Mermaid Player Returns to Dickinson Stage
Featuring some of Shakespeare's most beautifully written speeches, this spring's main stage production of The Tempest gave Dickinson audiences a chance to witness the bard's powerful poetry and prose with added professionalism. Veteran of film, television and the stage and member of Actor's Equity (the professional stage actor's union), actor Fred Morsell, class of 1962, returned to where he was first introduced to the power of theatre to portray the role of Prospero. Morsell sat down to tell the square about his experiences in theatre while at Dickinson, how he went on to become a professional actor and develop his one-man Frederick Douglass show, and his ongoing relationship with the college.
As one of only three black students on the campus during his sophomore year, Morsell says he felt alienated. Bob Worthington, his friend and one of the other black students, could tell that Morsell needed something to take his mind off of his problems, and recommended Morsell go see David Brubaker, faculty member and advisor to the Mermaid Players. In Brubaker he found a mentor he describes as someone who “treated everyone the same, had a great ease with his students and managed to make everyone feel they had found their own sense of uniqueness.” Morsell went on to perform in four plays at Dickinson while he was a student. While Crime & Punishment, his first play, introduced him to what he recalls “the joys of theatre and working with good people,” it was performing the title role in Shakespeare's Othello that proved to be his most important experience here as it convinced him he should pursue acting as a career
It would be a few years before this professional career began, however. After spending two and half years in the army and two years overseas in Japan, Morsell auditioned for Detroit's Wayne State University masters theatre program in 1966 and began his graduate work there that fall. Morsell recalls that he “still didn't have much of a technique at that point, since you get that mostly from experience and observation from working with good people,” but he still managed to get offers after the Theatre Communications Group annual college auditions in spring of 1968 from several prominent theatre companies to join their acting companies, such as American Conservatory Theatre and Arena Stage. Morsell instead chose to join the Actors Theatre of Louisville which became his first professional acting experience.
In 1984 Morsell was working in Los Angeles on a project when he met a black minister who informed him about the situation in South Central LA. Black kids were getting more into drugs and being used as drug runners. The minister asked Morsell to help him form the Frederick Douglass Foundation to help these kids understand that there were options besides the drug culture. So Morsell began to read Frederick Douglass's narrative and found himself deeply moved and impressed. Morsell says he felt that “Douglass had a very clear understanding of three things. The first was that real identity comes from the heart. Secondly, you have to take advantage of every opportunity given to you because it may be the last one you get. And finally, at just twelve or thirteen years of age, Douglass “understood the power of the spoken and the written word, of language, to effect permanent, positive changes.” As an actor, it is clear that Morsell connects strongly with this last point, describing sound as “creative” and how it must be used to create positive attitudes and actions. He felt that “those kids should be told these things with a character and a story,” and so in 1990 he began his one-man show. Morsell credits the show with enabling him “to do everything as an actor I want to do: enlighten people, give new insights, perspectives, and uplift them. By sharing your heart, people can empower themselves.” Morsell has been touring and teaching with the show ever since.
So what enticed him back to Dickinson? This actually is the fourth time since he graduated that Morsell has returned to the Dickinson stage. From the late sixties to the late seventies Morsell returned to act and direct several productions, and guest teach. A couple years ago theatre Professor Todd Wronski approached Morsell about The Tempest, but he did not hear anything more until plans became finalized last spring. Morsell wanted to do The Tempest here for several reasons. “Any time you have the chance to do wonderfully rich, class material, you should,” he says. Additionally, he finds that “young people have a profound energy and a kind of purity and innocence in their approach to the material.”
Morsell finds that there's “a genuine-ness and openness that's kind of unique to Dickinson.” Current students might be surprised to learn that Morsell thinks that the town-gown mentality has improved dramatically since his student days. But above all, Morsell is “most surprised about how much I remember about being here as a student remains.” Returning to Dickinson after so many years, Morsell marvels at the students continual “idealism, energy, and drive to do everything. It's invigorating, it makes me feel young.”