Text and research by Mirabella Markham

Northern Michigan University’s Theater Department encapsulates the recent growth that Twelfth Nightthe Marquette community has experienced. There is an overwhelming presence of the arts that keeps the Marquette community connected and tourists interested. Theater and the performing arts are no exception. Northern’s Theater department has its roots in the Department of Communication and Performance Studies. Northern offered a course titled “Expression” taught by Eulie Gay Rushmore in 1906, where students were taught self-confidence and expression through mind, voice, and body. 

One of the first prominent social clubs for drama was known as The Masquers. The club was organized in the Spring of 1947 under the name of The Thespians. Not until 1949 were the Masquers 1955students known as The Masquers. Martha Beaman was the faculty adviser to the Masquers, helping students and their directors put on two shows a year, typically in the Kaye Hall auditorium. Not only were The Masquers focusing on musicals and one-act plays but they were also participating in “theater in the round,” which consisted of several student-directed one-act plays. The group was open to anyone interested in any phase of drama be it acting, painting scenery, or folding playbills. The Masquers have seen many directors, typically recruiting professors within the Speech department. In 1967, The Masquers had their largest Masquers 1967cast in a production of The Revival, a play written by assistant professor of Language and Literature at NMU, Vernon Pierce. The show was held in NMU’s Little Theater, where the group utilized talent from its students, the Marquette public schools, and the NMU Job Corps. The Masquers were absorbed by the Department of Speech and Communications in 1968. 

Forest Roberts and James Rapport are credited with founding the theater department and spearheading the process of bringing theater to Marquette. Before NMU, Roberts taught at Graceland Junior College from 1923 to 1927, and at J. Sterling Morton High School in Cicero-Berwyn, Illinois in 1928. In the summer of 1928, Roberts and his wife moved to Marquette where he began his tenure at NMU’s English department. Roberts was trained in forensics (speech and debate) and became its director from 1933 to 1938. In 1955, he developed the Speech Department, known as Communication and Media Studies. Roberts established NMU’s first courses in drama, where he directed productions that toured the U.P. and brought musical theater to the North. Departing from the wing of the English department in 1958, the Speech and Communications courses began to grow.

Jim Rapport, fondly known as “Daddy Bear” among past and present faculty and alumniDr. James Rapport, is widely credited with bringing a performance space to Northern’s campus. Rapport accepted his position at Northern in 1958 from President Dr. Edgar Harden. Rapport was asked to design a theater, build a curriculum, bring in a faculty to teach theater and communications, and be gone after three years of work. Time and circumstances had different plans for Rapport. He became the Head of the Theater department for 27 years, where he taught classes on acting alongside directing some of Northern’s theater projects. On his arrival, Rapport quickly realized that the theater was in shambles: the department had been working in what he called “primitive” conditions in a 1994 interview. The department Rapport was tasked to create was built on very new ground: the speech department (which was an umbrella for theater, debate, and speech), was only one year old at the time. The theater, known as “The Little Theater,” was renamed “Forest Roberts Theatre” in 1969 in his honor.

Dr, James PanowskiJames Panowski, born in Waukegan Illinois in 1939 was hired by Rapport in 1977 to help build the theater faculty. Panowski studied at Illinois Wesleyan on a drama scholarship as an undergraduate. Panowski attended Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio for his Master’s degree in directing and a PhD in philosophy. Panowski's most proud accomplishment on campus was creating a playwriting awards competition and the “The First Nighters Club,” a booster club that supports NMU theater productions.

Some key players in sustaining Northern’s theater both inside and outside the campus are Vic Holliday and Shelley Russell, both now-retired professors from the department. Holliday was born in Detroit but both of his parents were from the Marquette area. When his father found work in the U.P., they moved back. Holliday received his undergraduate degree in 1972 from St. John's University in Minnesota with a major in Psychology. When he finished his degree, Holliday moved to the U.P. to take time off before graduate school. There, he began picking up odd jobs to make money and took some basic theater classes at NMU to pass the time. He started working on shows for extra credit and one show led to many more. Holiday decided he wanted to go to grad school for theater to continue his creative career. He spent the next two years acquiring the credits for a theater undergraduate. After graduate school, Holliday worked at Trenton State College (College of Jersey) on a two-year temporary contract. Holliday kept looking for work and saw that NMU was hiring, and Vic was brought back to Northern as a Faculty Designer and Technical Director. 

The department was small when Vic entered as a faculty member in 1982, with only 3 ½ people: Holliday was the only tech person, Chet Harper was the full-time director of theater, Susanne Blackburn was the acting and directing teacher, Don Koke was the designer, and the ½ member of the faculty was Rapport who only taught one class every semester. Holliday’s favorite class to teach was History of Theater. Because it was a general education course, Vic saw an array of majors in his classroom and was challenged by making theater both accessible and entertaining to everyone. It’s the students who kept Holliday at NMU, bringing new ideas and new ways of thinking to a university that has always been very supportive of theater. Holliday continues to help with productions behind the scenes on Northern’s campus and regional theaters in the Marquette area.

Shelley Russell was born in Ohio where she received her bachelor’s at Miami University and finished her undergraduate with a double major in fine and visual arts/theater in 1973. To follow her passion for directing, she earned her doctorate from Florida State University from the years 1979-1983. After her degree, Russell presented a paper on Samuel Beckett at a conference where she was introduced to Vic Holliday and James Panowski and found herself intrigued by what they had to say about the acting program at NMU. She visited the campus, fell in love with the lake and liked that the school allowed professors to try new things. The committee head at Florida State wanted Russell to teach at a traditional school, but the students at Northern were unlike any student body in terms of talent, intensity, fun and ambition. The students were the people who kept Russell teaching. Russell taught classes that challenged her as an educator, like Voice and Diction, Language and Voice Development, and Stage Combat. 

Russell has been involved with many shows inside and outside of NMU’s campus. Her biggest personal achievement was the creation of her musical Haywire about an 1880s logging cabin,Cast of Haywire 1995 which won the Midwest Regional Festival held by the Kennedy Center American Theater Festival. Russell and her students were allowed to perform the show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. One of Shelley’s most impactful and exciting shows was Holding Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a show produced as a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. When offered to take on this project, Russell declined. When she began reading more about the unbelievable true story, Russell found herself wanting to carry that historical moment to the stage. Holding Our Own was the show in Russell’s career that opened her eyes to what theater can do. The performance excelled in connecting communities, showing truths and presenting them never dream of perspectives. These shows, including her 19th-century musical in a town inspired by Marquette, Beacon on the Rock, have been performed at Lake Superior Community Theater where Russell served as an executive director.

The students who learned from the Panowski, Russell and Holliday years of the NMU theater department have moved on to professional careers that utilize their theater background in and outside of the humanities. 

Two of the people overseeing the growth of NMU’s theater are Northern alumni, BillBill Digneit Digneit and Paul Truckey. Digneit began his studies as a business major, but his passion for creating and storytelling guided him to a degree in Theater and Communications in 2008. In 2017, Digneit was hired by NMU to be its director of theater. On Digneit’s arrival, the theater department still existed under the umbrella of Communications and Speech studies. There was talk about Digneit’s ambitions to make the theater a separate department. It now exists as its own Department of Theater and Dance. This switch allowed for the implementation of a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre which attracts more students to NMU. The BFA is in its 5th year at Northern, and recruitment for students has expanded across the nation. 

One graduate of Northern’s theater program, Paul Truckey, is someone who understands the history and legacy of Northern’s theater. Truckey’s parents are from the Upper Peninsula, Paul Truckeydescended from a long line of NMU graduates, dating back to his Grandmother’s time as a student. Like Digneit, Truckey was excited about the ambitious growth of NMU’s theater as a former student returning as faculty. Truckey first entered NMU to study architecture, but when he took general education liberal studies courses with Jim Rapport, Truckey was entranced and intrigued. He felt drawn to the theater through his competitive athletic background at Wakefield High School and felt that it was something he could do, and do well. While walking through the theater department one day, Truckey was stopped by Dr. Panowski who encouraged him to audition for the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He got a small part in the ensemble, and walking across the stage, he fell in love with performing. It instantly became the rest of his life. 

Paul graduated with a theater degree and began his graduate work in 1991 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the musical theater MFA program. After teaching, Truckey went on to audition for Les Miserables in New York on Broadway. Truckey was intimidated, but through Northern, he learned the power of grit, determination and drive. Paul received the role and toured the United States for four years and then three years as a member of the Broadway cast. When asked if he felt nervous or intimidated by the Broadway atmosphere, Truckey recalls that he felt just as nervous for his first show at Northern and has been for every show he’s done since. For Paul, each show is of equal importance. Truckey has brought that sense of importance to his teaching career at Northern, which he’s held since 2003, guiding students in the art of acting. Introduction to Theater is the course Truckey finds most gratifying, because it instills a love of theater in young students from a variety of majors. 

One alumnus, Denise Clark, hails from Hibbing, Minnesota. She was recruited by Panowski to study at Northern when he saw Clark perform at Westwood High School inIshpeming. Clark began studying theater in 1984 at NMU, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1989. She attributes her acting chops to Northern where she learned the tools, capabilities and confidence to overcome her anxieties about public speaking. The confidence that theater and acting provided Clark opened the door to a career in the sciences as a Behavior Analyst at Pathways of Marquette. When walking into intimidating workplace environments, Clark recalls having to feign confidence, but she can always act her way through it. Being involved in theater, Clark learned how to be a good teacher, as working with casts requires cooperation and active listening skills. 

One of the most important and rewarding aspects of her theater career was bringing high school theater to Ishpeming. Starting this adventure in 2006 with Sheila Grazulis, the producer of the program, Grazulis and Clark were able to watch how theater changes the lives of young students the way that it changed Clark’s life. To this day, Clark is involved with local theater, writing reviews for the Superior Arts Youth Theater (SAY Theater) and recently reviewing their production of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, which was performed at NMU under SAY Theater’s new leadership. 

After graduating from Ontonagon Area High School, with aspirations of being a part of a theater community, Karen Saari attended NMU in 1992. Saari began her career at Northern as she found it to be the perfect distance from home and far enough to create and figure out who she was outside of high school. She started her college career as a theater major with a broadcasting minor. As a freshman, Saari was cast in the first show of the year, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, directed by Dr. Panowski. Saari entered the college theater world with only a local community theater experience. Being in Dr. Panowski’s show, Saari says, she learned more about theater in the 6-week rehearsals and credits what she knows about theater and performance through that initial experience. As Saari moved through college, she enjoyed exploring the abundant student opportunities, joining the Public Eye News staff, and working for the Housing and Residence Life Staff as an Academic Programmer in Spooner Hall. Before she graduated in 1996, Saari switched her broadcasting minor to her major and left with a theater minor. 

After graduation, Saari began experimenting with jobs she was interested in exploring, one still connected to Northern as a satellite admissions counselor for one year post-graduation. Saari moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 1997 where she worked at a Fox affiliate doing production work and eventually promotions. Following her broadcasting experience, Saari found herself doing voiceover work as a side job for commercials and short films. Owing, in part the success of Saari’s voicework is Shelley Russell, who guided Saari in her Voice and Diction class where she overcame her vocal challenges. While working for TV and radio, Saari always found ways to incorporate theater into her life. She became the Vice President of Stroller’s Theater in Madison where she acted, directed, worked crew, costumed and produced shows. 

In 2015, Saari wrote the full-length stage play In a Clearing, exploring themes of addiction, recovery and loss set in the rural Midwest. That same year, it won the Wisconsin Wrights New Play Festival, and Saari’s playwrighting career took flight. In 2019, she was commissioned to write a musical about Nellie Bly titled Ten Days in a Madhouse, a story about a journalist who went undercover in an insane asylum. Her play Rain on Fire was proudly produced at the Flint Repertory Theater in 2023, a story that follows the opiate crisis in Michigan’s Northwoods. Saari’s play Bad in Bed (A Fairy Tale) is a two-act comedy that takes place in Marquette, which is being published by Late Stage Press in 2024 while having its third production in 2025. It was in 2023 when she became a full-time faculty member at Madison Area Technical College. She worked as an External Communications Manager in her former full-time job, as well as being an adjunct instructor for Intro to Theater and Speech. Saari is now rebuilding the foundations of their theater department, all while finding ways to make playwriting a part of her life. 

Becky Heldt was born in Sterling Heights, a suburb of Detroit, MI. Her first exposure to NMU was in the Spring of 2001 when she competed for the Michigan Interscholastic Forensics Association (MIFA). Heldt connected to the feeling of NMU’s campus, the adventure of being away from home and was excited about Northern’s theater department. She moved to Marquette the same year she graduated high school in 2003 and started taking theater classes. She worked at the scene shop and connected to the off-Broadway and student shows that were taking place in the Black Box Theater on campus. It was exciting, Heldt remembers, to be shown a career that could be had in the industry. Heldt left NMU in 2008, being 4 credits shy of graduating, taking with her the ambitions of being a director of a nonprofit organization.

In 2010, Heldt was first introduced to the bigger world of avant-garde fringe theater when she worked at the Know Theater of Cincinnati as a Company Manager and Resident Student Manager. Fringe theater quickly became one of Heldt’s favorite art forms and found inspiration and gratification in working with artists who were doing and saying new and interesting things. Heldt returned to NMU to finish her degree by completing her non-theater credits and was brought to a desk job from 2011-2019 due to an injury that limited her ability to work in a physically creative environment. Her Senior Account Strategist position in Grand Rapids, MI taught Heldt the versatility of her major. Heldt was capable of applying the skills she learned through stage directing in her project management. With new marketing experience, Heldt wanted to return to the theater world and started working as a marketing director for Arkansas Repertory Theater in Little Rock. 

Heldt returned to the U.P. in 2024 when she applied for and received the Executive Director position at the Superior Arts Youth Theater (SAY). She’s excited to give back to the organization that does great work for the theater and youth community and is looking forward to encouraging accessibility in the arts. Her passions are to keep the arts alive and continually foster new generations of artists.