Donna Spaan '55
When you live as long as I have, life’s experiences take on a different character with age. Things one thought important lose their luster, while other experiences gain prominence. And since it is a long life, let me share a few of the highlights
I graduated from Calvin College with an English major in 1955. I started professional life teaching high school—briefly at Lynden Christian [WA], and then at Grand Rapids Christian High, where I taught English and Latin. It soon became increasingly clear that if I wanted to stay in teaching, I needed an advanced degree. After considerable pain of thought, I choose theatre not English as my focus of concentration, with the University of Michigan my preferred graduate school. With great naiveté I applied to the graduate school never having had a theatre course in my life. Nor had I been in Thespians while a student at Calvin. All I had to offer was a very strong liberal arts education, plus considerable amateur acting experience starting in childhood with preaching to relatives at age four or five [taking up the collection was actually the lucrative highlight]. This began years of “acting” in church plays and school pageants as they rolled along year after year. It was this small bundle I took to U of M. And after a set of prolonged interviews, and the rider that I take one undergraduate course [advanced set design], I found myself accepted. Only a bolt of divine grace tells the story.
Michigan was an exciting place to be in the 60s with U of M on the militant cusp of what seemed a coming social/cultural revolution, and the theatre department dutifully played its part in upsetting college apple carts. In terms of theatre education, the University was home to two professional theatre companies—the Association of Producing Artists [APA] and the American Conservatory theatre [ACT] now based in San Francisco. These companies, along with U of M educational opportunities, provided a stimulating educational experience for students. While at Michigan I went through a variety of teaching fellowships, taught undergraduates acting and introductory speech. I also did my own share of acting and some directing. Towards the end of the 60s, I received a travel grant to study theatre in Great Britain. Based in London, the grant opened multiple doors to professional theatre companies not only in London, but other places as well. The theatre I called home was the Young Vic, then part of the National Theatre of Great Britain. While in London, I also did research on a Ph.D.
I came back to America in the early 70s. Needing a full-time theatre position, I found an opening at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There I taught introduction to theatre, acting, theatre history, and theatre theory. In 1974 U of M awarded me a Ph.D. After a teaching sprint at Aquinas, I became restless, and Grand Rapids Civic Theatre asked if I would put together an experimental theatre called Second Space, which I did. They provided money for this purpose [along with local and state arts grants]. They also found a small, unused church they could use. My responsibility with the help of others was to turn this church into a theatre. I supervised most of the design renovation and directed the initial productions. In the end, the production list was not as “experimental” as I wanted it to be. There was also talk of too much risk. And there was the “woman’s issue” below surface, especially as it related to female theatre directors. I came to the conclusion that managing a theatre was not my gift. So after several intense and highly exhausting years in and out of education, I decided to pack in theatre life—and start off in a different direction.
Education in a variety of settings has always been a part of my professional life—high school, college, and university. And in the middle of the 1970s, I was given the opportunity to direct a fledgling off-campus program in Chicago sponsored by all the Reformed and Christian Reformed Colleges in North America. It is now named “The Chicago Semester.” The program involved finding and supervising staff, securing safe urban housing for students, setting up lectures, developing experience based seminars, and generating educationally sound internships for students in a variety of majors—in short, insuring quality off campus education for quality supporting institutions. In doing the preceding work, I found my theatre experience invaluable training, for it provided many transferable skills and casts of mind—beginning with the notion of standards and how one achieves them. Need it be said that building a theatre production has much in common with building an off-campus program—both have strong experiential components, and both demand lots of nuts and bolts. Also since the arts were an important part of my life and I had some background in them, I set up an arts program for the center that included lectures, arts events, an arts seminar, as well as internship experiences with quality arts institutions in Chicago. These included Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Symphony. And as part of my personal contribution to the aesthetic life of the city, I served on an educational committee of the Museum of Contemporary Art, became an officer of the Chicago New Art Association. I also served on the editorial committee of a national publication based in Chicago called the New Art Examiner.
Then in the late 1990s, my professional life in Chicago took yet another turn. I was invited to participate with a group of people called the Joseph Jefferson Committee. My major responsibility consisted in judging theatre productions with eye to standards—both professional and non-professional. This involved seeing and evaluating approximately 150 theatre shows per year. The goal was to find/seek out work that deserved public recognition as well as the granting of awards at the end of the theatrical season. By the time I finished, I had judged over 1200 theatre productions. And I am pleased that I could be part of that process on behalf of deserving artists, theatres, and theatrical companies.
In business they talk about the bottom line. My bottom line is that theatre has given me a challenging and rich life. As a discipline, it daily provides incisive understanding of the human condition, especially when set within the rich frame of the imago Dei. As one of the humanities, it is truly a liberalizing art, both for individuals and potentially for society. This is not to say that the discipline does not bring Christians direct challenges to faith, especially in a professional theatre context. I have experienced such challenges in my own life, and with it a bundle of missteps and spiritual failures. Yet through all the missteps—these defeats show themselves richly counteracted by operations of divine grace, including their potential for new understanding. That potential makes theatre worthy of a life. And I thank Calvin, be it ever so late, for getting me academically started on the right foot. Then again, maybe it was the left foot.