Month: June 2019

‘Central Park Five’ opera has Lawrence alum in a thoughtful, emotional place

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Derrell Acon ’10 stood shoulder to shoulder earlier this month with Antron McCray, one of the five New York City teenagers — now men in their 40s — wrongly convicted in the 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park jogger.

The Lawrence University alumnus was days away from performing as McCray in The Central Park Five, an operatic retelling of the emotionally charged criminal case, set to open in an opera house in southern California. An ACLU luncheon brought Acon and his castmates and the five men they’d be portraying into the same room for the first time.

“It gave me a little more weight in terms of the responsibility I had to give an accurate picture to the audience and to be true to how I explored and continue to explore that character,” Acon said of meeting McCray.

The Central Park Five story of the coerced confessions, the guilty verdicts, the Donald Trump call for the death penalty, the vacated judgments 13 years later, and the eventual settlement that set New York City back $41 million is getting plenty of renewed attention on the heels of the recent release of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix mini-series, When They See Us, the intense retelling of the case that dominated headlines 30 years ago.

While the Netflix series is getting the bulk of the attention, the jazz-infused opera production from composer Anthony Davis — more than three years in the making and separate from the DuVernay series — has drawn its fair share of looks as well. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times previewed the Long Beach Opera production in the days before it opened on June 15, and opening night saw reviews from both newspapers and the Wall Street Journal, among other outlets. The New Yorker is working on a story as well, according to a spokesperson with the opera.

Derrell Acon '14 sings on stage with the four other leads in "The Central Park Five," an opera being performed by Long Beach Opera in southern California.
Derrell Acon ’10 (center) and his castmates in “The Central Park Five” sing in unison. Acon portrays Antron McCray, one of five New York teenagers falsely convicted 30 years ago.

Two more performances are scheduled for this weekend at the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro, California.

“I wasn’t really anticipating any particular response,” Acon said after getting an enthusiastic welcome on opening night. “I was more aware of my own responses, understanding that it would be a very emotional process for me. As a young black man in America, you know, a lot of these topics are very close to my own experience, and these struggles are very mirrored in my own life.

“I think a lot about the rehearsal process, tending to all of these emotions, letting them out, having a lot of beautiful discussions with my colleagues, especially the five of us in the lead roles.”

The timing is coincidental, Acon said, but that the opera arrives amid heightened attention on the Central Park Five case is certainly beneficial to the public conversation. An earlier effort by Davis to debut the opera — since retooled and renamed — in New Jersey drew little attention. But that was before the Netflix series arrived.

“I’m a firm believer that everything is happening when it needs to happen,” Acon said. “All of these things are happening at once. It’s almost because our society is so resistant to the truth being revealed that you almost need it to be thrown into the mix as an atomic bomb for people to really put their ears up and understand how important this is, how terribly, terribly unjust this was.”

A journey to Long Beach

After graduating summa cum laude from Lawrence in 2010 — he was a double major in voice performance and government — Acon went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in 19th-century opera history and performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

He spent the next two and a half years on the road, performing, lecturing and studying. The schedule began to wear on his voice. Ten months ago, he relocated to southern California, drawn by what he calls the area’s “laid-back culture” and the plethora of arts opportunities.

He connected immediately with the Long Beach Opera, which was in the midst of a season based on issues of injustice. The casting for The Central Park Five was just getting started.

“I sang for them and was invited to join the cast,” Acon said.

He was working with people he didn’t know while immersing himself in the West Coast arts scene. He jumped into the mix as the opera company’s manager of education and engagement, organizing and facilitating community conversations in the months leading up to the opening of The Central Park Five.

“The journey began there,” Acon said. “It was kind of a crash course in introducing me to the classical music scene here. I am someone who has spent a lot of time in the Midwest and on the East Coast, so the West Coast scene was new for me, and this was just a beautiful introduction to that scene.”

The well-attended community conversations gave people a chance to speak their mind, to share with others in a very public and very cleansing way. To do it with the arts as an avenue to positive discourse on an emotionally charged topic was beautiful to see, Acon said.

“The key word is community,” he said. “The arts have this ability to create a community. Especially something like opera, where what you’re hearing is so visceral, it’s so emotional, so loud, as some of the younger people who have seen my work would say. You don’t really have an opportunity to do anything but listen. It’s so in your face, it’s in your soul, it’s in your heart.

“You may not always agree with the topic being put forth, but you are put in a position of contemplation, of consideration, and that is a communal experience. … Having the community of the opera house and the guidance of the voices and actors on stage may be enough to spark the conversation and the courage needed to really dig into some of these topics.”

The five lead performers in "The Central Park Five" sing on stage during the Long Beach Opera production.
“The Central Park Five,” by Long Beach Opera, opened just weeks after a Netflix series shined a new spotlight on the 1989 criminal case that resulted in faulty convictions of five New York City teenagers. Lawrence alumnus Derrell Acon ’10 (center) stars in the opera.

Opening night arrives

As the June 15 opener drew closer, the performance of The Central Park Five was being described as both emotional and powerful, with Acon and the other lead actors often singing in unison, a singular and pained collective character.

“I think operas work on multiple levels, and certainly a visceral level is one that I’m very concerned with,” said Davis, who created the production in partnership with Richard Wesley. “I want the audience to have an emotional experience that involves identifying with the characters and putting yourself in their place.”

After the opera opened, reviewer Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Most of the opera, which is in two acts, follows the five through their arbitrary apprehension, inappropriate questioning, dubious trial, conviction and harsh sentencing. The boys react much of the time in quintet, voices blending in disbelief and outrage. The most effective operatic innovation is the creation of the Masque, who is less a character than the embodiment of white racism, be it the police, a reporter or various others.”

The reviews from opening night have been mixed, with reviewer Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times suggesting that the tone and the angst was spot on but having the five leads often sing as a Greek chorus means they “never have the chance to come to life as individuals, either in music or words.”

That’s a complaint, Acon said, that he also heard from a high school student who was part of a group he brought to a dress rehearsal. It’s a legitimate perspective, he said, but one he doesn’t necessarily share.

“I personally believe the opera is very effective in the way it keeps the five in unison, for the most part,” he said. “In a way, it’s saying this experience is not individual. This experience happens to so many young black men and other men of color in this country, so much to the point that we can sing the same words at the same time, in a metaphorical sense, because we all have these same sentiments as it relates to the American criminal justice system.”

Acon’s next chapter

When The Central Park Five performances conclude this weekend, Acon, a bass-baritone, said he’ll turn his attention to new opportunities in southern California.

The arts as a vehicle for education and understanding will almost certainly be part of that journey.

Acon, who serves on the Lawrence Board of Trustees as a Recent Graduate Trustee — a position established for alumni within two to 10 years of their graduation — earned multiple regional and national honors as a student and already has more than two dozen operatic roles on his resume.

His deep thinking on issues related to the arts, race and public policy was plenty evident during his time at Lawrence, and Brian Pertl, Lawrence’s dean of the Conservatory of Music, isn’t surprised that Acon is seeing early career success.

“At Lawrence, Derrell was already an outstanding scholar and stellar performer,” Pertl said. “The performance he created in association with his honors project, Whence Comes Black Art?: The Construction and Application of ‘Black Motivation,’  stands as one of the most important and compelling student productions I have seen in the past 10 years.” 

Ten months after landing in southern California, Acon said he feels like he’s found his artistic groove. The work with Long Beach Opera is just the start of some promising things.

“I’m excited to see what comes next,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of opportunities, and they keep coming in. It’s very encouraging.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

2 Minutes With … Phoebe Eisenbeis: Proudly connected to the earth

Phoebe Eisenbeis works in the SLUG garden and orchard on campus.

2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrentians on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.

Story by Isabella Mariani ’21

Phoebe Eisenbeis ’21 is an advocate for the natural world both in and out of the classroom. As an environmental science major and a gardener in SLUG (Sustainable Lawrence University Gardens), her life at Lawrence University is deeply rooted in the earth.

Phoebe has always been intrigued by gardening and the environment. She recalls visiting farms on school field trips and going to farm camp in her home state of Minnesota, where she got to experience typical farm chores.

A new hobby blooms

It all came together at the outset of her freshman year at Lawrence when she learned about SLUG. The campus organization’s beliefs in inclusivity and sustainability were a good fit for her.

“I felt a really immediate connection to it.” says Phoebe. “Like, this is so cool that this is on campus and that it’s kind of open to everyone.”

SLUG encourages all Lawrence students to come to garden hours to help out regardless of their gardening experience. It’s all about the community effort to sustainably and interactively grow food and learn more about the earth in the process.

Phoebe started going to SLUG meetings and soon signed up for garden hours. It wasn’t long before her academics in environmental science began to nourish her gardening interest.

“The thing I feel almost drawn to about environmental studies in general is the aspect of sustainability and self-reliance, and a tight-knit understanding and relationship with the natural world,” Phoebe explains. “I feel like they’re really correlated for me to go deeper into my understanding of how the garden works.”

SLUG is also a place for personal growth. The garden supports Phoebe’s personal beliefs in sustainability and living connected to nature.

“As it is right now, the garden embodies a lot of my beliefs of getting people outside and interacting with the food, and how the food they eat grows and how to harvest it.”

Growing her passion

For Phoebe, the key is to strengthen her understanding of gardening with her knowledge of environmental science.

“I feel like if you just want to garden and be outside and do all those things, that’s wonderful and great in its own way, but I also want to supplement it with academics.”

As Phoebe continues to work with SLUG, she hopes to ensure the garden’s future with more students getting involved and in touch with their food and their world.

“I feel really passionately about making sure the garden continues for generations,” she says. “Something I want to bring out about it more in my time, as I maybe will get to be a leader in the garden, or just as I get older and know the garden more, is to make it more accessible and more widely known. Just that anybody can do it and be a part of it.”

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.

Lee Chemel: Commencement speaker on her spark for the arts, early struggles and working with TV’s biggest stars

Lee Shallat Chemel ’65

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lee Shallat Chemel ’65 has been doing a fair bit of soul searching.

Since graduating from Lawrence University 54 years ago, Chemel has forged an impressive career as a director, first in theater and then in television — a 10-year stint as a conservatory director at South Coast Repertory in Orange County, California, eventually led to a more than three-decade run working behind the scenes on some of the most iconic shows in TV history.

Now she returns to Lawrence as the 2019 Commencement speaker on Sunday, June 9, ready to impart insight and wisdom drawn from a professional career that she says has everything to do with the liberal arts education she received at Milwaukee-Downer College and then Lawrence.

“It’s forced me to investigate my entire life,” she said with a laugh. “It’s been a fascinating experience.”

She’ll be joined at the Lawrence Commencement ceremony by her husband, David, and her daughter, Lizzy. Her son, Tucker, won’t be able to make it.

Details on 2019 Commencement, related events

19 things to know about Lawrence’s 2019 Commencement

Without stealing from her Commencement speech —no spoiler alerts here — we chatted with Chemel, an English major as an undergraduate, about her journey, her deep affection for Lawrence and why she has a special fondness for Michael J. Fox, Lauren Graham and Jason Bateman.

On how Milwaukee-Downer and Lawrence — she was part of the first Downer class to merge with Lawrence, spending her first three years in Milwaukee and her senior year in Appleton — lit a fire in her for the arts and planted the seed that a career in the arts might be possible: 

“My path to theater happened because of Lawrence. And that’s kind of significant. I never thought I would ever enter the arts of any kind as a way to live. Being a woman who was brought up in the ’40s and then the ’50s, I didn’t even foresee that possibility for myself. 

“I grew up in very modest circumstances, five people in a one-bedroom apartment when I was young. I didn’t have big dreams of anything except going to college. That was a big deal to me. I loved my teachers, so I thought I really want to teach. I never had the dream of doing anything in the arts. It didn’t seem like it would be practical enough. It just never occurred to me that that would be something I would do.”

On seeing her first theater production at Lawrence, a staging of Macbeth directed by David Mayer III:

“I was just blown away by it. I had done some theater. I wasn’t one of those kids who did musicals and stuff in high school, but at Downer I had done theater. And I was just blown away by this production.”

On her early mentors in theater at Lawrence, Mayer and Ted Cloak:

“When I got to Lawrence, I decided I would take an acting class from Ted Cloak, who was probably one of the best acting teachers I have ever had, even including the three years I spent with Duncan Ross (in a professional acting program in Seattle) and all these other fabulous people. But Ted Cloak was a wonderful acting teacher, and he loved theater and understood it, and the productions they did, they were just phenomenal.

“I really believe that because of David Mayer and Ted Cloak, I found that theater was more than I thought it was. I really loved it although I still didn’t buy the idea of it as a career at that point. But I became much closer to that idea. Lawrence opened my eyes completely to the richness of the arts, particularly the theater and the film arts. It was remarkable what an influence it had on me.”

On making the transition from Milwaukee-Downer to Lawrence:

“I was only at Lawrence for one year. But it was a year that was packed with amazing things for me. Downer was a very good school in that the professors there were kind of radical. … They were sharp people. They radicalized me politically. Got me involved in the Civil Rights movement. Linus Pauling came to talk with us, Upton Sinclair. It was amazingly rich for a tiny, tiny school. But Lawrence took that and just broadened it – everything became broadened and deepened.”

On ditching her teaching career for theater after she and then-husband Phil Shallat moved to Seattle so he could study theater in graduate school:

“I was teaching high school there. … He said, there’s a new thing they’re doing (at the University of Washington School of Drama), a professional acting training program. I said, wow, that is so cool. Meanwhile, I had applied to teach at a terrific private school there. … But Phil suggested I also audition for that M.F.A. program. And I did, just on a lark. And on the same week, I got an acceptance into the (acting) program and an offer for my total dream teaching job. I held those two envelopes up and went back and forth and said, oh, heck, I’m going to do the acting thing. It was a whim almost.”

On her forays into acting after earning a master’s in fine arts from Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program:

“I acted in Seattle, but I knew somewhere in my head that acting, I just didn’t have a tremendous passion for it. I liked it. I loved doing it. But it wasn’t complete for me. I wasn’t secure with it or something.”

On her introduction to directing:

“I moved away from Seattle and down to San Francisco and then I got a job at South Coast Repertory in 1975, and they didn’t hire me for acting but they hired me to teach in the conservatory. And that led me to teaching at the colleges around there, so I was kind of cobbling together a bunch of teaching jobs but then what happened is Orange Coast College said we don’t have the money for you to teach next quarter but do you want to direct a play? So, I directed The Rivals, an 18th Century English play that I really liked. And I fell in love with directing right then and there.”

On embracing and thriving as a theater director, earning five L.A. Drama Critics Awards along the way:

“It all happened through my education in a way. If I hadn’t had the background of this liberal arts education I wouldn’t have been able to make a living doing the teaching part while I searched for what finally struck home for me — the directing.”

On turning to TV directing in the mid-1980s:

“That was another leap. That was like a crazy leap where I was now a resident director at South Coast Repertory. … I’d done some good directing, a lot of directing, to the point where in L.A., I had a little bit of a name. There weren’t a lot of women directing in theater then. 

“But I began to wish sometimes in productions I directed that I could do a close up. That sort of made me realize, maybe you really need to look at film. I applied to the AFI, the American Film Institute; they had a program for helping women get into film. But I didn’t get accepted. I continued to direct in L.A., and my friend Joe Stern, who was a producer on Law and Order, knew TV people as well as theater people. He said, Gary Goldberg has this new show called Family Ties. He’s looking for a woman director because there was some pressure at the time to start hiring women. You can see how far that got after 35 years.

“He said he wants someone who was good with actors, not just technical. I went in and I met Gary Goldberg, and he liked me, and we were the same age, so that was cool. He said, come in and observe. … So, after almost 10 years (at South Coast), I just quit. I had no idea if this was going to take me anywhere or whether I would succeed or not. I just moved up to L.A. and started observing on Family Ties, and I remember I was observing that show from August until, I think, October. … I started borrowing money from my boyfriend, … and then finally on the schedule my name came up for a show in February. So that’s how it all started.”

On how difficult the transition to TV proved to be:

“I think I did six to eight episodes of Family Ties. But not all before I moved on. That year I did one, then the next year I did two. Family Ties people knew me before I stepped up and they were there to support me because I’d been observing there and they were kind to someone just starting out. You go to other shows and they don’t know that. They just know that you don’t know what you’re doing yet. So those are tough times. Part of my speech is how tough it was. You get a few episodes and you try to develop. … You try to get as many gigs as you can and hopefully make a good impression so they’ll ask you back. What I realized is it takes 10 years to be good at that. And we were live-cutting shows. That was really, really hard.

“I had the support of knowing that I was educated. And that sounds weird, but it was actually quite significant to me that I knew things. I knew I could analyze a script, I knew that I could understand things. I could communicate well, I understood tone, I understood people. I was older than a lot of people who start. So, I had lived some life, too. And these were the things that buoyed me up during these very tough times.”

On highlights of a career that would include directing and/or producing work on Murphy Brown, Spin City, Northern Exposure, Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls, and The Middle, among others:

“Murphy Brown was certainly a big jump up for me. That’s when my agent finally talked somebody into getting me onto what you’d call a real major show. Working with such good writers. … And once I had Murphy Brown under my belt, that got me an Emmy nomination, and, all of a sudden, I was kind of accepted. I was brought into the club, I guess you could say.”

On her latest work, a nine-year run as director on The Middle:

“I got to be full-time on that for nine years, and we all became a family. That was a wonderful experience.”

On directing Michael J. Fox, first on Family Ties and later on Spin City, when, unbeknownst to most, he was beginning his battle with Parkinson’s disease:

“Michael J. Fox, I love to talk about him. Initially, Family Ties was supposed to be about two hippie parents who all of a sudden discovered that their kids are conservative. It was that reversal thing. But here comes this guy playing the conservative son who likes Nixon and stuff, and he was so funny and so inventive, and what happens in comedy is that the writers want their jokes to sail, so they start writing for that guy because he’s so good. All of a sudden, the show flipped, because Michael was so damn funny it became more centered on him. He became the star of the show.

“Michael is an interesting guy. He plays the comedy so well and it was a delight to watch him develop and sail, and you take good writers and then you take this great young actor and you watch it as they just start feeding each other. That was quite a wonderful thing to see. I loved watching that.

“Then I got to work with him on Spin City for a whole year in New York. And that’s when I learned that he had Parkinson’s. Nobody knew about it except me and Gary Goldberg because they didn’t want to make it public yet. And it was very challenging for Michael. But he was ever wonderful and I admire him so much.”

On working with Lauren Graham on Gilmore Girls, first as a director, then as an executive producer:

“Lauren Graham and I became friends during that last season on Gilmore Girls. It was very challenging because Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of the show, went away and that took the heart of the writing with it. Now she’s doing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and she’s a brilliant writer. But here we were with a whole year to do the final season of the show; the actors and writers worked incredibly hard to keep the tone of the show consistent. That is a very hard thing to do when for all previous years, Amy had written most of the scripts. Bless those writers and Lauren, they did a phenomenal job.”

On her respect for Jason Bateman, who she directed on Arrested Development:

“I love Jason Bateman. I adore him. Jason and I did a few pilots together before Arrested Development. A lot of the network people thought he was going to be or should be the next Michael J. Fox. But he wasn’t, that wasn’t Jason’s humor.

“I think he went through some real struggles, and then all of a sudden Mitch Hurwitz writes this brilliant series called Arrested Development and it taps into the real place where Jason can shine. I was so happy for him because it validated him, and now he’s got a great, great career. And he’s the nicest guy in the world and he was just very lovely to work with always.” 

On whether last year’s series finale of The Middle means the end of her career:

“I don’t know. I did the pilot for a spinoff from The Middle this fall, with the Sue character. It didn’t get picked up. I wrote a note to my agents and said, I’m not dead yet. But I don’t know. I feel maybe it’s time to give back again and do some other things. I’m at a crossroads, but I’ll see what comes up next season.”

On returning to Lawrence while not knowing what comes next:

“I’m like the graduates in a way. What am I going to do now? I just want to be open to stuff. I feel like I am in an interesting place in my life.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

2 Minutes With … Liam Wulfman: Where everybody knows your name

Liam Wulfman is one of the student managers of the Viking Room.

2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrentians on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.

Story by Awa Badiane ’21

Many people dream of one day running a business. This dream doesn’t typically include co-managing a night spot on your college campus during your junior year. For Liam Wulfman, however, this is reality.  

“I couldn’t imagine doing another job. Everything just seems kind of boring in comparison,” Liam says of his work at the Viking Room (VR), Lawrence University’s on-campus gathering place that first opened in 1969. 

The VR is located in the basement of Memorial Hall, a casual hangout for faculty, staff and students who are 21 or older, mostly staffed by students.

The Viking Room was managed by an outside company until recently. Now it is student run (plus a faculty advisor). Liam and three other students manage the place that has been part of the fabric of the Lawrence community for five decades.  

“We run everything, basically,” Liam says. “Operationally, we are pretty self-sufficient. Other than one faculty (advisor), it’s all student run. It’s pretty crazy. It’s weird and it’s exciting.” 

Liam is in charge of a full staff, creates work schedules with other managers, and ensures the Viking Room is running smoothly and responsibly at all times.  

“My first shift, I was carding,” he says, “It was pretty fun. They just told me, sit here, make sure no one under 21 comes in. Like, oh god, I was so afraid.” 

Building skills

Liam, a biology major who is part of Lawrence’s swimming and diving team, joined the VR staff near the end of his freshman year. 

“One of the people on the swim team worked at the bar. … She told me to apply.” 

As one might assume, now being responsible for the well-being of a fully functioning entertainment hangout while still in school is quite the challenge. Yet, as Liam gets more acclimated in his position, he is becoming more comfortable with his role as a manager and his need to juggle those duties with the demands of the classroom.  

“It’s been tough, but really rewarding,” he says. “Now I know the bar really well. I pride myself on knowing how to make the stereo work every time. If you flick it just the right way, it works.”  

He is even working to add features to improve the Viking Room experience.  

“Turning the VR into a place where people can have fun and enjoy new things,” Liam says. “I’m excited for the future of the VR.”  

Familiar faces

He says it’s fun to run a business on campus and have the opportunity to serve and work with familiar faces, including professors who sometimes come in as guest bartenders. 

“Working with professors is always super funny,” Liam says. “Especially if you have had the professor before.” They’re the experts in class but often not so skilled behind the bar. 

Having the opportunity to build management skills necessary to run a business while in college can be golden in the long run, a big selling point for someone who one day hopes to open his own brewery.

“There’s a big craze for microbrewers right now, so I’m waiting for it to die down and I’ll be the cool one to bring it back,” Liam says.

Awa Badiane ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.