The voice bellowed out from the back of room 12 or room 49 or the Arena. “Jesus Christ, Thomas, that was terrible!” Or, in the way that many theatre people secretly long to be singers, he crooned a soft tune slightly off-key. Or his self-deprecating, “You’ve got to know about this, because I don’t know anything, and I know about it.”
Frank Rutledge, Professor Emeritus of Theatre at Michigan State University died February 19, 2008 at 72 years. The largest portion of his professional life had been given to the theatre students at Michigan State University.
I was one of them.
And I owe him much.
Frank contributed to the reasons why I went to MSU in the first place. I’d gone to graduate school briefly, but hadn’t navigated those waters well. I’d been out in the field working as an actor for several years and wanted to finish my graduate education. I was on the road in 1990, and we passed through East Lansing. We’d played the town multiple times, and I enjoyed each visit. So knowing that we were coming back through there, I made an appointment to visit the department and get the nickel tour.
I was supposed to meet another faculty member, but that person had something else come up. As a consequence, my tour-guide was Frank. He showed me around the joint and talked to me about the program. He seemed like a straight-shooter, and I liked what I saw and the people I met. So I applied and came to the school in January of 1992.
From that time on Frank helped me through a variety of situations. Ultimately I earned my MA and Ph.D. at the institution, graduating in August of 1995. Given the challenges of earning a degree, I owe him a great deal in marshalling me through the process.
But the politics of a graduate program aren’t why Frank meant so much to me and the hundreds (thousands?) of students who will always have him somewhere in their hearts.
Frank was a complete man of the theatre. He dearly loved the theatre. And he was a great teacher.
As a man of the theatre, there wasn’t much he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Within a few months of my entry into MSU’s department, Frank was acting as my younger brother in a production of As You Like It. He played the usurping Duke, I played Duke Senior. The director’s concept made the court much like a Mafioso’s world. Frank was costumed as a typical mafia “don” in the dark suit with dark shirt and tie. An indelible image – Frank sitting in a chair in a small pool of light with cigar smoke curling toward the ceiling as he menacingly (yet curiously serenely) puffed away while looking at a miscreant who’d crossed his will across the stage in his own pool of light. Frank puffing, the miscreant sweating – no acting necessary. Frank looked scary.
Then within another few weeks I was at Frank’s side, assisting him in directing My Fair Lady. Not long after that, he rehabbed the MSU Shakespeare Tour – and there I was acting in several scenes under his direction.
And when I was asked to direct Merchant of Venice, my scenic designer was Frank.
He directed, acted, designed, wrote plays, lit plays, and kibitzed about plays with equal facility. He was a voracious reader of scripts. He always wanted to read more and more plays. If someone wrote a play in town, he’d put together people for a rehearsed reading for the playwright. A downtown church was on the verge of closing down the Reader’s Theatre program, he took it over.
He believed in the theatre and in putting on plays.
In the days before smokeless buildings you could always locate Frank by the cigar trail. You could also locate him by the earth-shattering cough that he’d use to clear his throat.
If you did something good for the theatre, Frank would say that you’d earned “Dionysus points.” If you did something awful, he was apt to comment that “Dionysus weeps.” And, while he might ironically comment on the graduated students as the ‘pampered jades of East Lansing,’ he’d also say (half-jokingly) that he “was trying to make you a star.” And frequently your own mistakes were getting in the way of that stardom trajectory.
I’ve been enormously lucky in my life to have great teachers – particularly great teachers in the arts. Lee Hicks, Molly Risso, Edith Debartolo, and Robert Dillon. Giants who taught me the great lessons of art. They’re all great.
But, as often as not, when I teach, it’s Frank’s “voice” that comes out of my mouth. And so he lives on in the minds and hearts of my students. The true mark of the true teacher.
Frank, rest in peace.