Millsaps Likes It

by Alex Melnick
arts & life editor

At 2:37 p.m., I had no idea what Peter Friedrich looked like and I was frantically wandering the Caf, wondering what on earth a theater director even looked like. By 3:00 p.m., I was confident in his ability to direct the Millsaps Theater Department. He still doesn’t match the description of what a theater director traditionally looks like through.

     Friedrich, the new theater director, is somehow neatly aligned with the

Peter w/ his troupe in Iraq ( photo by Peter Friedrich)

Peter w/ his troupe in Iraq ( photo by Peter Friedrich)

general vibe (equal parts frantic energy and powerful optimism) on campus despite having only arrived in Mississippi last month. That’s a feat. He joined the faculty just this semester, and is passionate in the same way Millsaps makes a lot of us feel—like we’re about to embark on adventure where most of the fun is not knowing how it’ll all turn out.

     It is rare that I meet someone who is equally as committed to using arts to advance social justice as I am. The students who are involved in his first production here, As You Like It, have been singing his praises for weeks, and I can see why. He’s genuine. Friedrich believes whole heartedly in our ideal of Across the Street, Around the Globe, and brazenly said that if anyone on campus didn’t think that was a good goal, he hoped “they just never have to talk to me.” When the curtains come up on Oct 3, Friedrich will hopefully prove that he is the man who can make our theater department a relevant and viable part of this campus. I can only hope our school is ready for what Friedrich describes as “a wild, wild time.”download (8)

The Purple & White:  Tell me about yourself. You’re unknown to most of the campus, other than theater students.

     Peter Friedrich: Since 2008, I’ve been living in Iraq.

     P&W: But what brought you there? Let’s go to the beginning.

     PF: I grew up moving around. … But I like to say I’m from North Carolina, since that’s where I went to high school. So, I was an actor and director for the stage primarily until Sept. 2001—9/11, [which] really changed a lot of career paths for people in my generation. I was one of them. Some actors joined the military, some dropped out, and I chose to get into teaching. I got my teaching certification, and proceeded to work in schools in urban Los Angeles.

    P&W: What was your favorite thing you acted in, prior to teaching?

    PF: Probably Saturday Night Live. I had a little part, but it’s still a great thing to brag about.

    P&W: That’s actually my dream! I want to be able to say “Live from New York, its Saturday Night Live!” at some point in my life.

     PF: I certainly did not do that! I was a pirate. I also was on Sesame Street, that’s my number-two favorite.

   P&W: Who’s the coolest Muppet?

   PF: Grover!

   P&W: Obviously. Grover Gang or die.

    PF: Primarily, I’m a theater rat. I spent and will spend most of my time in a dark room … (laughs) to truly thrive. Me and my colleagues, we love it.

     P&W: Alright, so it’s 2001. What happened?

download (10)

Still from As You Like It

     PF: Well, I was teaching and darting away to do plays, and then there was an article in the New York Times about a university starting in Iraq. I thought that this was finally a chance to bridge my social justice work with what I know I love to do. Without theater and the community, I don’t know where I’d be. I know that I’m working where I need to be working, because I know what theatre can do for people. When the university in Iraq opened up, I applied. They kept asking me if I was “comfortable being around people with guns” and I said: “I work in south central Los Angeles.” They went on all these lines of questioning, and every time I said I worked in south central Los Angeles, it put the issue to rest. For the record: Where I was in Iraq felt a lot safer than where I was in Los Angeles.

 P&W: I hear that a lot from people who move from the Middle East to America.

     PF: That’s right. Iraqis are shocked at how dangerous the United States is. Just like how Iraq is inconvincible to us until we get there. Which is kind of my point about theater. Theater, by definition, gets people into the same room, and they have to deal with each other. They don’t get to read about each other, or rely on Facebook posts. You really have to get together in person, and deal with each other’s weaknesses and what drives you crazy, and what you love about someone. When you get people from different backgrounds together, that’s where the good stuff begins. I am very anti-drama club, because that implies a clique. That’s not what we do here. This is about engineering students and athletes, poets and activists. Theater must do that to be of any use to the school.

    P&W: Agreed. I found the department to be relatively closed off before.

    PF: Ain’t no more. If anything, if anyone has a hard time with how I do things, it’s the actors. (laughs.) Let’s just say theater is a physical thing. I love working with athletes. They’ve learned to be tough and work under pressure. I like that in an actor. People with chronic, physical or emotional tenderness. … I’ll work with them, but they won’t have  that [that tenderness] when I’m done working with them.

P&W: So, why As You Like It?

     PF: First play we ever did! { Editor’s Note: As You Like It was the first play Millsaps ever performed.} It’s a great play about gender identity, what is a man/what is a woman, and how kinda crazy that all is. It’s about how we’ve built ourselves into this madness that “Women should be this, men should be that.”

     When people are in college, we have a lot of men meeting women. It’s important to take the time out and say, “But what are we doing?” It’s also a big cast. Doing theater is a risk anyway, so we might as well go whole hog and do something people don’t think we can do. It’s nice hearing talk that we’re crazy to do Shakespeare. I love it. They have no idea how crazy it’s going to get. People will not believe what that theater is going to look like. As far as performing in the Christian Center goes … there’s a reason they call it theater. It’s theater. So we’re going to do it in a theater.download (11)

 

***

P&W: What’s the deal with the tickets?

PF: They’re five dollars in advance at the table in front of the Caf’, and at the door they will go to seven. Fair enough? I hope we get a great turn-out.

P&W: The posters are a hoot.

PF: We have so many people in this play that have never acted before, and the fact that they’re doing Shakespeare?? I guess we’re crazy.

P&W: Who else better to do Shakespeare?

PF: There is something really great about that. You see them in rehearsal discovering this play is funny. We were talking about SNL before? This is where SNL came from. Mistaken identities, making fun of love, lust and our bodies, manners and people thinking they’re better than others but being wrong—it’s all Shakespeare. We will prove that, doggone-it. You’re gonna see some stuff that makes you laugh.

     P&W: So what initially drew you to Shakespeare?

     PF: The same thing! People constantly bet against Shakespeare. Even drama faculty sometimes! Shakespeare gets misunderstood again and again, but when you see it, nothing’s better. I don’t know why that happens. It’s just an example of things you need to try, and you realize it’s good for you. And people like it! It’s the same thing in Iraq. It proved tremendously entertaining and fun for everyone. In Iraq we had Sunni, Shiite, Kurd and Arab … and compared to there, our divisive problems in this country are nothing. … Shakespeare is classic for a reason, just like Led Zeppelin is classic for a reason. It’s not because a school picked them, it’s because they rock.

 Eventually, the conversation turned to what the theater department will be doing in the upcoming months. Friedrich promises there will be several productions, and even an independent acting company established on campus. It’s a bold move, and one that he hopes will further his goal of making theater relevant at Millsaps again. He assures that while “theater isn’t a magic pill that makes everything fine in the world, it can help. In more ways than people think.” Friedrich is emphatic in his beliefs, and as the interview drew to a close, he turned to me and said: “Theater for theater’s sake is dead. We’ll prove that this year.”

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