The Sweetest Mem’ries of Thee

Richard Paige — I was combing through the photo archives recently when I stumbled across the gallery I posted of Freshman Saturday in August of 2015. So I stopped to look at them again.

These were the first moments that the Class of 2019 were all together on campus. It’s always interesting to be roaming the campus during times like this where a multitude of emotions seem to bubble up with each beat of the heart.

Lingering on these photos reminds me that the Class of 2019 is filled with some really good guys. We say that every year, but these pictures affected me a little differently. Maybe it was

Christian Wirtz ’19 in a photo taken on Freshman Saturday in August 2015.

because at the time I clicked that button on the camera, I had finally been at Wabash long enough to both capture and appreciate what these guys were going through and where the journey was heading.

I reached out to two of the students featured in the gallery, Brandon Arbuckle ’19, a political science major from Bloomington, and Christian Wirtz ’19, a rhetoric major from South Bend, and asked them two questions that came to mind as I pondered those pictures:

What thought enters your head upon seeing that photo?
Wirtz: I look at that picture and I see a kid in over his head who has no idea who he is nor who he wants to be. Blissfully ignorant of how much he’ll rely on other people to get him

through college, from my parents, my professors, and the friends I’ve made along the way. I see a boy who is not even sure he’s ended up at the right college and has no idea how much this place will mean to him in four short years.

Arbuckle: It was hot. My parents and I, mom looking at the camera in this photo, carried all my boxes up the stairs of the pre-renovated Martindale Hall (a lot of it stayed in those boxes for the entirety of the year). I remember meeting my Bangladeshi roommate, Hasan Irtija, shortly after this was taken. When I was admitted to Wabash and figuring out housing, I typed “international student preferred” for roommate preference. Hasan helped me move in, and we roomed together until he graduated last year. I’m so glad I did; he and I meshed so well. It was a lot of fun living with him. I think we peeled the room number placard off our wall when we moved out of Martindale 412 for renovations. I imagine I still have it somewhere.

I also remember crying in the room with my parents when they said goodbye and headed home. It was the only time they’d ever sent a kid off to college, and was my first time living anywhere but home. After they left I settled in quickly.

Looking back on the last four years, what does such a memory mean to you?
Arbuckle: Looking back, the uncertainty of what four years at this school would mean for my life was daunting. It felt like graduation was an

Brandon Arbuckle ’19 in a photo taken on Freshman Saturday in August 2015.

eternity away. Now that it’s just around the corner, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on not only the experiences that helped mold me into the person I am today, but also the people who helped get me there. From my family and friends, to peers and professors, the growth fostered by the people at this institution is remarkable. I’ll miss the camaraderie. There were a lot of challenges and hard points, but they all helped me in the end. I’m excited to take these memories and experiences out after graduation, and look forward to coming back to Wabash, my home away from home, in future years.

Wirtz: Seeing this picture, I’m also reminded of the ringing in ceremony and how overwhelmed I felt–I didn’t think I was smart enough to make it through and that everyone involved in my deciding I was Wabash material had made a mistake. I remember moving in and my mother crying. But of course, this also reminds me of freshman orientation week and walking

Arbuckle (left) and Wirtz circa 2019.

nervously into Hovey Cottage for the first time–I had interrupted a staff meeting as I was running late for the library tour. This was, of course, when I met Brent Harris [eventually becoming a student assistant in the sports information office] and the rest, as they say, is history.

I referenced the photo just two days after I took it, when Christian, indeed, interrupted one of our staff meetings while looking for work, saying “I took your picture Saturday,” as a way of breaking the ice. It was amongst the first of 123 photos I took that day.

Long in our hearts we’ll bear the sweetest mem’ries of thee. Congratulations to the Class of 2019.

Of Poems Shared and Inspiration

Richard Paige — Sometimes you wonder where inspiration comes from. Other times, it’s obvious.

Jordan Ogle ’19 is a writer. The English literature major with a philosophy minor loves poetry. “This is my dream to study poetry and to share that with anyone who is willing to listen,” he told me recently.

I asked how he got hooked on poetry. Turns out, it was his grandmother, Carrie Phillips.

She was a factory worker in Clinton, Indiana, for the majority of her life. High school educated, Carrie never went to college, but she has long written poetry and shares that with Jordan. He remembers those poems, stuffed in her Bible, and her reading them with him as far back as elementary school.

“She kept those in her Bible and she would read them to me,” he says. “It was a way for her to express

Jordan Ogle ’19.

herself and the frustration of living as a working-class woman and a single mom, but also a way for her to express the kind of beauty she saw in the world.”

Now all these years later, poetry has become the centerpiece of Jordan’s academic interests. They still share poetry today, and I’d bet such an exchange brings a smile to her face.

“Even though she didn’t go to college and study poetry in a scholarly sense, she understands, and what I have to say about poetry resonates with her,” he explains. “What I’m doing now makes her happy, probably because it’s what she wishes she had the opportunity to do.”

Recently, Ogle earned a Fulbright U.K. Partner fellowship and will study at the University of Exeter in England next year. Further, he has been accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa and will begin studies when his master’s work at Exeter is completed.

Jordan was named a Julia Rosenberg Writing Scholar last fall, earned distinction on his comprehensive exams, and was an honoree at Awards Chapel multiple times, including the Walter L. Fertig Prize in English.

But it wasn’t always easy for Ogle. He’s battled mental health issues while here and showed remarkable resilience in becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college and the first to travel abroad.

Still, the next step to Exeter is a big one.

“She will miss me,” he starts, “but she is excited for me. All of the work I’ve put in at Wabash, to taking care of my mental health, to taking care of my family back home, has all been worth it in the end, and I think she feels that, too. I think about how lucky I am to even be here today.”

Something Special We Share

Richard Paige — Leave it to a father and son to bring a little emotion into the 2019 IAWM Leadership Breakfast.

After spirited presentations from Derrin Slack ’10, Tom Hiatt ’70, Wabash President Greg Hess, and Andrea Pactor, the audience of more than 220 turned its attention to the final piece of the program: the Indianapolis Association of Wabash Men’s presentation of its Man-of-the-Year award to Dr. Don Shelbourne ’72.

Long an innovator when it comes to knee reconstructions, Don began his orthopaedic sports medicine career in 1982. A standout football player and wrestler for the Little Giants, he became interested in sports medicine after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament while in college. Because of that injury, his practice, the Shelbourne Knee Center, focuses on the treatment, rehabilitation, and research of ACL injuries.

Dr. Don Shelbourne ’72 (left) looks on as his son, Brian ’12, introduces him as the IAWM Man of the Year.

In the nearly four decades since, Don has seen a research department and database for evaluating outcomes grow after more than 6,500 surgeries. Such follow-up has allowed him to identify problems with treatment and the factors associated with optimum long-term outcomes. His efforts have advanced ACL rehabilitation to the point where results – returning patients to athletic activities quickly – are predictable and successful.

When Don stepped to the podium on March 21, the introduction was anything but usual. His son Brian ’12, himself a standout Wabash basketball player, delivered a heartfelt description of a father, friend, mentor, and surgeon that ran the gamut from funny to emotional.

“Unbelievable,” was how Don described it after the fact, “I’m going to get emotional again, if I keep thinking about it.”

Together on that stage, the Shelbournes leaned on each other as Brian spoke. A well-timed joke to head off tears, a knowing glance, a needed squeeze of the shoulders. All of it shared and needed in the description of a worthy recipient.

The impact of the moment wasn’t lost on Brian.

Shelbourne receives the award from his son, Brian (right).

“It was weighing on me, for sure,” he said. “You think about doing this and you want to do it right. It’s a special opportunity.”

During the speech, Brian mentioned that his father was passionate about several things…his family, his work, and Wabash College chief among them.

“Being able to go through the Wabash experience,” he started though a smile moments after leaving the stage, “and always to have that is something special we share.”

Those in attendance were pleased to have shared in the moment, too.

Relevant Again

Richard Paige — Tobey Herzog is back in the classroom and he calls it “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

He retired in 2014, but old habits are hard to break. The Emeritus Professor of English can be found instructing yet another edition of Wabash men in Business and Technical Writing, a class he started on campus and taught for more than 30 years.

Tobey Herzog H’11 with his Business and Technical Writing students.

That experience makes him comfortable with the subject matter, but he had concerns about the students. Had they changed?

“I started this class and I feel comfortable doing it,” Herzog says. “I thought, ‘gee, four and a half years, the students may have changed.’ They haven’t changed at all. That’s one of the positive things about Wabash.”

For him, it was different. With only one class to teach, time became an ally. It opened up ways for him to think about the class in different and deeper ways.

“I discovered that if I had just taught one class per semester I would have been the greatest teacher in the world,” he laughs. “Having time to really think about each class, to prepare for it, and do some things that in the past I didn’t have enough time to get ready for has made it much better.”

The students are noticing, too. On this day, the discussion initially centered on what was learned from previous assignments and how to move forward. With a feasibility study and product development launch ahead, the lesson was clear: from this point forward, it’s time to apply what you’ve learned.

Herzog awaits the start of class.

“What is so interesting with Dr. Herzog is that it’s very practical information and he makes it very relatable,” says Simran Sandhu ’20. “It’s a good way for all of us to connect. It’s not just research and write. It’s very cool to get that sense of writing in various situations.”

As a business minor, this class is one of Sandhu’s requirements, but he had other goals in mind as well.

“Written communication is something I haven’t been able to articulate well over the years,” he says. “After a few classes with Dr. Herzog, I was confident I made the right choice.”

Like many retirees, Herzog’s concerns also addressed his own relevance.

“Once you retire the difficulty is still feeling relevant,” he says. “But then this opportunity to be somewhat relevant again – to walk on campus and have students who are in your class say hello and chat – I think it’s great.”

The shared experience seems like a win-win for everyone in that classroom.

Full Circle

A few days ago, I sat in the audience at the 19th Annual Celebration of Student Research, Scholarship, and Creative Work as a Wabash student condensed a semester’s worth of literature research into a fifteen-minute presentation. Samuel Stephenson ’20 didn’t know it, but as he stood at the lectern and talked about the theme of exile and societal nonconformity in a short story by famed Irish writer James Joyce, I was in the audience feeling a wave of déjà vu.

In five other rooms throughout the building, something similar was happening: students presented, audiences asked questions, and the larger Wabash community got a glimpse inside the scholarly workings of the College.

For me, though, this particular presentation was special: I’d been here before. Exactly here.

Five years ago, I had donned my only suit, watched a YouTube tutorial on how to tie my tie, and walked across campus to the same room, where I had stood at the same lectern, shuffled my notes, and given a presentation on the exile of the artist in James Joyce’s Ireland, all the while trying not to sweat through my suit jacket.

5 years ago, biking in Ireland as a student

Of course, the chance to present my work was an incredible opportunity: it opened a window of international travel for me, as the course had come with an immersive learning portion in Ireland; I did serious academic work where the writing had to speak for itself; but I was then also asked to take that heady work and turn it into something more easily understood by audiences outside of my field of study.

Later that same year, I walked across campus to attend the esteemed LaFollette Lecture, where my faculty sponsor—English Professor Agata Szczeszak-Brewer, the same faculty sponsor for Samuel Stephenson at this year’s Celebration—gave a rousing lecture about what James Joyce’s voluntary exile from Ireland could tell us about teaching the humanities, particularly at Wabash. The lecture left me emotional beyond my ability to put into words; in the aftermath, when I went to give my congratulations to Prof. Szczeszak-Brewer, I kept bumbling around for a word to describe how I felt. Once I found the word, I kept repeating it, hoping she would understand what I was failing to put eloquently: I felt affirmed, affirmed, affirmed.

I now know what I was trying (and failing) to say that day: I had just realized that Wabash was letting me in on what one of its former presidents had called “the grand conversation”—and I felt grateful that I had been given the tools and the opportunity to speak my piece in that conversation.

The year I presented my research, James Joyce’s Dubliners turned 100 years old. The book isn’t getting any younger; the scholarly research, however, is always changing, and Wabash students like Stephenson are tasked with carving out space for their ideas, and then inviting others in too.

Just as she did five years ago, last Friday Prof. Szczeszak-Brewer sat in the audience, having overseen a semester’s worth of progress, and asked still further questions, leading with inquiry. Community members turned the ideas over in their heads, genuinely curious about how these varied areas of study could benefit their own understanding of the world.

And I sat in the back of the room, affirmed, watching another Wabash mind get ushered into the grand conversation the same way that I had five years earlier.

An Immersion Trip Q&A: Marlon Lewis ’20

Over Thanksgiving Break, art major Marlon Lewis ’20 went on his first immersion trip to Prague, Czech Republic to hand carve puppets with his Theater 303 class. In January, he will be leaving for South Africa for a semester-long study abroad program.

We sat down with Lewis to hear about his immersion experience and learn more about the Chicago-native’s desire to travel.


Marlon Lewis '20, far right, and the Theater 303 class in Prague

Marlon Lewis ’20, far right, and the Theater 303 class in Prague

Q: For starters, why puppets? And why Prague? What’s the connection there?

A: Our Theater 303 class spent the entire semester learning about Czech puppetry – it’s super connected to their culture. Puppetry has been around for a really long time. When the Czech Republic was under Habsburg rule, German was considered the official language of state, and Czech language and culture was suppressed. The traveling puppeteers continued to perform in Czech and helped the language survive through puppet shows. Over time, puppets have become a symbol to the country.

We went there specifically to make our own puppets with professional puppeteers. Over the semester, we designed our puppets, sent them out to the workshop, and got feedback from the puppet masters.


Q: Before your trip to Prague, had you ever been out of the country before?

A: No! I hadn’t even been on a plane for longer than two hours! When I came to Wabash from Chicago, I didn’t even think of leaving the country. I never thought I’d be in Prague, making a puppet. That was so surreal, yet I didn’t feel out of place. I could tell I was somewhere new, but it felt normal. I jumped right in and did my thing.


Q: Were you nervous?

A: I was nervous about getting lost. Not being able to talk to anybody. I didn’t know enough Czech to get by at all. I could wake up and say, “Good morning.” I could say, “Good day.” And I could say, “Thank you.” But I was also really looking forward to experiencing something that wasn’t American. I wanted to see a different perspective.


Lewis in the puppetry workshop in Prague

Lewis in the puppetry workshop in Prague

Q: What was the shop like where all of you worked?

A: People spend their entire life in puppetry and never get the chance to be in the shop where we worked. That shop has a waiting list!

When I heard that, I was like, “Dang!” We really felt special. And all I could think about was thanking Wabash for using my tuition in a way that I never would have thought of.


Q: How much of the trip did you spend working, and how often did you get to explore?

A: We went over there to do a job. We worked about 40 hours in the shop that week, so it felt like we were workers—not tourists. After our second day, I was wishing that we had the morning to go out and do stuff. To see things in the light. But then I realized that everyone else in the city is doing their job or going to school, so I wasn’t in broad daylight embarrassing myself, trying to figure out where to go!


Q: How different did it feel making a puppet in a workshop in Prague compared to something you create in one of your art classes?

A: It wasn’t a classroom. They were instructing you, but you were on your own. Even though we got a grade on what we made, it wasn’t a studio class where I felt like I was making it for the grade. I really felt like I was making it for me. The puppeteer we were working with is probably in the top five of all time. He brought in a top-10 master carver, who brought in another. To learn under them, to see their abilities, even though it was just for a few days, it was invaluable. Especially since I make art all the time. They taught me thought patterns that I’ll hold onto forever.


Lewis shows off his hand-carved creation in Lilly Library

Lewis shows off his hand-carved creation in Lilly Library

Q: How did you decide what type of puppet to make?

A: My puppet is a skeleton. At the beginning of class, we had to choose a Czech person to model our puppet after, and the guy I chose was from the 1800s. He was commissioned by a church to store and organize the bones. So it was like, “What could I do with you?” I’m kind of into the macabre thing. The beauty of it – making it beautiful. I can find positives in almost anything, so I thought I could make something really nice out of this.

So my skeleton is the protector of the ossuary (a room in which the bones of dead people are placed). My original idea was just a huge head. Arms and legs hanging out of the head – I didn’t want a torso or anything. But when I sent that out, the master carver said it would be too difficult for my first puppet.

(laughs) Now my puppet is in a black lining with gold lining and a gold chain.


Q: When you did get to explore, what was Prague like?

A: Prague, at least the parts we were in, wasn’t modern at all. They still have cobblestone roads. Most of what we walked on was cobblestone. Anthony (Williams ’20) and I found maybe two or three roads that were paved.

It’s such an old city compared to Chicago. The structure of the buildings felt similar with the ground level of the buildings being a shop and then people living on top – I see that all the time back home. But there’s really no space between the buildings. We barely have space between our houses back home. People in Indy are always like, “Why are the houses in Chicago so close?” In Prague, you couldn’t even walk between most of the buildings!


Q: Speaking of homes, we heard you all were able to meet with three alums who live in Prague!

A: Oh yeah, I was like, “What the heck?” I didn’t even know where Prague was before this class, and there were three! One alum has been out there going on eight years, and he left the day after his graduation. He initially was working with a church program, and now he works with a monastery. He’s also a football coach for the national Czech football team. Another is an English teacher, and he’s been out there for 3 years. They each gave us their own tour of the city, so that was nice.

It’s always fun to meet Wabash guys. We just all connect so easily. It was crazy to learn that there are people who know what we go through and people who have had similar experiences and are now living in Prague. If I ever want to come back, I know people here!


Q: Now that you’re back, you’re preparing to leave again. How are you feeling as you get ready to study in South Africa for a semester?

A: I honestly can’t wait. I’m so excited for it. That’s really why I was so glad to be part of this class. I was about to be gone for half a year, and I hadn’t even been out of the country for a day! I had no idea what that was going to be like. This trip helped me understand the mindset I’ll have to have as I travel and gave me an idea of some of the challenges I’ll face.

My goal after college is to travel, meet people, and help them better understand each other. Help people become more connected. Whenever anyone asks what I want to do, I always say, “Save the world.” But I have to explore it first.

Camaraderie is the Connection

Richard Paige — The goal behind WABASH Day was never self-serving. Sure, there would be meaningful service – 16 projects that dotted Crawfordsville and Central Indiana as well as six others spread nationally from Washington, DC, to Denver to Dallas – but the goal was always something bigger.

“From the beginning, WABASH Day also aimed to strengthen the bonds among alumni, faculty, staff, and students and to welcome our family members, too,” said Jon Pactor ’71, the man behind the idea. “It would also provide leadership opportunities for individuals and would strengthen regional associations. After 14 years, it has proven to be a grand success.”

Yes, after 14 years, WABASH Day (Wabash Alumni Benefiting And Serving Humanity) continues to meet the challenge of improving communities and fostering camaraderie.

George Vinihakis ’15, of Orland Park, IL, captained the Wabash Club of Chicago’s efforts to clean up a Chicago-area beach. Working through the adopt a beach program, Wabash alumni gathered at the 12th Street Beach and collected nearly 50 pounds of trash from the lakeshore.

The alumni group in Dallas, Texas.

Camaraderie is the lasting effect.

“While it was great in helping maintain one of the more renowned Chicago beaches, the overriding benefit was the camaraderie,” said Vinihakis. “What makes these events so enjoyable is sharing the moment and accomplishment with other Wabash guys. New connections were made and fostered because of this project, which is paramount to our efforts as an alumni group.”

Jared Lange ’08, of Dallas, TX, coordinated a day of fence painting at Dallas Heritage Village. Located in historic Old City Park, the museum uses its collections of historic buildings (1840-1910) and furnishings to sponsor research and to present educational programs and special events for diverse

Lange feels a strong byproduct of the endeavor is to get to know his fellow Wabash grads a bit better.

“The greatest benefit, aside from providing assistance, is meeting other Wabash associated individuals in the area,” he said. “We extend the invite to non-grads, family members, and

Classmates Patrick Bryant ’16 (left) and Grant Benefiel ’16 volunteer at The Villages.

board members. In the Dallas/Fort Worth area, people are constantly moving into the community, so it’s nice to learn more about each other’s backgrounds and interests.”

There is value, too, in the assistance, as can be seen in the work that Kevin Benefiel ’81 and his family have championed at The Villages, a provider of foster care, adoption, child care, and early childhood development services in Indianapolis.

This was the 14th consecutive year Benefiel and his family — wife Julie, and sons Ty ’08 and Grant ’16 – have completed projects at The Villages, ranging from painting interior walls to spreading mulch throughout the playground to painting and staining the playground equipment.

In that span, WABASH Day efforts have helped The Villages save thousands of dollars. Pactor, a regular contributor at The Villages, remembered that one year a staff member said they spread so much mulch that it saved the agency enough money to fuel their bus for an entire year.

Benefiel felt a similar impact, as well. “The improvements we’ve made both inside and out at The Villages has had a positive impact on the appearance,” he said. “However, the financial impact we’ve had in terms of saving The Villages over $25,000 dollars has been beneficial to them and rewarding for us.”

The win-win proposition of WABASH Day also resonates with group leaders like Lange.

“I enjoy to participating in WABASH Day because it’s a great opportunity to assist our community and grow the bonds between our alumni,” said Lange. “It’s an honor to aid an organization with other individuals who share the same passion to help.”

“He Gave Me Courage”

Richard Paige — It was originally intended to be more dramatic. A change of direction just a week before curtain left the Gentlemen Callers back at square one. At least they had a title.

“Check Your F*#!ing Email!”

What came to life in a mere four days was something far more humorous. A smart, self-aware, and hilarious comedy about the unintended consequences of technology loosely based on collegiate experiences was the result for IndyFringe festival audiences.

“It was tons of fun,” said director Patrick Kvachkoff ’15. “I loved working with the guys. My job was to get them to create stuff and that was easy. They love creating.”

The Gentlemen Callers (l to r): Austin Yeomans ’20, Luke Wallace ’21, Ahmaud Hill ’21, Austin Ridley ’20, Quinn Cavin ’19, Chris Diaz ’19, Ra’Shawn Jones ’20, Louis Sinn ’19, and director Patrick Kvachkoff ’15.

The creativity might best have been referenced in a skit featuring wrestler Chris Diaz ’19 that centered around Vanessa Carlton’s bouncy 2002 hit “A Thousand Miles.”

The skit depended upon a carefree tune, and Diaz originally picked a song that he knew the lyrics to, but the group decided that audiences wouldn’t understand the song or the reference. So he picked one that everyone knew…”a friendly song,” says Diaz.

“The funny thing was I didn’t know the lyrics,” Diaz chuckled. “I knew the melody, so I kept humming it and soon it was, like, ‘hey, I’m singing.’”

For Kvachkoff, an actor carving out his niche in Chicago, such creative focus was the most rewarding part of assisting with the project.

“We cycled through different ideas for the show and seeing somebody realize they had a good and funny idea – that moment where they come into their own – in putting the show up is pretty cool.”

Through the Callers’ run at IndyFringe, Diaz admitted to nerves, especially in the first few shows, but credits Kvachkoff with helping him work through that.

He helped me to be more social with the audience and who I’m interacting with,” Diaz said. “He gave me courage.”

A member of the first Wabash Gentlemen Callers troupe that first performed at IndyFringe in 2014, Kvachkoff said his job in this incarnation was simply facilitation…to make sure it happened. It was about editing and helping them put on the best and most stageable show they could.

And it made the commute from Chicago worthwhile.

“To be able to meet a fun group who really came together – they love hanging out with each other makes it easy for me,” he said. “I like doing this, I like acting, whatever the specific show needs of me, I’m there.”

Welcoming More | Wabash Men

Welcoming new international students to campus.

Brady Gossett ’19 — Director of International Programs Amy Weir welcomed a new group of international students to campus Monday, tending to all the little details to ensure their transitions was smooth.

Any travel is draining enough, but many of these students are coming off long flights across several time zones.

“Maybe they don’t want to sleep right away,” said Weir, but just in case, she has beds ready made by the time they arrive. “Your first night on a new campus really determines what your overall experience in college is like.”

Weir’s focus then becomes getting the students acclimated to life in the US and life at Wabash. Along with the time difference, there are a lot of other cultural differences that affect new international students.

Weir works tirelessly orienting students to Wabash prior to the beginning of classes. Activities include meeting with various faculty and staff, campus scavenger hunts, discussing immigration rules, and lots of icebreakers.

In one particular ice breaker, Never Have I Ever, students shared experiences with each other in a race to find an open chair.

“Never have I ever had a pet cat.”

“Never have I ever owned a gaming console.”

Lots of laughing, joking around, and jockeying for seats. I finished up taking photos and joined the game. After the first couple “Never Have I Ever’s”, I think they noticed I hadn’t moved from my seat.

“Never have I ever been a US Citizen.”

More laughter as the student mentors and I scrambled to grab a seat. That was a good one, I thought.

They’ll fit in just fine here at Wabash.

Out of the Page and onto the Stage

Richard Paige — The text came out of nowhere on a random January day.

“Let’s see if we can get this show on its legs.”

The show in question was “I, Nephi: A Gay Mormon’s Survival Guide,” a one-man play that tells the true story of a man reconciling the world of his family with the culture of his sexuality.

Originally conceived and written by Joe Mount ’15 for his senior capstone project, I, Nephi, had only seen the light of day as a staged reading in the Spring of 2015. And if Mount had his way, that’s where things would have stayed…until that message was received nearly two years later.

Joe Mount ’15 during his IndyFringe staging of “I, Nephi.”

“After the staged reading, I was terrified,” Mount says. “Rory asked if we could put it on, if he could produce it. Since that moment, it has been incredibly rewarding, slightly terrifying, an incredibly positive experience.”

Rory Willats ’17 was just the guy to make it happen. He and Joe had been friends largely from the time Rory arrived on campus and collaborated on a number of Wabash productions and developed a deep well of trust with each other.

“The only expectation I had was to do whatever Joe needed to help get this show on its feet,” Rory says. “It was just about telling Joe’s story and not getting in the way of it. I was a brain for Joe to bounce staging ideas off.”

Joe claims that level of trust was vital to bringing his thoughts to life. He says Rory knew well of the backstory, of Joe’s struggles with his family, and his hesitancy to take the play further.

“Rory was key in getting me to think about how the show would look and supporting what I was trying to say with what I was doing,” Joe says. “The collaboration really took off and we were able to bring this play out of the page and onto the stage.”

Such descriptors don’t surprise Wabash Theater Department Chair Jim Cherry. Trust is foundational to good theater.

“When you go out on stage, you have to trust the person across from you is prepared, trained, rehearsed, focused, fearless, and completely engaged in the work at hand,” he says. “That’s an expectation we have as a Department, and it’s reflected in the work of graduates like Joe and Rory.”

Even in the middle of a successful six-night run at the Phoenix Theater during the 2017 IndyFringe Festival, Joe still felt those pangs of terror in that the show was staged at the festival and not the more familiar confines of the Wabash Theater.

“When Rory asked me to do it, I sat with the idea for a little bit and eventually saw no reason not to,” Joe says. “I knew this was someone I could trust. Someone who wasn’t going to violate the story of the experience. I only needed to trust him to keep me calm throughout the process.”

What Joe needed was someone to help him work through the emotional moments, the parts of the story he still struggles with, to objectively move the play forward.

Rory Willats ’17 in the Phoenix Theater control booth.

“I needed somebody slightly separated, not as invested, that could say, ‘Well this is what you are feeling and this is what you want to get across, so this is the way to do it,’ or, ‘What you’re doing right now is not going to be as effective,’” he says.

From that initial text, the two started piecing things together in June. Three weeks of rehearsals led into opening night.

“To do work at IndyFringe is to catapult the work outside of this safe space,” Cherry says. “Audiences of total strangers, limited budgets and technical capabilities, unconventional spaces, limited time and support. This is the theater that performers make when they leave college. It’s a great part of their education to mount work at IndyFringe.”

Rory reflected on how the theater connects people in ways where heartfelt stories are the result.

“Theater is built upon what happens when you put two people in a room,” Rory says. “Our rehearsal process – sharing the story and stretching that a little bit – was flexing our muscle. It goes back to the heart of theater, storytelling and creating a relationship with a room full of people. I don’t know if I could have done this if I didn’t have my Wabash experience, and my Wabash experience with Joe.”

Joe thought living and writing the story were enough. Thanks to his friend and collaborator, he got much more in return.

“Rory is the only reason it became active,” he says. “It always helped to have Rory to be there to say, ‘This is good, but this is not what you’re trying to do.’ It was an incredibly powerful experience.”

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