News at Mason
Seeing ‘Red’ with Professor Ed Gero
March 7, 2012
By Erin Cushing
It’s not unusual for most Mason faculty members to spend their days conducting research, writing academic papers and traveling to conferences, all the while conducting classes and mentoring students.
Yet few professors have as much on their plates as Ed Gero.
Throughout the past year, Gero, professor of theater, has been preparing for and playing the role of artist Mark Rothko in “Red,” a play chronicling the artist’s commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in 1958-59. The role took him to Chicago and back to Washington, D.C., where “Red” is running through March 11 at Arena Stage.
Even while appearing on the stage night after night, Gero has managed to teach several undergraduate theater classes at Mason.
“It has been challenging, but not difficult,” Gero says of balancing the demands of preparing and performing a role with the rigors of teaching. A four-time recipient of the Helen Hayes Award for his work in Shakespearian and musical theater, Gero has performed in more than 100 plays with a dozen different companies during his nearly 30-year acting career.
In spring 2011, when he first learned that he would be starring in the play, Gero decided to incorporate his preparation for the role with his THR 496 Text in Performance class, using “Red” as the main text for the class. Splitting the class into teams of actors, directors, dramaturges and designers, Gero tasked the students with researching and staging scenes from the play.
According to Gero, studying “Red” turned out to be beneficial for both him and his students. He was able to glean insights from his students about the play and his character that helped him prepare for the role. In turn, the students got an inside look at how an actor is hired, how to negotiate with a theater company and how to prepare for a professional role. Gero also gave them up-to-the-minute reports on the process.
“He is just as invested in his teaching as he is in his art and is always eager to share his real-life experiences with those of us who will soon be trying our own hand at the acting business,” says Katie Brunberg, a theater major who took Gero’s THR 350 Script Analysis class last spring while he was preparing for the role. She is currently in his THR 365 Characterization class.
“It amazes me that he is able to devote so much of himself to his students while still being out in the professional acting world creating marvelous works of art such as the character of Rothko,” she continues.
Gero’s first run as Rothko was at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in September 2011. Aside from preparing and acting away from home, this move offered an additional challenge: Gero was also scheduled to teach THR 321 Acting Shakespeare at Mason. To do both, Gero implemented a wide array of strategies.
“Technology has been a great boon,” Gero explains.
For the eight weeks during the semester when Gero was away from campus, he conducted lectures through an online teleconferencing system and had students send in assignments electronically. Additional instruction time with students was a little trickier to set up, but was readily available.
“I have to be creative with my office hours; sometimes I advise over the phone, or on Skype,” Gero says.
The system worked just fine for Gero’s students during his Chicago run.
“Professor Gero always dedicated his full time and attention to us during class time as well as outside of class,” says Amanda Johnson, a criminology, law and society major.
Although there were occasional hiccups with the Internet connection that would sometimes disrupt the lecture, Johnson believes that these complications were ultimately beneficial, forcing the students to be independent thinkers and problem solvers.
“I certainly learned to be more self-sufficient in the course; I had to really push myself to figure out things on my own instead of asking a million questions,” she explains. “[Gero] was always saying how he was willing to conduct office hours via Skype if needed, and there was never a delay in him responding via email to any questions I had about an assignment.”
Gero’s open policy with phone and Skype advising sessions has continued during his run in the Arena Stage production, but he does not feel that this balancing act has been too difficult.
“There are early mornings and late nights for reading and grading when I’m teaching writing-intensive classes, but the bulk of my work is in scene study, so there isn’t a lot of outside-the-classroom work for me [this semester],” he says.
“Besides, the benefits of being a working artist, I think, far outweigh the challenges,” he continues. “Artists must continually work to hone their craft, so engaging with acting fundamentals and problems with students tasks me to be clear about my own process and what I actually do in my process to create good acting.”
Gero’s students also believe that learning from a working actor adds a valuable dimension to their classroom experience.
“Acting Shakespeare was without a doubt one of the more intellectually challenging and stimulating courses I’ve taken during my four years at Mason,” says Johnson. “Professor Gero was absolutely fantastic.”
Brunberg adds “Being able to see what he is teaching us, in effect, on a stage such as the one at Arena is an amazing experience that I am blessed to have had.”
Gero says he has had an “enormous” amount of support from students, and several from past classes have come to see him perform.
When asked if his students get extra credit if they go to see “Red,” he jokes, “Only if they like it!”
To read more about Gero’s journey inhabiting Rothko, see his blog.