Toledo theater legend Jennifer Rockwood returns to teachingWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
For 29 years, Jennifer Rockwood taught theater at the University of Toledo. That was nearly three decades spent shaping the way young minds first encountered advanced theories of the stage and acting, playwrights and shows they’d never encountered, genres they’d never been exposed to.
In addition to her heavy workload as a teacher, adjunct and lecturer, Rockwood found time to direct numerous productions on and off campus. From the 1980s until eight years ago, that was her opus — a theatrical menagerie composed in the classrooms of UT and on stages throughout the area.
“Eight years ago, I moved from teaching theater to being an administrator. And that’s when they hired me to run the First Year Experience program, which is a program to help students make the transition from high school to college,” Rockwood said. “I was doing a lot of stuff with young students, and really enjoyed sort of extracurricular activities, hanging out with students and doing plays.”
Back to class
Now, however, Rockwood finds herself once more guiding students through their first steps down a path to a larger artistic understanding.
“It’s changing now. The administration is changing a lot of things on this campus. And I also think they like to change up positions. They like to get new people in and try new stuff. And my position, in that regard, was eliminated, and I got to come back to theater,”
she said. “So, after not teaching for eight years, I’m back here, teaching a monstrous load of five classes, which I’ve never taught in my life — even when I was a full-time, eight years ago. The demands weren’t that much on lecturers.”
Rockwood now teaches more than 200 students across her new classes. Still, her new responsibilities are not that far removed from her most recent work. After years spent guiding freshmen in an administrative role, Rockwood is primarily teaching new arrivals taking their first courses in the theatrical arts.
“Because I’m really, I think, good with first-year students and I have an understanding of the life changes they go through when they either go away to college, or suddenly they’re set up in a world where autonomy is important and they don’t have their moms telling them what to do, or their teachers telling them what to do or reminding them to do their homework,” she said.
“It’s a whole new ballgame. And I love my colleagues here in the theatre department. I’m used to directing more,” she said. “But I think that will come in the future.”
Reading ‘Talk Radio’
Not to say that Rockwood has totally given up outside projects now that she’s back in the classroom. Far from it. She still works with the Catalyst Theatre Network she founded with a few other UT mainstays. She has been corresponding with the creators behind an upcoming film about the legendary Toledo Troopers football team.
She is also directing the Toledo Rep’s reading of Eric Bogosian’s 1987 play “Talk Radio” as part of its Edgy Rep Reading series. The show will run at 8 p.m. Oct. 12 at the 10th Street Stage.
“We’re going to do our best to make it look like what it would look like if we were actually in the studio. But it’s actually just a reading,” Rockwood said.
It’s not surprising that the edgy and bombastic work of the celebrated playwright and author Bogosian — before he was known to modern television audiences for his appearances on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” — fits right in with Rockwood’s modus operandi as a director.
“I love Bogosian. I’ve done ‘Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,’ and I’ve done ‘Drinking in America.’ And I’ve done them, instead of a single person — because Bogosian played the one part in those plays, and they’re great monologues — I cast them out to students. So it was a great experience. Plus, it was really hip stuff for kids to get to do.”
She said she’s also hopeful that the reading of “Talk Radio” will appeal to her newest students.
“I’m hoping to take some of my freshmen to see ‘Talk Radio,’ because I think that’ll shake them up. I don’t think that they know that there’s that kind of theater out there. They think it’s ‘Lion King’ and ‘Les Mis’ and ‘Book of Mormon.’”
Brave new world
That’s what Rockwood really sees as her job, in the long run: to expand her newest students’ understanding of the artistic world beyond what they think they know, into an appreciation for things grander than what they’ve seen.
“I’m trying to turn them on, I’m trying to baptize them,” she said. “And even the first day of class, they’ll tell me, ‘I don’t like theater,’ or ‘I hate theater,’ or ‘I don’t want to go to theater.’ And then, the only theater they’ve been to is they probably saw ‘Seussical’ at the high school or grade school. So it’s a whole big world that they don’t really know anything about. And it’s my job, I hope, to kind of change their minds and teach them the finer points, and get them, hopefully, to become theatergoers.”
Local actor and director Matthew Gretzinger was one of Rockwood’s theater students at UT.
“Excitement, passion … I think that’s common to the plays that [Rockwood] likes and to Shakespeare and to other plays that we might do,” Gretzinger said. “Theater can be exciting. It can give you something that movies, Internet, [and] television can’t.”
As she is opening her students’ minds to new possibilities Rockwood herself has experienced some radical alterations to her approach to teaching. A lot has changed in the past eight years. We now carry computers in our pockets and have access to a world of information — a broader range of knowledge to draw from than most old-school researchers could ever have dreamed of. Some teachers have responded to this revolution by rejecting such devices in the classroom. Rockwood, however, embraces them.
“In class, I ask my students to look things up on their phones when we’re talking about something and they don’t know what it is. Or instead of my trying to explain to them, we have some kind of race in the classroom to see who can look it up the quickest. Or I’ll have them play a symphony with their cellphone ringers,” she said. “You can’t turn that stuff away; it’s such a big part of their lives. There are people who say, ‘No phones in the classroom!’ Or ‘No this, no that!’ You have to welcome it.”
The human condition
Rockwood said the introduction of such devices into her students’ lives has had an effect on the knowledge she’s tries to impart.
“So you’re really not teaching them names and dates and memorization and things like that. I mean, the biggest thing we’re trying to teach them is to become critical thinkers. And I’m not so sure they do a lot of that in high school. I’m not so sure they ask students to think about something, and give their own opinion,” she said. “And that’s something — I can tell them all about the Elizabethan theater, or the Globe Theatre or Shakespeare. But you want to get them to sort of critically think about their own world, and what the purpose of studying or thinking about the human condition is.”
For many, taking those tentative first steps toward such examination — artistically and on a personal level — can be intimidating, she said.
“They’re almost afraid to. They think the way their parents told them to think, or they can repeat facts that their teachers taught them,” she said. “But to actually say, ‘Well, how do you feel about this?’ is a big step in a student’s growth. And that’s the task of all of us here in college.”
First year once more
In a way, Rockwood’s years working with bright-eyed young students arriving fresh to the school has prepared her perfectly for her new responsibilities.
“From everything that I learned from first -year students — all of the conferences, all of the talks I gave about millennials, and the kind of people they are, the kind of upbringings they had — I think I’m a lot more … I don’t know if ‘compassionate’ is the word, but I think I’m a lot more understanding of where they’re coming from.”
And one thing Rockwood understands about her students’ experience with the material she covers is simple — everything they think they know about theater is pretty much all wrong.
“One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about in class that I keep trying to express to my students is that I think that their high school teachers kind of ruined it for them by making them read all these plays, and making them go over ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Macbeth’ with a fine-tooth comb,” Rockwood said. “Plays were not written to be read. They were written to be performed. They were written to be spoken out loud. It’s the inflection in the voice, it’s the body. It’s not reading just the words on the paper. You know, in high school, more often than not, you have to sit in the classroom and talk about what Shakespeare was saying in this sentence. Instead of listening to an actor perform it, and showing you what it really is.”