Enrollment at college theater program soars under art director
H. Russ Brown has landed his dream role and, in the process, has turned around College of the Mainland’s once struggling Academic Theatre program. After accepting the position of head of theatre and artistic director in August 2015 at the Texas City college, Brown has grown the program’s enrollment from one major to 30 this fall. He also continues to develop the college’s thriving Community Theatre, merging both to create a unique experience.
Brown always knew he wanted to do something creative with his life, he said. Studying advertising and marketing at Texas A&M University, Brown took an acting class, and it was there he met his wife. The couple went on to perform in several plays together. Brown also worked as a director, fight choreographer and dialect coach, soon realizing teaching was the most exciting and satisfying to him. Returning to school, he earned his graduate degree at Western Illinois University.
Acting is a family business, said Brown, whose wife teaches theater in Dickinson. His son is a professional actor and his daughter this year will pursue a theater degree at College of the Mainland.
No stranger to turning around academic theater programs, Brown taught at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas. When he began at Lon Morris, there were a dozen theater majors. After three years, Brown increased enrollment to 60 students.
Brown learned early on he couldn’t sell the college on the program alone.
“Theater is such an intimate thing,” Brown said.
In theater, actors spend countless hours in class, rehearsals and productions working together, he said.
“I’m going to build their skill set with them, and they’re trusting me that they’re going to be allowed to take risks and fail gloriously for the sake of art; to learn from that and grow and try again,” Brown said.
Brown contacted area high school theater departments and offered his expertise through workshops. Those workshops in basic stage combat, audition preparation, dialects, costumes, designing sets and lighting allows Brown to meet his future students and show them what College of the Mainland has to offer, he said.
“He is a prime example of how a faculty member can turn around a program by engaging high school instructors and students in the community,” College of the Mainland President Warren Nichols said.
Zach Dockal, 19, wanted to act since he was a young boy and plans to pursue film when he graduates, he said.
“I don’t think you really understand the kind of range that you really have until you work with H., and he finds ways to unlock that for each individual student,” said Dockal, who is in his second year at the college.
“Through this program, a lot of doors have been opened for me. I’ve been able to gain a lot more knowledge and experience.”
What Dockal likes best is the community, he said.
“It’s really one giant family, and it allows everyone to grow both emotionally and mentally,” said Dockal, who recently played the role of eccentric, British bad guy Inspector Marvin Kirkland in the college’s “Song of Singapore — The Swing Musical!”
At College of the Mainland, student actors not only learn in the classroom, but work with seasoned actors, directors and choreographers from the Community Theatre.
Sarah Busby, the choreographer for College of the Mainland, has studied musical theater, ballet, contemporary, tap, jazz and competitive ballroom dance. Brown gives her artistic freedom, she said.
“Anybody in the arts wants to put a piece of themselves into their work, and he totally encourages and teaches people to do that,” Busby said.
In addition to the theater’s six-show season, Brown has added live 1930s-style radio shows and full student plays, with plans to take both on tour to senior homes and area schools.