Barbara Sloan on a life in the theater and her new book

Barbara Sloan’s career has included 25 years in the theater department at Samford University.

Before she was a stalwart of the Birmingham theater community, working with hundreds of students throughout her career at Samford University, Barbara Sloan was a music critic for The Birmingham News.

And no, we’re not talking Sondheim or Schwartz, or even Yo-Yo Ma or Renee Fleming.

Her first review was of the Beatles in Atlanta, and she continued to review rock and roll bands for The News while she was in high school.

But Sloan continued writing in many forms, and now she’s published her second book, “Theatre is My Life!” It’s a compilation of meditations springing out of quotes from plays. It may be the perfect gift for the theater lover on your list.

Here, Sloan answers some questions about theater, her work on stage and off, her book and her blog.

This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Can you give me the Barbara Sloan biography?

I am a fifth-generation Birminghamian, and I was a writer and artist in high school (W.A. Berry High School). In fact, my first job, which lasted through high school, was as the rock and roll “critic” for The Birmingham News.

(Click here for more on that first review of the Beatles.)

After that review was published, Clark Stallworth had me cover (with my friend) all the bands that came to town. I was the original Shawn Ryan, you might say!

When I went to the University of Montevallo, I realized that theater was writing and art along with acting and all the other elements, so I fell in love with being backstage on a running crew and under the stage helping with makeup and up in the balcony commanding the follow spot and in both the scene shop and costume construction area. I acted some, but to develop that talent fully, I would have had to give up all the things I really loved about a life in the theater.

I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and worked on staff in Aycock Auditorium, which featured a concert and lecture series. After getting a master’s degree there (in English with a Medieval and Renaissance theater/arts concentration) I taught theater and was the costume designer at Samford University for 25 years. Later, I was the creative director for the American Village, the executive director of the Seasoned Performers (Alabama’s only senior adult theatre), and the development director for Camp Winnataska, a traditional summer camp. While at Samford and afterward, I also worked with Birmingham Children’s Theatre, The University of Montevallo’s Summer Drama Institute, UAB, Alabama School of Fine Arts, Summerfest, Birmingham Festival Theatre, Music Theatre of Wichita, Southern Regional Opera, the Alabama Ballet and more.

I have two grown children. One is my daughter Elin Olson Glenn (who has three kids – Emmeline and twins George and Arthur). She is involved in The Hoover Library Theatre and its public relations department. And I also have a son, Seth Olson (who has a son, Teddy, and a daughter Lucy). He is an Episcopal priest about to take over at Holy Apostles, Hoover. For part of my theater career, I was a design partner with Elin and Seth’s father, Eric Olson, until we divorced in 1995.

Over the years, I have written and produced 13 scripts for plays, including one translation from Middle English, one translation from Medieval French, an adaptation of a Renaissance commedia dell’arte scenario and a multi-arts piece. I have presented over 50 theater and design lectures and papers at professional theater conventions, schools, meetings and conferences.

Still involved in theater, I often serve as a guest designer, front-of-house volunteer or patron. Currently on faculty of the Institute for Conscious Being (theicb.org), I love creating Enneagram Theatre, which teaches trainees and conference attendees about each of the nine Ego Types. For ICB, I am also a lecturer and small group leader.

 One fall and spring, I scripted 100 two-minute spots on theater for NPR radio station WBHM entitled “Curtain Call.” Since 1980, over 300 of my stories and articles have been seen in local, regional and national magazines and publications. I was a regular contributor to Birmingham Magazine for 20+ years. My first book, “Barefoot Among the Thorns: The Story of Dance in Birmingham,” was about our local arts scene.

Can you tell me how the blog started? 

After I published “Theatre Is My Life!,” the group who assisted in that process had me create a website and explained that I really needed to write a fairly regular blog. Because the website changed a couple of times, I didn’t publish a blog as often as I had intended for several months, but now it is bi-monthly. I sometimes use sections of the book, and sometimes write about a new topic.

And what about the book? What made you decide to do it? 

For more than 25 years, my costume shop was in a windowless room in the bowels of the fine arts building at Samford. So, for over a quarter of a century, I spent probably 75,000 hours of my life down in that recessed area of the theatre. I designed and sewed close to 2,000 costumes for around 1,000 student actors.

When you are part of the theater for any extended time, the work gets into your psyche and your bloodstream. It becomes so much a part of your life that for some people, it becomes their life. It seduces them, comforts them, invigorates them, even defines them. It is a community with which they can identify. “Theatre is my life!” is sometimes the cry of such folks (thus the name of the book).

One of the extraordinary things about working in the theater day in and day out is that the words of the script of the play I would be creating would soak through my clothing, permeate my skin, penetrate my brain and saturate my life, becoming part of my soul. While I was laboring to get that play onto the stage, I would hear lines from the mouths of the actors drilling in the green room, coming into the costume shop for fittings, rehearsing on stage over and over and over again. And that is not a bad thing. In fact, what seems like drudgery and repetitive action imparts vitality, meaning and power to my existence. Days, weeks, months, yes, even years later, I can hear the voice of a particular actor in my head, echoing from the stage of that recent or distant past. Then those play quotes will not depart from my gray matter.

The impetus to write “Theatre Is My Life! Thoughts on Play Quotes: A Book of Meditations for Each Day of the Year”was the personal, human side of theater I discovered in my now almost five decades of involvement in it. I believe that even the mundane in our lives is spiritual in nature, and although theater is anything but mundane, viewing a play or working on one can be a sacred experience. “Theatre Is My Life!” is a daybook of meditations based on play quotes. A vast majority of the plays I cite are ones that I designed or directed over my long career teaching and working in the theater.

How did you pick the quotes? That must have been a monumental task.

In many cases the quotes picked me, because they would either roll around my head for years or jump out of my mouth when something happened. With a mind of their own, they struggle to pop out at what they think are appropriate junctures in my life.

The monumental task was more that there were so many quotes from plays that I love, or so many that are very meaningful, that I had to narrow them down. Several plays, “Murder in the Cathedral,”for instance, had so many lines that are unbelievably wonderful that I used them for several meditations.

With the length of my career, I knew I wanted to write about my experiences and focus on the plays’ meat, their lines. I have enjoyed reading daybooks for a long time. In 2013, I found a wonderful one on the Psalms created by a great writer, Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. She actually has a writing style similar to mine, so it just hit me: why not take all those quotes and create a daily meditation book using lines from plays rather than scripture or wisdom teachings?

Is it fair to call this a memoir? Did you think of it that way at all?

The book certainly has some qualities of a memoir. I think I would call it part memoir, part life philosophy and part mini-theater history vignettes, making up a book of meditations on a life in the theater.

 Do you have a favorite meditation or two from the book?

So when you are a theater professional and someone asks “What is your favorite play?” you really have to say, “The one I am working on right now.” That is because if you don’t somehow fall in love with the work you are doing, the final product — when the audiences see the play — will suffer. Now that I don’t work all day long in the theater, I can say my favorite plays are “Oedipus Rex,” “Hamlet” and “Our Town.” And one of my favorite Samford productions was “Murder in the Cathedral.” So, to answer what a favorite meditation might be, one is the piece written for Feb. 4, using the quote: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?,”spoken byEmily in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

Barbara Sloan at a book signing

What do you hope readers will get out of the book?

I wrote some about this in a short “To the Reader” preface in the book, and here is a paraphrase: The theater arena is a place you grow and learn, empathize and develop different perspectives by witnessing other people’s lives unfolding before your eyes. This happens whether you are an actor, director, designer, crew member or part of the audience. Theater and all the arts make you a broader thinker, deeper feeler and a more compassionate person.

Tennessee Williams is quoted as saying, “No one is ever free until they tell the truth about themselves and the life into which they’ve been cast. Write it down; tell it to a friend in need, or a stranger who needs diversion. We are all here to be a witness to something, to be of some aid and direction to other people.”

I have taken Williams’ advice by writing and offering readers these musings on my experiences. I hope as people journey through a year and through these daily meditations that they will find something that stirs their mind, breaks their heart open and nourishes their soul. I hope my “witness to something” shows readers how theater, music, art, literature and dance seep into your psyche and form and inform your life.

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