Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Gene Terruso

By Maureen Heydt

Gene Terruso
Gene Terruso has established a diverse career working as an actor, director, producer, writer, and professor. He can now also add Fulbright Scholar to that list, as he has just completed a nine-month teaching grant to two universities in Brno, Czech Republic. Terruso taught a variety of courses and workshops this year at both Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts (JAMU) and Masaryk University, where he also directed a play with the city’s oldest and only English-language theatre company, the Gypsywood Players, who are affiliated with the English and American Studies program at Masaryk. Through the Fulbright Program, Terruso was able to experience and immerse himself in Czech university and theatre life, and in a twist of good news, he will be returning to the Czech Republic this fall. Serving as a Visiting Professor to the University of Hradec Králové, he will also be collaborating again with JAMU and Masaryk, as well as working on an exciting new project to create the first English-speaking theatre in Brno, as commissioned by the Brno Expats organization. Here, Gene Terruso candidly discusses his career and experiences, as well as what the Fulbright Program means to him.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • U.S. Position: Adjunct Full Professor, College of Performing Arts, University of the Arts, PA
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Theater, JAMU; Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno
  • Project: The American Century on Stage and Screen: History, Literature and Performance
  • Major Discipline/Specialization: Humanities/Theater Studies
  • Academic Background: MFA, Theater, Rutgers University, New Jersey

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
I have worked as a professional actor, director, producer and author, and as an educational administrator throughout my career. I have appeared on Broadway, major regional theatres and on stages throughout Europe, as well as working in film and TV. My career in conservatory/academy directorship includes stints as director of the Ira Brind School of Theatre at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and as President of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (NYC and Hollywood). The latter is the oldest institution for actor training in the English-speaking world. This was not my first position in service to a ‘legacy’ organization. I also served as Artistic Director of the Provincetown Playhouse, New York City’s first Off-Broadway theatre and the home to 17 world premieres by Eugene O’Neill, the Father of American Theatre. My current work as a teacher focuses on English and American Studies, acting for the camera, developing librettos for rock musicals based on classic artists, studying and making use of dance dramaturgy and lecturing on media and political commentary in the USA from the 1930’s to the present.

And what courses have you been teaching this year at both JAMU and Masaryk University? And what other projects have you worked on?
At JAMU I taught courses in “Current Trends in American Theatre,” “Current Trends in American Musical Theatre” and the “Meisner Acting Technique.” I also directed a production of the musical “Light Beneath the Brel Café.” This is a new show I adapted from the well-known musical revue of Jacques Brel songs. I developed a scenario/plot line, created dramatic personae, incorporated some new songs, replaced some older ones, tweaked a very few lyrics and wrote the libretto for the story. Brel’s publishers allowed the show to be licensed as an entirely new property under my name. The show was scheduled and ran in repertory at JAMU’s Divadlo Na Orli.

At Masaryk, I taught a BA course in “The American Century On Stage and Screen” and an MA course in the same subject. I also directed a production of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” at the Buran Theatre in Brno, with the city’s oldest and only English-language theatre company, the Gypsywood Players. The company is associated with Masaryk University’s program in English and American Studies, the faculty with which I taught.

I also taught a series of workshops at JAMU – Theatre Management, Dance Dramaturgy and Research Methods. I also gave a presentation on Election Night 2016 at the American Embassy in Prague on the topic of Hollywood’s treatment of presidential elections. I was invited back later in the year to offer a lecture on new American TV shows for Czech professors in American studies. These dealt with new performance approaches, socially relevant themes and how shows breakthrough to serial and episodic production. I gave a lecture at the International Theatre Festival in Brno in December on the evolution of the Sanford Meisner Acting technique and its prevalence in major American training programs. In the spring, I also presented at The Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU) in Prague, discussing how the Meisner work, although created for the stage actor, was actually an ideal process for training the on-screen actor.

You’ve worked in a variety of different capacities, from actor, director, producer, and playwright to professor. What do each of these roles mean to you?
Very hard to answer. They each have their advantages. As a playwright, I feel the greatest degree of ownership over a work, although I have long since learned that a writer should not direct her/his own work – at least not until it’s been done a few times by others. What a writer can learn about his play through a good director is incalculable. One likes to think that the beautiful nuances that a director can reveal were hidden gems within the script. More likely, these gems are often just the creative genius of the director.

As a director, one experiences both the greatest degree of fulfillment in realizing a vision more fully than anyone else working on a project, but he also incurs an unimaginable amount of pressure keeping everything together. And it is critically important that none of that stress is ever revealed to other members of the company. The balance, comfort, and momentum of a production depend upon a director who remains focused and grounded. The greatest reward of directing is engaging in the collaborative process with one’s team of designers, musical directors, and choreographers –when working in that genre and, yes, even with actors. Another great joy in directing is that once the show opens, I am free, whereas an actor must live with the show for its entire run.

Actors can be temperamental and sensitive, but ultimately the success of any production relies mostly upon them. I love actors and love working with them. Being one myself, I believe, helps me understand their concerns and is the biggest factor in the success of the shows I’ve done and in the general perception of me as an effective director.

My own acting might be my greatest source of artistic satisfaction. For a variety of reasons, I suspect it might be my greatest talent. Certainly the opportunity to focus is much greater. While an actor must be responsive to and aware of his acting partners, it is the only area of MY endeavors where I am responsible only to myself. All my other activities require that I see to the needs of many, many others. I experience a sense of self-exploration, discovery, and purgation when I am totally invested in a part and feel somehow liberated when in command of a role. Of course, as I mentioned above, an actor is tethered to a show from first rehearsal through closing so, on balance, I probably prefer working on film. You do the shoot and move on.

Working as a producer is fool’s gold. The illusion –or the reality-- of having final control over an entire production rarely brings rewards that can balance out the frustrations and challenges that come with that kind of responsibility. Nevertheless, it is a role that I have a difficult time staying away from, as is evident in my new role as Artistic Director of the new English-language theatre in Brno, which I was asked to create by the organization Brno Expats.

Of all these roles, none brings me the joy and happiness of teaching. It is something I feel I do very well and have received much affirmation on that point. The prospects of sharing knowledge in a humanities course or helping aspiring artists strengthen their technique provide an invigorating sense of helping others and making important contributions to their lives. I close the door to the studio or lecture hall at the beginning of class and I feel as though I have left the world’s troubles behind me. I open the door, at the conclusion of a great class or on a break midway during class, and I feel as though my lungs are filled with fresh air and my mind is alive with ideas that my students have evoked. I love my students. They teach me so much.

And why did you choose the Czech Republic specifically, when you were looking at Fulbright?
This mostly had to do with the “American Century On-Stage and Screen” class. It is a course that traces the history of the USA in the 20th century and studies how major events and themes were treated by dramatists during this period. It also examines how these treatments reflected evolving social customs and culture. For too many years, I have taught the class for nothing but American students. I felt that I needed to gain some objectivity about the topics I was dealing with and felt that the best environment in which to do this would be one where the political, economic, and social atmosphere had undergone more profound changes throughout its history, than the more stable environment of America. In the Czech Republic, I found a country that had successfully emerged from decades of occupation, a long post-war period of repression, and the challenges of struggling with a socialist economy. To have adjusted as well as this country has, following the conclusion of those historic chapters, has given Czech people a view of both liberty and autocracy; free markets and socialism. This was a perspective that would have been impossible for me to draw upon at home. As such, I could now bring fresh viewpoints to my teaching back home and also provide –at Masaryk—a class that they felt filled a need in their American Studies program. Finally, there has been a small research component during my time here. As mentioned above, there is a production technique called ‘dance dramaturgy’ that is fairly popular in Europe and is gaining more popularity as time goes by. It is virtually unknown in the USA. I believe I can help enlighten my colleagues back home about this new process and that it can be of tremendous help to me in the musical adaptations I work on. The Czech Republic, in addition to having many superb dance companies, is also centrally located facilitating my visits to dance companies throughout the region. 

What has been the most rewarding experience for you here during your Fulbright?
The people. My colleagues, my students and my new Czech friends. I have learned a great deal about myself and gained valuable new perspectives on the American personality/disposition through my interaction with these new associates. 

And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
The Fulbright mission is living proof that only through closer interaction can cultures truly know each other and, as the world moves more and more toward a global melting pot status, nothing could be more important in terms of tolerance, understanding, learning, and enrichment. Knowledge is freedom and a large part of loving. In the end, the best world for all of us is one that is free from fear. That is best achieved by putting ourselves as fully in touch with other cultures as we possibly can.

And if you could sum up your Fulbright experience in one word, what would it be?

A photo from “Light Beneath the Brel Café” musical, source: JAMU