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Campus Celebrity: Professor Ginny Anderson

Professor Ginny Anderson, an associate professor in the theater department, joined the Connecticut College faculty last year. In this short time, she has done some pretty amazing things for the Conn community from directing multiple productions to teaching about the AIDS epidemic through her incredible activism and personal experiences. Some may recognize her from her profound presentation during freshmen orientation while others from theater courses or productions here at Conn. However, regardless of whether you’ve met Ginny yet, we highly recommend chatting with her sometime because frankly she is pretty darn awesome!

Where are you from?

Believe it or not, this has always been a tough question. I grew up outside of Buffalo, New York, in a small town called Elma. However, I received my undergraduate degree at Carleton College near Minneapolis, and I feel it was there where I really became the person that I am today. So, if someone were to ask me where I’m from, Minnesota would usually be my answer.

Where did life take you after receiving your degree at Carleton?

I received my first graduate degree at Stanford with a masters in Drama followed by Goldsmiths College with a masters in Performance and Culture. I then went on to receive my P.h.D at Tufts University. I traveled a lot throughout my education but really cherished the different perspectives these different experiences gave me.  

You have a doctorate in Theater History and wrote your dissertation on the AIDS epidemic. What got you interested in such a specific subject?

When I was 16 years old, I was living in a small town an hour outside of Buffalo, which in the early 1990’s was a fairly conservative area. I was involved in theater in my highschool, and I found out that my director’s husband was directing a musical called Falsettos for his musical theater company in Buffalo. It’s a beautiful, funny, and immensely touching show about family in all of its forms; it also happens to be about a man who had left his wife and child to be with another man who we later learn has HIV. I remember reading about the show in the Buffalo News and being surprised that musicals like this existed — that they would cover this sort of topic. You see, I went to high school at a time and in a place where people used gay as a derogatory term and HIV was not on anybody’s radar — very few people were comfortable coming out and I sincerely hope that has changed. It was January of 1995 and some friends and I went to see Falsettos on its closing night; I remember wishing I could see it again and again. It might sound cheesy but seeing that show completely changed my perspective on the world around me. At the time I was your typical self-absorbed 16-year-old and this musical moved me so profoundly. It made me laugh and cry and was truly such an awakening for me. To this day I believe that was the night I became an activist — an activist both for AIDS research and for LGBTQ equality. It never left me; I directed Falsettos while I was a student at Carleton and again when I was teaching at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo before coming to Connecticut College. The experience truly had a very long term effect for me — it opened my eyes to what theater could do.

What’s your favorite part of the college so far?

Just one? I think I’ll speak to one thing that really embodies the many different aspects of what I love about Conn. The LGBTQ center is incredible. I have met so many incredible people through this center and the wonderful events they do. In a way, this is like the academic centers (Holleran, Ammerman, CISLA, Goodwin-Niering, and CCSRE) which I also love; each and every one of the centers brings people together who otherwise might not work together.

For instance, last year my first year seminar had film screenings in the LGBTQ Center and we opened these viewings to the rest of campus. I love the openness and inclusiveness — the LGBTQ center is the most comfortable place in the world. It’s a space for people to talk about important things in such a comfortable and casual setting. It’s a center for students, staff and faculty to truly connect with one another. Sometimes it takes time to get used to an environment like college, but I think places like the LGBTQ Center really pave the way for important experiences beyond Conn.

Many freshmen are likely to recognize you from the speech you gave during orientation this year. What was your inspiration for giving this talk?

First of all I was so honored to be asked to do it, especially as a second year faculty member, it meant so much to me. It says so much about the college itself and our president Katherine Bergeron. It’s clear to me that our college is a community whether you’ve been here two years or twenty. When I was originally asked to give the talk, all I knew was that I was the “DO” in the “Think. Do. Lead.” motto and that was really my only boundary.

When I started to brainstorm ideas for the lecture, I first thought a lot about my audience. I knew I would be speaking with a large group of people who were just on the cusp of some of the most exciting and challenging years of their lives so far. I knew they would have been through a lot in the midst of their orientation leading up to the lecture, so I wanted to speak about something that would energize and hopefully inspire them. I think college is a place for provocative thought and looking at familiar things in new ways. Broadway Bares provides just that.

I thought a lot about role models — the people who influence you the most. I have been so interested in how the AIDS movement has grown and evolved with changing time, especially as affected by people like Jerry Mitchell, the creator of Broadway Bares [an annual burlesque fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS]. He’s a person just like any of us, but in the face of something terrible, he decided to do something about it in his own way.

As soon as I got this idea I knew that it was the way to go. I know the imagery associated with Broadway Bares is provocative but I really wanted to get people thinking about these issues, and issues beyond AIDS issues about class, equality and politics. I wanted it to extend beyond ideas about theater or “stripping” and I wanted people to think about their own passions and goals. Drawing on the French word “faire” as a rhetorical strategy has stayed with me; I continue to ask myself when I’m starting my day, “okay, what are you going to make today?” I think it makes me more intentional in what I do.

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This October, Wig and Candle is putting on a concert performance of RENT as a Benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Are you involved in this production?

Directly, no — it’s being produced by several very capable students. However, I am a fierce supporter of this concert going up, and we’ve discussed the possibility of a talkback. One of the things I love about Wig and Candle is that they work very closely with the theater department. We always strive to support one another so that we may produce our best work. As you can imagine, I am extremely invested in this production. One thing I loved about Wig and Candle is that every year they will have a benefit for AIDS Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Some years it has been smaller but this year it’s a huge event which got me very excited from early on. One way I have tried to very deliberately support the show is through my first year seminar, “The AIDS Epidemic in Theater and Film.” As soon as I knew that the concert was happening I thought “okay, we need to put these two things together.” While the production is going up we will be doing a unit on popular culture and the role of broadway musicals in relation to AIDS.

This fall you’re directing a play called Detroit. Can you tell us a bit about that?

When you hear Detroit what do you think of? Most people think of a dying automobile industry, a struggling economy and an all-around rough area. The play, Detroit, is relatively new. It was published in 2011 and was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize. I believe it is a play which speaks to our own cultural moment in such a wickedly funny, heart wrenching and troubling way. It’s this sick, dark comedy but it really makes us think — what has become of the American dream? It’s a story of two sets of neighbors who are getting to know each other and there’s this desperate nostalgia for how we think life used to be: the symbolism of home ownership, that sense of community through a neighborhood barbecue. The idea of what achieving the American Dream means has changed so dramatically.

Back in the day going into careers like banking and law were considered “secure positions” and in this play we happen to follow a couple who have followed this safe sort of path but who haven’t had the success they’d liked. They shortly run into some neighbors who have had a very different background. As their friendship forms they’re forced to confront some truths about themselves and their expectations. There’s a line from it that I love which I think about every night before rehearsal “When you’re at zero anything can happen. It’s like total possibility.” Detroit has come to represent the collapse and potential reconstruction. There’s something universal about Detroit — it’s not just the city, it could be anywhere. I really feel that anyone, no matter where they’re from could really relate to this show. That’s what I love about it.

As a director, I was also drawn to Detroit because I love working on plays where I think “How the heck are we going to do that?” In the play there is scene with a seemingly impossible-to-stage moment, and I always find those kinds of challenges in productions to be really exciting.

As you’ve mentioned, you’re currently teaching a First Year Seminar called “The Aids Epidemic Through Theater and Film.” What other courses are you looking forward to teaching this year?

I’m currently teaching Theater and Culture which takes a similar approach to the FYS — theater on the broader spectrum through many interdisciplinary lenses. I’m also busy directing Detroit which is its own sort of course. Next semester, I’m very excited to introduce a new course — Musical Theater through American Culture. I’m looking forward to exposing people to groundbreaking works and studying how musicals have changed and challenged american culture. I’m also teaching an introductory class for freshman and sophomores called The Art of Theater which is always a lot of fun.

What is your favorite play?

This is the worst question to ask a theater professor! However, if I had to choose, Angels in America would have to be it. For all the reasons we talked about — it’s theatrically one of the most challenging pieces. The contrast between humor and complete, often brutal honesty. Kushner’s commitment to activism and a larger connection to the world. He was writing with this incredible understanding of the world which truly amazed me.

While in my sophomore year at Carleton I found out they were doing a production of the play in Buffalo over my winter break. I spoke with the stage manager and asked if I could come and watch the rehearsals. So I came and watched this incredible company put this amazing show together and as time progressed the stage manager would have me do these little jobs like moving the set pieces. As the show came closer the production team faced a dilemma when the assistant stage manager could no longer be part of the production. Then all of a sudden, in this very dramatic sort of way, the director and stage manager turned to me, asked me to leave the room and when I came back ultimately offered me my first professional theater position. I think it (Angels in America) has become the play to define AIDS for so many people, which is sometimes a problem as there are so many amazing, and often underestimated pieces out there. It’s most commonly Angels and Rent. However I feel the play truly does an incredible job of encapsulating the epidemic.

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