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75th Anniversary: Alumni Profiles

Stefan Van Engen '98

Like any good Calvin graduate, when asked to contribute to the 75th anniversary year of Calvin theatre as "a distinguished alum" I started asking questions. How many alumni are there? Who would be considered "distinguished" and how did I get on that list? Was this a random hat drawing or does everyone become distinguished by simply not choosing Philosophy as a major? I've decided to chalk "distinguished alum" up to unconditioned election. So let's go back.

Second semester freshman year I auditioned and landed in CTC's production of Travesties as a 6'4" Vladimir Lenin (who was at most 5'5" in real life). I shaved the middle of my head and befriended my fellow cast mates who were mostly seniors. Throughout that spring, I came to realize that graduating from college was perhaps more difficult then entering college, and I vowed to leave Calvin prepared and with opportunities lined up. Three years later I arranged an internship at an off-Broadway theatre in New York City, graduated a semester early, and moved east. The next week I walked into the theatre explaining to the producing director and artistic director that I was the person behind all the letters and in fact they had offered me a position. Not ones to turn down free labor, they quickly put me behind the wheel of a 17-foot U-haul truck. "Just sit behind the wheel in case anyone can't get through." And then a phrase that would be echoed six years later by the OBGYN who left me alone with my wife during the birth of my son, "We'll be right back."

It was my first full day in New York City. I had never driven city streets. West 22nd Street was a fairly small, quiet side street, but with a little effort, normal sized cars were just able to squeeze by my idling truck. I sat in the cab obsessively checking the rear view window. Not even five minutes had gone by before I heard the screaming sirens of fire trucks racing toward me. I shifted into gear and was off. I had not yet learned the "grid system" of the city and spent the next twenty minutes trying to navigate all the one-way avenues and streets before landing shaken, stirred, but not spilled, back in front of the theatre.

Shortly after that first week, I turned the internship into a paid position, including script coverage, associate producing, and filling in for missing stage managers. Twenty minutes before curtain on my first fill-in day, the lead had not shown up. Ten minutes later, he walked in, changed and walked on to stage. No tongue twisters, no prayer circle, just business. It was a full 180 from the world of Calvin theatre. That being said, my time in CTC and certainly my time on the Improv Team gave me solid practice in quick, definitive decision-making that I have carried with me. I can't say they are always the right decisions. There was the time I quit a Sheryl Crow film over some petty details—torching my bosses with language that could have peeled wallpaper off the edit suite walls, or the time I incorrectly timed out a live TV show, leaving the network six minutes short on content (at least I was definitive in my wrong-ness).

Sometimes I feel as though I am a long way removed from the Gezon Auditorium and other times it feels like I am only 20 minutes down some one-way roads. When asked to give samples of theatre's influence in my life, I'm not coming up with any textbook theory or even stage time. It wasn't one production or a particular class that has helped me build a now successful producing career, instead it was all of the rehearsals in the lab, managing Sushi Theatre, walking through the scene shop, and joking with Korf that supplied a base to build on. And of course there was and is the people. It's been over ten years but thanks to an unhealthy obsession with Facebook I have recently been able to reconnect to some of the blasts from the past and remember the growing, learning experiences we endured, overcame, and of course enjoyed together.

There are plenty of other moments that I have filed under the nostalgic heading in my brain and colored with a fondness that I am sure was not evident during my college years, so to all my professors, classmates, and friends, thanks for putting up with it.


Advice for aspiring theatre students

Observe, question, and supplement.

Observe everything that is going on and how it works, even if you think you are destined for the stage; learn what goes into designing a set, directing a show, or finding the props. You never know what might spark an interest, or what might help in the future.

Question everything from how things work, to why things are being done a certain way. Not only will you learn more but you may also open your mind to different situations.

Supplement your education and experience. Find opportunities outside your comfort zone to help prepare for life after Calvin.