Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, January 3, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 3
Winter 2005

Drama Queen
Karen Lordi blurs the boundaries between education and performance
By Barbara Snyder Stambaugh
Karen Lordi is as busy as a moth in a mitten, but you can’t tell. She’s not running in every direction, looking for her keys, not slamming doors or phones. No chaos, no hysteria. Her hair’s not even messed up.

Lordi looks calm, cheery and rested. She’s lovely. She’s juggling two hectic careers—associate professor and theatre director, along with occasional stints as actor and writer—and she’s balancing it all with the grace of a dancer.

Oh, she’s a dancer, too.

That’s where Lordi’s career started, with dancing, with the human body’s relationship to physical space, with the expressive movement of bone and tendon across time and distance, and with the ideas and emotions evoked by the body’s presence on stage … all of which, Lordi knows, are powerful sensibilities for a director, too.

It’s this process of connecting disciplines—as with dance and directing—that enables Lordi to seamlessly merge her professional life in the theatre with her professorial life at the college.

“As a director, you’re teaching all the time,” Lordi says. “In both disciplines, you have to inspire people, get them to understand. The best directors are teachers. And the most vibrant theatre programs hire professors with professional experience.”

Lordi’s alter egos work together—where goes the director, so goes the professor. When Lordi directed The Dance of Death at the Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York City, for example, she had with her a few student assistants from Dickinson. During many of Lordi’s summers spent directing at the Pendragon Theatre in New York’s Saranac Lake, there have been Dickinson students gaining extraordinary experience by working at her side.

“These professions complement each other,” she says. “It’s not as though I’m trying to work in fields that are unrelated to my passion.”

Lordi knows of what she speaks. At the beginning of her career, she took a short look at one of theatre’s notorious traditions (working as a waiter or as a “temp” to make ends meet in New York) and opted out.

“People are under the illusion—or delusion—that being in New York City will make your career,” Lordi says. “I’ve done that, but I was unhappy that my focus was not on what I wanted to do. Teaching is the way for me to have that focus.”

So Lordi took her B.A. from Rutgers, and her M.F.A. and D.F.A. degrees from the Yale School of Drama and threw herself into education with the same passion that she feels for the theatre.

Now the time Lordi spends in classrooms and theatres in Carlisle is enriched by professional stints in theatres far and wide. Her productions have included occasional star power like Julie Harris in Amber Patches, along with tours in Germany and Scotland. Lordi has been an assistant director on Broadway (for Redwood Curtain starring Jeff Daniels), and she won the Drama Logue award for best director for her staging of Terra Nova in Los Angeles.

Lordi’s latest project took her into Toronto’s vibrant theatrical community. It also gave her a new identity—playwright—when she wrote a play at the request of her uncle, Adelmo Melecci.

Like Lordi, Melecci combined education with the performing arts. He was a notable composer, and he taught piano for 70 years at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

On his 100th birthday, Melecci announced that he and Lordi would collaborate on a project. She would write a play, and he would compose the music for it. Among other past achievements, he wrote a song for Perry Como and the original music for Disneyland, including “Teddy Bears on Parade,” which, in a bizarre twist, was recently optioned by John Waters for the new film, A Dirty Shame. (Melecci hadn’t heard of the outrageous filmmaker, so Lordi had the unusual task of explaining John Waters to a centenarian.)

This fall Lordi’s play, The Man of Three Centuries, which featured her uncle’s music, was performed as a one-night tribute in Toronto, just one month after Melecci’s death at 105. Fortunately, he had seen a tape of the play when it was workshopped last summer at the Pendragon Theatre and had loved it.

Lordi continues to find ways to blur the boundaries between education and performance. She created a pilot project to bring professional dancers, actors and musicians to the college to work with students. During spring semester the avant-garde director and experimental performer Andre Gregory, who is most famous for the film My Dinner with Andre, will be here to interact with students and to accept the Dickinson College Arts Award.

This kind of project is the continuation of a collaborative theme that runs through Lordi’s academic and theatrical life. Over the years, she has taken the seniors in her advanced-directing class to New Dramatists in New York City, a writers’ colony and research and development center for playwrights, to choose new one-act plays to stage at the college. And last year her students pulled off a world premier in Carlisle with their staging of a new play by a talented and much-heralded new writer, Julia Jordan, who came to campus to work with the students on the production.

“This way, artists and educational institutions help each other. Such a program helps writers, helps performers, and it helps the students. I want to use my time and the resources I have to bring these disciplines together,” she says. “It’s an extraordinary experience for the students—and for me.”

 


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