn’t researching English papers.” She majored in English but took courses across the curriculum, from Italian and economics to painting and art history, “which helps me all the time with design” for theatre productions. Barry Maine, Jim Barefield, Ed Wilson, Page Laughlin, Dillon Johnston, Jennifer Sault — these are professors (the latter two have departed for other jobs) whom she recalls with gratitude.

Wake Forest taught her an appreciation for a breadth of knowledge and the ability to talk about story. “I have a massive curiosity,” she says, “and for each show I work on I get to have a whole new experience of research and learning, and it changes each time, which I love. In that way, it’s not unlike a liberal arts education.”

What does that look like in her day-to-day life? Before her heralded production last summer of “Bluebird” at the Atlantic Theater Company that starred famed British actor Simon Russell Beale, she traveled by cab all over London to photograph scenes and neighborhoods. (Bluebird is the taxi, Beale the driver in the play Upchurch directed). Upchurch tacked the photos all over the walls back in New York to help the American actors imagine the places the Bluebird would travel.

Simon Russell Beale

Her path from Wake Forest led her a stone’s throw across Reynolda Road, first to Summit School, where she taught seventh-grade English. Missing the performing arts, she sought inspiration by observing what was happening at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It was there that Drama Dean Gerald Freedman began guiding her as she studied for her B.F.A. in directing. And it was in these early days that Christopher Shinn’s play “Four” and Tom Stoppard’s play “The Invention of Love” inspired her vision “to tell a story that is beautiful and moving but also has this other quality than can only be realized in theatre.”

The leap from English literature and dance to drama makes more sense to her now: “With dance I was very interested in bodies in space. Theatre is really the synthesis of storytelling from a text plus the choreography in the way of dance…. In retrospect I can see that those were the elements I was most interested in.”

From UNCSA she landed in New York with a prized Kenan Foundation Fellowship at the Lincoln Center Institute, where she learned “a very particular method” of teaching schoolchildren about the arts and gained exposure to all manner of actors and artists. Because it was a fellowship that paid her, it also allowed her time to knock on doors, keep her ear to the ground about opportunities and volunteer to assist other directors for free.

In the lean years like so many artists in New York, she did her late-night  share of cocktail waitressing mixed with early-morning hours of concentrated work toward her career. “That time was really brutal,” she says, “but I think … in New York you come here and you have to do that. You end up running yourself ragged, but there’s no other way to get a foot hold and figure out who your collaborators are going to be.”

Eventually she scored big. In 2008 she became associate director for The Bridge Project, a joint venture between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Old Vic Theatre in London. Sam Mendes was directing Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” The three-year project had a major international tour component. “Sam was looking for someone who could assist him in the rehearsal room, who could then take the shows on tour and help keep the shows together in his absence and tech them for new cities,” she says. That was her job. The cities she toured over two years: London; Singapore; Auckland; Madrid; Recklinghausen, Germany; Paris; Hong Kong; Amsterdam and Epidaurus, Greece, known for its ancient and acoustically perfect amphitheater. In the first year of touring, Simon Russell Beale played Leontes and and Lopahkin. That’s when he and Upchurch became friends, and he told her he wanted to work with her again. Simon Stephens’ “Bluebird” became the collaboration for the actor-director friends.

She will return to the Atlantic Theater Company in the fall to direct another Simon Stephens play, “Harper Regan,” an odyssey of self-discovery for a woman in London. And she has “site-specific pirate musical” on a harbor boat that is in the works.

“People fret about (theatre) being a dying art form. I question that,” Upchurch says. “I think it’s shifting and certainly everything has had to respond to the age of the Internet, but I think that this need to experience live storytelling as a community — I don’t know how that disappears. I don’t know why that would disappear.”

The afternoon of our lunch would find Upchurch off to her ever-changing routine of rehearsals, reading plays, working with lighting directors and meeting with costume designers. She has found her place in our country’s mecca for the performing arts.

“I love this city. It can be hard, but sometimes it can love you back,” she says. And for this emerging director, the career highs clearly show the affection is mutual.

USA v. Johnny Reid Edwards

Front pages and world news programs this morning proclaimed the end of the John Edwards trial, a federal campaign-finance corruption case that ended in a mistrial Thursday and an acquittal on one count. As The New York Times noted, Edwards “lost the trial of public opinion.” But he won legal vindication with the assistance of Wake Forest alumna Allison Overbay Van Laningham (’93 and JD ’96).

For the defense: Allison Van Laningham

The former Hankins Scholar and current trial lawyer with Smith Moore Leatherwood in Greensboro joined the defense team earlier this spring. She will be remembered for her 45-minute opening statement in which she urged jurors to follow the money. “John Edwards is a man who committed many sins,” she told the jury, “but no crimes.”

The core dispute was whether former U.S. Sen. Edwards knowingly and willfully received illegal contributions from heiress Rachel Mellon and Fred Baron during his presidential campaign. The U.S. Justice Department alleged that the money was used to hide Edwards’ affair with his mistress and her resulting pregnancy so he could continue his campaign. The team of prosecutors also included a double Deac — Assistant U.S. Attorney Bobby Higdon Jr. (’85, JD ’89). Friday morning some jurors said on network talk shows that they believed Edwards was guilty on some counts but that the prosecution didn’t have enough evidence for convicting him.

The case has been called the biggest against an American trial lawyer since Clarence Darrow faced indictment a century ago.

Tim Duncan (’97): “I like who I am …. “

Any Demon Deacon worth his or her salt knows that if the San Antonio Spurs are winning, you will find an alumnus in the thick of the action. That’s the case this week with the Spurs leading the Western Conference series in the NBA playoffs with Tim Duncan (’97) doing what he was born to do: win. The Spurs had their 20th consecutive victory this week, an NBA record, with Duncan helping them continue a sizzling winning streak.

Tim Duncan holds his retired jersey at his last home game in 1997

The don’t-miss story about him this spring is Chris Ballard’s “21 Shades of Gray” in Sports Illustrated. Ballard calls Duncan the most successful player of his generation, “maybe even its best.” But he’s not flashy, publicity-minded or a fame craver. During his 15 years with the Spurs and in the company of 116 teammates, he has been so skilled and such a leader that Ballard writes “he could coach the team” if necessary.

“Throughout, Duncan has been the center around which all else orbited,” he adds.  In the piece Duncan takes his hits for anonymity in the NBA, with Ballard calling him “one of the squarest players in the League.” But the article pays its respects to the star seeking his fifth championship ring and allows him a clarion endorsement of his own. “I like who am, I like how I do things,” Duncan tells Ballard.

At Wake Forest, we second that emotion.

Quite a coup for a new alumna

If you have a chance today, pick up  The Wall Street Journal and turn to page 3. “Colleges Get Career-Minded: More Liberal-Arts Schools Stress Skills Development, Ruffling Academic Feathers” discusses how some universities are beginning to make career development “a mission-critical” part of college.

While the article includes a large photo of Vice President for Career Development Andy Chan and quotes him extensively, it also includes one of Wake Forest’s newest alumni. Lesley Gustafson (’12) discussed how she graduated Monday with a double major in political science and computer science. “The former gives her the opportunity to enjoy the liberal-arts focus on ‘debating and reading and practicing critical thinking,’ said the 21-year-old, while the latter gives her coveted skills to take into the job market this year,” writes the Journal’s Lauren Weber. It’s nice to see national attention for one of our graduates who barely had a chance to send a mortar board airborne. (Gustafson of Minnetonka, Minn., has nothing to fear in the job market. She starts this summer as an entry-level analyst at Accenture.)

The article points to the emergence of a new model of education, as one educator puts it, that blends liberal and applied learning. Chan said members of his team have met with 150 faculty members to encourage them to link their students to career services and successful alumni. Earlier this year administrators from more than 70 schools attended a conference that Chan hosted at Wake Forest titled “Rethinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century.”

Still, as the article points out, while there is a shift across the country to blending the rigors of academic inquiry with preparation for an ever-changing job market, it is not an easy transition. There remains resistance. Gustafson’s path in future years, and that of graduates from similar colleges, will help tell the story about whether such resistance is warranted.