LAE Season 4 Episode 1: Deric McNish
6:53PM Mar 18, 2020
Hi, everyone! Welcome to the Liberal Arts Endeavor, a podcast by Michigan State University's College of Arts & Letters. Here we're dedicated to driving a continued conversation about the importance of public presence in an online space. If you're a returning listener, welcome back. This season we're refocusing on the value of humanist perspective in the digital age, and slowing down a bit to foster a culture of care and listening. On each new episode, we follow Chris Long, Dean of the College of Arts & Letters, as he takes us somewhere new to meet Arts & Letters, students and faculty where they work. Today's episode features Deric McNish in the sound booth: Room 4 of the MSU Auditorium. He's the Assistant Professor of Acting, Voice, and Speech here at MSU, and he's also the program director for the BFA in acting. Here's Deric and Chris.
It's great to see you, Deric. It's great to be here in the aud.
Thanks for joining me.
Well, I saw your online portfolio, your website. It's unbelievable. It's beautiful.
And one of the things that I been really thinking a lot about is, is how are we using our online presences to create community around the work that we've done to make it. Talk a little bit about your, your website and kind of how you think about it.
Yeah, sure. So, my history, I was a professional actor, I still am a professional actor. So I'm used to marketing myself, I think that's in my DNA. So I've had a website for a long time, but it's it's changed its purpose over time. It became a vehicle for explaining how to tie together all the weird different things that I do and package that into the scholar-artists that is me.
And a website really makes it, makes it clear how that works. You know, it serves other purposes, but I think it's, it's part of being in a community of scholars and making everything that I do be part of a conversation.
Last year, I was part of the Adams Academy, and that was a real focus of the Adams Academy was, "How do we take what we do in these insulated little spaces where we work and make it part of the national conversation?" And so it's, it's really easy now just when I have a thought or something, I can just pop it up online. And there's lots of different places where I can do that, you know.
How do you think about that with respect to sort of your online reflections, things that are less polished, maybe than you would, you know, when we think about publications and things like that, we always have to, you know, first of all, you you polish them up before they get even peer reviewed, and then they're peer reviewed, and finally, when they come out they're, you know a thing, but when we're thinking about blogging and online, kind of, reflections, you know, how do you balance that with respect to things that are sort of not quite finished? But,
Someting you want to share?
I, I wish you could tell me that. I think there's, yeah, there's, you know, putting something out there requires a little bit of vulnerability, because it's, you know, it's published, not peer reviewed, but it's out there and so someone could have a reaction to it, that then leads to something else. And, and so I think, you know, you have to be aware of that, but also in the context of an ongoing conversation, it's, it's, it's just something that's, that's different. It's not, it's not structured, and that's, that's what I like about it. But I'll also be specific about where I'm putting something you know, if you have a small simple idea that you want to flesh out, there's different online communities that I'm a part of. So I'm a voice and speech teacher, and there's this great email list called Vesta Vox where people can just throw out a question: "I have a student who had this kind of surgery and they have to project,"or "I have a student who's unable to learn dialects and this is the reason why I think-- who has some help?" and, and that's a community where people are really being vulnerable and allowing themselves to appear that they need, like they need help. And so, so yeah, I think I would be selective about where those things go. Sometimes Twitter's the right place. Sometimes a blog or a podcast might be the right place. But there's always a there's always a good place to do it.
Yeah, this issue of vulnerability is such an important one, because there's a kind of courage you have to have to put the work out there. But I found that, you know, the times particularly, you know, thinking about Twitter or my own blog space, when I've been more vulnerable and therefore also, I think, more authentic, it resonates in a way with people that I often don't anticipate.
You know, and I think think that that's the-- And we've been thinking a lot about that, obviously, here at Michigan State over the past few years and all of the issues we've been working through as a university and within the college to thinking about, well, let's be honest with ourselves about what we're engaged in what what what challenges we're facing. I mean, you must you must experience that all the time with students in thinking about acting.
Sure, yeah. The the classroom is a very safe, protected space. And then usually students want to provide a really polished product to put in front of the audience. And a lot of times what we do here, it's not about product, it's about the process.
And we want to be open and vulnerable about that experience. So, so we create opportunities to do that works in progress. Come see this rehearsal. We have a awesome group of donors who come in to watch, and theater supporters, who come in to watch rehearsals. And things like improv, right? You can't, you can't prepare for what you're going to say it's just going to come out and that that can be a little bit scary. That's why I really am enjoying this this podcast structure that you have, because we don't know what's going to happen. But the first time that I did a podcast, we scripted out every single word of it, and it was fantastic and good information, but didn't leave open that possibility of what might happen.
Yeah. Well talk to me a little bit about the origin of the podcast and and I it was, it's great. I knew I was going to come talk to you today. So and I'm a huge fan of podcasts generally. And so I downloaded the most recent episode on 12th Night and, and it, first of all, it's great. I mean, it's the image on the cover of the podcast is very fun, we could talk about how you did that, but, but your intro was great, and then it's hearing the students engage, you know, in a really substantive way with all the various, you know, crafts around directing when it goes into direct and 12th Night. So talk to me a little bit about the origin of the podcast.
So this is a good example of how like a small idea kind of balloons into something bigger and bigger and something bigger. So it really started out at the end of our casting session. We, we cast our entire fall season all at once. And just the luck of the draw, I think we had a bunch of really talented students that weren't going to be used in in the department's production season, for the fall. So that's a problem from me. I'm the director of the BFA acting program, I want to create opportunities for people. These are really talented actors. Also, it's an opportunity for me to work with them. So before we post lists I thought I need to create something to get these students involved.
This semester we had Gus Kaikkonen a professional theater director who's directing 12th Night for us. And so he's he's in town. He's also teaching the undergraduate classical acting class. I'm also teaching the graduate classical acting class. And so it's a it's a semester of Shakespeare.
There's production going on, and I wanted to give them the opportunity to be a part of that as well. And I just really love The Winter's Tale. I just love the story.
It's a weird play, and it's a fun play. So I wanted to dig into it. And that's, that's as far as I got.
The cast was all female. So we're starting out with something that is a little bit different and interesting. And the the seeds of maybe a research question I didn't really know at that point. One of my my colleagues, Dan Smith, has been doing research about translation in Shakespeare like how do you translate Shakespeare for a modern modern audience? Or should you? Right? Is it is it wrong to cut a little bit or change this word? And so I became interested in that. So we decided to have the students create two cuts of the play one of them 60 minutes, one of them two hours.
So we, as a little outreach experience to do some touring, we went to a high school to perform the 60 minute version. And then in collaboration with the MSU planetarium, we did the the two hour version there.So we, the director of the planetarium, Shannon Schmoll is an excellent collaborator.
And we did something with her in the past where she had the cast of Hair come in and sing, you know, Age of Aquarius.
All these-- "Walking in Space"-- star songs there. So I approached her about this idea of doing a star show that connected to the, the performance and so that people could really focus on the oral the heard experience of Shakespeare while they watch a star show. I happen to have a-- I'm sorry, this is much more than you were expecting-- But I had a an undergraduate, a freshman who is a an astrophysics and theater double major.
So she took on the job of designing this star show. So we created this event
Talk about disciplinary.
Yeah, right? It was it was really exciting. Called it "Shakespeare Under the Stars." We got the collaborators from the College of Music to come in and create these really beautiful high quality recordings that we're going to put up along with the podcast. So yeah, so we have these performances. And then if that wasn't enough, then I wanted to create this opportunity for students to have a resource or Shakespeare aficionados, people who just want to learn more about The Winter's Tale and what goes into it. So, and we have Gus on campus, that's an opportunity. We have Josse Messing.
Fabulous scholar of Shakespeare and, and Dan Smith is going to be one of our guests.
So creating this where the students interview these scholars as a way to crack open the text and help people to understand it from lots of different perspectives, just now looked at the all female cast aspect of it, what that means. And Gus told us wonderful stories about directing.
Yeah, and Dan is gonna is gonna tackle that translation.
Yeah, right. So what about the title, "Syllable of Recorded Time." Tell me about that.
Syllable of recorded time. It's so it's you know, it comes from Shakespeare, "the last syllable of recorded time." You know, I came up with a bunch of titles and then googled them and found out there's a-- every kind of title has been taken already. There's a podcast-- every quote from Shakespeare has been taken.
This one happens to survive. I actually sent a list to Abigail Taikaki.
And she she picked this one as her favorite.
Yeah, it's a beautiful name.
Yeah. And she gave it the acronym SORT. So SORT of for short.
That's great. What about the graphic? How did that all get developed?
She has a student.
Okay. It came out of a graphic design student here in CAL, the CAL marketing communication team, yeah?
Yeah. And I don't know who it was, but whoever it was, thank you. Because I think it's really cool.
All right. Well, we'll have to talk to Ryan Kilcoyne about who, you know, making sure we get the credits out there. So we have I mean, one of the so how are you seeing this, this the podcast developed in terms of the-- is it just gonna be this semester? A year? Are we talking about a longer term?
So good question. So we're packaging this year around The Winter's Tale.
It'll have the three podcasts with the experts. And it'll have the 60 minute performance.
The two hour performance. And that'll be sort of this, this package. I'm trying to give this thing legs so that it will continue. Also the collaboration with the planetarium, too.
I have a graduate student that's interested in directing, and he's in love with Shakespeare. And so we've talked about potentially him maybe taking this and doing it for a year. But even if it doesn't, I think that this this model could be applied to anything in our production season. You know, if we were just focusing on 12th Night or if we were focusing on-- you know, next semester, I'm directing Into the Woods, we could do three podcasts about Into the Woods. The fact that it's, you know, Shakespeare on the cover, maybe we'll just change the graphic.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's a great learning opportunity for students too. It's one of those things where you know, as you empower them to think about how they are bringing their voice to this multimedia kind of mode of presentation, it's really important. And then it's of course great for them to have an item for their portfolios and for ways of showing, "Yeah, I you know, I hosted a podcast, I worked closely with professors on this."
Sure, yeah, experience just behind the microphone and having the headphones on and hearing their own voice it that takes some getting used to.
Definitely, definitely. I mean, so that's the origin of the podcast, talk to me a little bit about your own, how you found your way to acting how you found your way into the theater.
How did I find my way into the theatre? I was young, and-- I started, let's see, way, way back. I think that I was really lucky and privileged to go to an elementary school where I had a teacher who used theater as a way to teach all of her topics and she dramatize things and, and and I loved it. And so she would also put on plays.
Yeah. So all the way back to elementary school.
All the way back to elementary school. She created a theme for her classroom. And it was the-- one year it was Pachyderm Palace. So everything about elephants.
And then the play was called But No Elephants and it was about that. So, you know, we were all experts in elephants.
And you know, that experience for a young person? It's a little bit addictive.
You know, it's transforming into someone else. It's, it's a fun journey. So I kept doing it in school and explored other things. But when I got to college, and I, I didn't go specifically to study theater, because I didn't like many people. I didn't know what the reality was, and all of that. But when you get down to it, you're going to spend four years studying something, so you may as well do something that you're passionate about.
So I was I was acting throughout. And, and then right after-- Well actually, while I was in college, I took a semester off and I went on a national tour. And because I where I went to school, it was three, three and a half hours from New York City. So I would sometimes drive and go for an audition. And then I booked something and took a semester off and finished my degree then moved to New York and and just continued to do it.
Yeah. Did you have Did you think okay, now, I'm going to be a professional actor as my career or were you thinking always about the academic side of it as well?
I didn't think about the academic side of it for a long time. I was I was a professional actor in New York City after undergrad for about three years, and then I wanted to just do a better job of it. So I went and got my MFA at Case Western and Cleveland Playhouse. A wonderful experience, but it was a conservatory and I didn't get to teach. So I didn't know if I don't think you can really know if you're going to like something until you try it. So after I graduated, I went back to New York. I was doing a lot more dialect coaching as a side gig to performing and that was really my first taste of what felt like teaching and I and I started to realize that I I enjoyed that sometimes more than-- you know, being an actor, sometimes you are very much a creative artist and sometimes you are a piece in someone else's vision.
And I started to direct more I started to coach people for their auditions and I and I decided I wanted I wanted to do more of that and I really just sort of stopped on a dime and went from a PhD.
Right. Now you used at the beginning of our conversation, this term scholar-artist, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you think how you conceive both of those dimensions of your work. Whether you see them as did, you know, totally distinct, or how they're integrated, being a scholar and an artist.
they have to be integrated. And part of that is the nature of this university and the the nature of my position where I have to have this vertical trajectory. So if I pursue everything to you know, if I have breadth and depth, I'm setting myself up for failure. But when it works out, well, one thing informs the other. So this podcast is is an interesting example of that where I'm the acting voice and speech person. I teach classes in VoiceOver Performance. I teach classes in classical acting. So here it's an artistic exercise that is becoming a research question and then a project that helps students, it sort of ticks off lots of different boxes. And that's that's what happens ideally when when things work together, and sometimes they fit more into one category than another.
How do you When do you have the sense that something is emerging as a research question for you in that context?
For me, it's always a concrete problem, that I feel like I can either someone, someone has the answer, and I want to find it more or if not, then I want to help develop, and I want to be part of that conversation. So you know, when I when I went to earn my PhD, that all was new to me thinking about those terms. And I didn't have a sense of what I wanted to research. I just wanted to teach people and I wanted to direct and all of that. My first time teaching an acting class I-- ever my actual first time teaching an acting class at university, I walked into the class with all of my plans, and it was very well thought out, and I was so excited. And there was a student with a dog in the class a great big dog.
I was a little taken back, taken aback.
So it turns out it was a service dog, and I had a student who was blind.
And, and I wasn't prepared for that. Everything I had planned for that day. We were going to do an exercise where we toss balls to learn people's names.
And that would have excluded someone.
So instead, I had Everybody sit on the ground and we rolled balls. But I'm not a dog owner, so I didn't realize that even the most well trained dogs can't resist that temptation. So So I did, I started researching and I wasn't even thinking about it in that context as a research question, but I was trying to find out, "How do how do we train actors with disabilities? How do we be inclusive in our classrooms?" How do we make this pedagogy you know, for someone who is who has a mobility impairment and so much of what we do is about run, stand, or someone is if someone is visually impaired and it's, make eye contact, or listen, listening skills in theater are so important. So I found that there really was very little to answer that question. So I started conducting interviews and that was kind of how, how, how that became something where there was a crossover between between my teaching and now in my artistic practice where I try to bring these inclusive practices into rehearsals and into research and sharing knowledge.
Yeah, that's such an important story of that palpable moment of kind of coming up short with respect to what you expected.
And how often that happens to us. In our lives, but then your your response to that to be very imaginative imagining your way into the perspective of the student of yours who wasn't going to be able to participate in the ways that you had thought you were going to teach. Such a powerful and important thing to, for us to kind of sit with because so much of our work and so much of our lives are about responding to people where they are, to the degree that we can discern, you know.
Yeah, and it has to come from a place of acknowledging your own limitations. Knowing that there's a problem and I don't have an answer. So let's work together and reach across disciplines and figure out how to how to make this work.
Yeah, it goes back to the issues of vulnerability that we had we started with. So one of the things we've been thinking about is places of practice. We are here in the basement of the beautiful auditorium, the historic auditorium and MSU. And we're in a kind of sound studio that has been crafted, it seems like it's been sort of built up, we've got people coming in, and we've got sound of the load in for 12th Night. So we've got so part of the, the intent of being with you in this space is to both sort of understand or get a better understanding about your spaces in which you work. And then also just to talk a little bit more about and be more intentional and cognizant about the spaces that determine our relationships with one another and also the nature of our work. Maybe to talk a little bit about this place.
Sure. Yeah, this place is a it's a gift. It's a just a wonderful gift for us to have here in the Department of Theatre. I think it was built maybe four years ago, I'm not sure and in large part by one of the faculty that we have in our scene shop, Mark white. So this is, this comes from the need to be able to teach voiceover classes. So I teach graduate voiceover class in this space with our eight, eight person MFA actor class. And then Jason Painter-Price our our sound design Professor teaches sound design in this class. And and we have a recording studio back there which is very heavily soundproofed, because as you can tell, we're sitting outside of the studio, and you can hear all the sounds of people coming down the hall and hammering things in the in the, the arena theater over there, and even the heating in this building just kind of rattles a bit. So this is a this is a space where we do-- actually when we have voiceover work for our students for productions, we'll record that sort of stuff in here. I'm directing Into the Woods next semester, and one of the characters, two of the characters, the giant, and Cinderella's mother's ghost is a voiceover. So we'll be recording those.
And those will be broadcast over into the auditorium and into that space? So, what goes into thinking about that, you've got to think about, I mean, you know, tell me a little bit about how that works on sort of, on the production side of it.
For like, how to design a show?
Well just about, you've got a voiceover like that, and it's got to be projected into a space that's, I mean I guess it depends on what which space you're projecting it into. And does that determine how you record and all that? Basically, I'm asking you to teach me the class.
I would love to. I mean, I mean, everything in theater direction and design, it's all about telling the story and the characters. So that's the those conversations happen months before the show is even cast. So we're having having those conversations every Friday about what the show is going to look like and sound like and feel like, what does our cow look like? What do those birds look like? How does the giant come into being all of these things? What's one of the themes in the show that we want to accentuate for our production here at Michigan State? And and yeah, part of that comes into, okay, these characters. First there was a decision to, to do them as pre recorded voiceovers, just logistically about we're going to combine those with digital animation. So we need to line those things up. And then there will be the live orchestra that's playing along with the pre recorded, singing.
So it's a lot of moving parts and everything needs to really be planned ahead of time and thought out. In terms of the actual performance, that's the that's the really fun part of it. I can tell you, if you want some quick tips and tricks on VoiceOver Performance, The big biggest secret is movement. So, you'll see that in that studio right now it's set up with the microphone is, is set up for someone to be standing, I think I'd have to look around to see. But normally that's how you would work because the more movement is in your body, the more the character will, will come across in the voice and the breath, the more organic it will feel. Whenever you watch a really good voiceover performer, you'll see them bouncing off the wall. Like Robin Williams doing his voice the genie and Aladdin. He's all over the place. So that's that's a really important thing and, and you know, those actors get the chance to really work on that.
Yeah, that that's really interesting as-- we should think about with regard to the podcast do is move movement. I mean, as I'm talking about moving my hand, I can feel that you know, thinking about how that how that translates into the experience of the podcast. How do you How have you been thinking about this issues of accessibility when you're thinking about something like a voiceover and a performance like that with a video? So you've got issues of, you've got visual and auditory accessibility issues in those contexts. What, you know, how have you been thinking, how do you think about that in a performance like that?
Yeah that's a really important point. And it's something that I think that we struggle with in the Department of Theater and I'm sure the Wharton Center and really every other producing organization. There are solutions to those those issues. There are ways to make these things accessible. They cost money, is the main thing. So the Wharton Center does awesome productions sometimes where they'll have one particular performance, that's a sensory-friendly production, where the lights will be on and the sound will maybe be turned down a little bit and special effects might be toned down like a shot, a gun shot, things that might might be inappropriate for certain audiences. For things like a having a visually impaired audience here in the Department of Theatre, ideally, what we would want is, is having either audio descriptions or having some alternative providing alternatively, basically the principles of universal design, providing multiple modes of representation. And that's, that's something that, I think right now we sort of do on a show-to-show basis and in the future, I hope that we'll, we'll do it more across the board.
Yeah, I mean, as we think about the land grant mission of access to education, and we think about the issues of social justice and access to the kind of content that we care most deeply about, we've got to do work on that and I hear what you're saying around the cost of it, we need to work on that
LCC has a program for American Sign Language translators. So for their productions, they always have ASL translators, which is an awesome, wonderful resource. So we looked into that I think that's very much on our radar, something that we're, we want to do.
And what a great opportunity to for our students to learn about that and, and fits in with your research too as you were talking about in the skills we're seeing that too in, in our Experience Architecture major and in other graphic design, you know, web design components where our students are learning about all the issues associated with accessibility, and that is a really important issue in and of itself, but it's also a great skill for them to have, because it's sought after in industries across, you know, the world really. So let me ask you what's holding you back. So I'm the dean and I get to, you know, one of the one of the great things about being a dean is to try to empower our faculty and our students to be successful. So tell me some of the things that are kind of holding you back.
Well, it's the low, low hanging fruit. But time is the fire in which we burn, right? That's always that's always trouble. But I think that's something that we all struggle with because where, you know, overachievers, and there's so much to do,
Yeah, I mean, I think that's, that's such an important point. And I've been thinking about all the ways in which we, as an institution, impinge upon your time asked you to do things, some of which are critically important, but other things I think we've got to be thinking about. I mean, I say this all the time when I'm when I'm charging a committee for a search committee, that faculty time is one of our most important resources and we need to we need to empower faculty to have more time, and the issue that I also think about is, what kind of time? You know, do you have the time to tarry with the things you need to tarry with, to really think deeply, to work deeply into an issue?
Yeah. And the college has been talking a lot more about self care and care for others. And I think that's an important conversation to have. But that's--
I can't do the change the time time time continuum. I can I can work on that.
Well, I mean, I have connections now in astrophysics. So, I'm gonna see what what can happen.
I would say another thing, you know, not something that's holding me back so much as, you know, a structural situation that-- so I took the Strength Finders Assessment thing through through the CAL leadership program. And one thing I discovered about myself through that was, I'm someone who really thrives when I get to have a personal one-on-one relationship with someone like a synergistic kind of deep connection with someone because I'm, I do a lot of interdisciplinary work and collaboration in the theater. So I discovered especially since then that when I, when I'm not permitted to do that I get really frustrated. It feels like, it feels like a missed opportunity. So I think that they're the university really talks a lot about valuing interdisciplinarity. And we're, we've got the Center for it, and we're valuing what, what can come of all of that. But I also think there there are still structures that kind of get in the way of that as far as the kind of scholarship that's valued. Your soul-authored monograph and a team taught classes, well, that's half a class. So in my experience, I when I when I've had those opportunities to really reach across the university aisle and make those connections with people, it's been really fantastic. But I think the thing that maybe holds me back is that the, the silos that we exist in-- that there are people in the College of Music that I have so much in common with, right?And they and there are resources they have that we would love to use and, and I, you know, I'm a speech nerd and I should have more connection with linguistics and you know, Media and Information needs actors for video games, for their commercials and their advertising programs and and we have actors that need time on camera.
There's there's just all of these strange barriers to collaboration that I think exists not as not necessarily as institutional but more as like, inertia.
Well, we're used to kind of, we're used to doing things on our own, or we're used to having our own territory. And, and, and it's something that I, I would love to understand better so that I can kind of navigate between the lines.
Well, the there's a number of dimensions to that, that I think are really important to pull out. One is the question of how we reward the very difficult and valued work of collaboration. How do we recognize that? How do we, I mean, a team taught class which can take twice the effort is counted for half a class. So we need to figure that out. There's, you know, there's a number of ways in which I have been trying to think through the issue, the ways our metrics are not aligned with our values, and that if we value collaboration, if we value one-on-one connections with students that are transformative for them, if we valued co authored scholarship, co produced performances, then we need to be honest with ourselves about how we're identifying those as valued things, and how we're rewarding them and valuing them when it comes time for annual reviews and salary increases and all that. So I'm, I'm definitely, it's one of those issues that I'm very much sensitive to. But I mean, this is a really important point that you're bringing up. It's one that I don't have easy solutions to, but I definitely have some thoughts about how can we re articulate how we are valuing these things we say we value when it comes time to do tenure and promotion and salary increases and that sort of thing. The other issue, and relatedly, is the structure of institutions. And when we divide ourselves into disciplines and we, and we have the theatre department over here on the Aud and we have immediate information over there and Comm-Arts building.Where are the spaces for us to be together in ways that would allow us to find opportunities for our students to thrive when you have these energies that are right there? We see them. We know that they're there. And and we need to find ways to do that. So I'm grateful for you to bring those forward. And we're gonna have to work together on figuring out some ways to address them.
Let's do it.
All right. Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast it has been a great chance to talk to you. It's great to be here. I will note that the space warms up over time when you don't have the fan on.
It does. And you have to keep the door shut otherwise the sound comes in from both sides.
Well, thanks for being here.
That's something that's holding me back.
There it is, the warmth of the warm with so much, you know, energy down here. All right, thanks.
A big thank you to everyone involved with this podcast including our technical producer Dan Trego, our marketing director and producer Ryan Kilcoyne, and our interns Donte Smith and Aine Dillane. You can access every episode of the Liberal Arts Endeavor Podcast online at go.cal.msu.edu/podcast. The opinions expressed on this program do not reflect official entities of Michigan State University. See you next time on Liberal Arts Endeavor.