Hope Alums and Students Make Their Mark on HSRT

From the managing director to a teaching artist to a scriptwriter to Oscar Madison, Hope College alumni (and current students too!) have been making their mark on this year’s highly entertaining and successful season of Hope Summer Repertory Theatre. This is not a new phenomenon; Hope theatre majors and professionals have long had great representation behind and on the HSRT stage. But this year, HSRT’s 47th, 23 Hope students and alums make up almost 20 percent of the company.

From left to right: Front Row: Brynne Fritjofson, Anne Bakker, Rachel Dion, Emmie Sandstedt, Cara Maas; Second Row: Saem Cho, Gracen Barth, Mikayla Contreras , Teresa Cameon, Kierney Johnson, Megan Clark, Mollie Murk; Third Row: Ben Douma, Ken Chamberlain, Kenny Cole, Nils Fritjofson, Griffin Baer, Reagan Chesnut, Riley Wilson, Eric Van Tassell. Not pictured: Chip Duford, Paul Anderson, Claire Bouwkamp

While HSRT’s new Artistic Director Lenny Banovez hires a majority of HSRT cast at national auditions in Memphis and St. Louis during the spring, Managing Director Anne Bakker ’85 is also cognizant of the quality of talent she has right here at home. She attributes that to Hope’s strong department of theatre and its commitment to educate and prepare young talent for professional theatre. “Our theatre department has always been integral to the success of HSRT,” says Bakker. “The team effort between the two programs (academic and professional) is a special one.”

Longtime HSRT cast member Chip Duford ’90 and relative HSRT newcomer Mollie Murk ’16 share Bakker’s sentiments. Though two-and-a-half decades separate their Hope educational experiences, a common thread of Hope educational appreciation runs between them. Both started at HSRT as acting interns and both now are members of its professional ranks — Duford, in his 25th season with HSRT, is an Actor’s Equity performer and Murk, in her third, is the head of education.

Chip Duford as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple.

Duford started out as a pre-med major at Hope, but “that lasted three seconds I think,” he laughs. He received great encouragement from professor emeritus Dr. John Tammi and visiting visiting HSRT Shakespeare and voice coach, Peggy Loft, formerly of the Juilliard School, to consider a career in theatre after he performed in several Hope productions as an undergrad. By his junior year, it was official; he was a theatre major and interning for HSRT. “I feel like I was able to discover myself at Hope,” says Duford.

Mollie Murk

Murk, on the other hand, always knew she wanted to be involved in Hope theatre. As both a theatre and dance major, she involved herself in as many aspects of theatre productions as she could — primarily acting and choreography but also costume design, teaching, dramaturgy, directing, and playwriting. “I just would love to shout out Michelle (Bombe, director of theatre) and Daina (Robins, chairperson of theatre). They create an environment where they really believe in their students and they find us to be capable of things that we never knew that we would be. The professors always encouraged us to take risks and challenge ourselves. No opportunity is ever handed to you as a Hope student— you have to work hard to seek opportunities out, which is exactly how I’ve learned the theatre industry at large works too.”

Erik Durham on the set of Dragon Pack Snack Attack.

And then there’s Erik Durham ’13. Not technically a member of the company, Durham is one of the main reasons why the children’s play, Dragon Pack Snack Attack, made its professional debut this summer as part of the HSRT lineup. While a theatre major at Hope, Durham needed a project for his capstone Theatre 490 class. So he chose to write a musical play based upon the children’s book of the same name, Dragon Pack Snack Attack published in the mid-1990s by none other than two more Hope alums, Jeff Grooters ’92 and Joel Schoon-Tanis ’89 who also, by the way, created the art of this summer’s promotional poster. Durham took the 15-page book with little dialogue but cute content and made it into a 50-minute play with nine songs. “I probably read that book front to back 50 times trying to process what I was going to do with it,” Durham explains. “It was a very daunting task, but Daina had persuaded me to go deeper and pushed me to do something new. It was a very humbling process.”

Dragon Pack premiered at Hope as a student production in 2013, and then it sat. “For five years, I had it in my back pocket,” Durham says, “though I had tried a couple times to pull it out for HSRT to consider.”

With Bakker and Associate Managing Director Reagan Chesnut ’09 at HSRT, Dragon Snack was revived for the professional stage this summer. Musical director Alex Thompson took the songs Durham had “written” and created sheet music with vocal arrangements for them. “I said, ‘Hey, I just want it to be very transparent. I’m not a composer,’” confides Durham. “All of my original music came from my singer/songwriter background so it was all very chordal with some improvisation. He was like, ‘I got this.’ Now he’s transformed the music into something ten times better than what I ever envisioned.”

“The theater itself becomes our home, so sharing that home with others is an exhilarating experience for each company member.”

HSRT has a few weeks to go, abut energy remains as strong and high as it did on opening night back on June 13. Hope affiliation aside, making beloved or new characters and stories come to life for two hours is the joy and challenge for anyone in cast and crew. For the audience, both forgetting and thinking about the world around them is imperative to well-performed and well-meaning theatre. HSRT ever has this in mind.

“I love coming back is it’s a unique theater experience here in HSRT,” says Duford, whose home base is Grand Blanc, Michigan and who performs annually in “A Christmas Carol” for Meadowbrook Theater in Rochester. “We perform in a thrust stage space with the audience surrounding us. Plus, we’re in repertory so we have the challenge of performing a different role every night. (This summer, Duford is Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, Uncle Henry/the royal gatekeeper in The Wiz.) Over the years, it’s been those unique challenges for an actor plus the fun of being here at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre that brings me back.”

“I just love how the HSRT company each summer really becomes a strong community,” adds Murk, who works as the artist-educator for Kentucky Theater Festival when she is away from HSRT. “There’s something special about everyone working 13 hour days to give the audience a unique, exciting, and welcoming experience when they walk in our doors. The theater itself becomes our home, so sharing that home with others is an exhilarating experience for each company member. I notice each year that the theatre professionals who work for HSRT really want to impact the community and truly be a part of western Michigan’s growing artistic scene.”

Got tickets? Check out HSRT’s calendar and ticket availability.

Unique Reunion Celebrates Hope Professor and the Sciences

A unique reunion on Hope’s campus highlighted faculty-student rapport that time and distance could not shake or undo. On the 50th anniversary of his arrival at Hope College, Dr. Sheldon Wettack, a member of the Hope chemistry faculty from 1967 to 1982 who served as dean of the natural sciences for the last eight of those years, was celebrated by his former Hope research students in July.

Dr. Sheldon Wettack, 1967
Dr. Sheldon Wettack, 2017

During his 15 years at Hope, Wettack mentored 21 Hope students — self-named the Wettack Research Warriors — in his physical chemistry laboratory in both Lubbers Hall and the Peale Science Center. Upon invitation from organizers Dr. Ken Janda ’73 and Dr. Charlie Bibart ’69, thirteen of those former students returned for the reunion on campus, a few for the first time in decades. What they found is a college that has grown in size and stature yet with a still-strong reputation in and mission for the natural sciences.

Not coincidentally, the Wettack reunion coincided with the first annual Schaap Chemistry Symposium, with Dr. Sylvia Ceyer ’74 as the keynote speaker. Ceyer is the John C. Sheehan Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an elected member to the renowned American Academy of the Arts and Sciences. And she was a research student in Wettack’s p-chem lab. “There is no doubt in my mind that the encouragement and guidance of Sheldon, along with the warmth of his wife Marilyn throughout my student years, were crucial ingredients to my scientific future,” praises Ceyer.

Sheldon and Marilyn were “left speechless at the idea (of the reunion). We were both flabbergasted,” he says. But for Janda and Bibart, the notion of celebrating a person who affected the career trajectories of many Hope students made perfect sense. And to do so while that person is still an active scientist and professor on campus made the event even more meaningful. “Very few faculty get to hear from their former students after 50 years about what you meant to them half a century ago,” says Wettack. “The reunion was very special in that regard.”

Though Wettack left Hope in 1982 to become art and sciences dean at the University of Richmond, then president of Wabash College, and finally vice president/dean of the faculty at Harvey Mudd College in California, he returned to the college in 2004 to teach part-time. He was invited back to “help out around the chemistry department, and I thought it was be a good way to go into retirement.” Then he laughs, fully aware that he has never abided by the full definition of that r-word. He even became the announcer for Hope’s swim meets.

For Bibart, who spent his career in the pharmaceutical industry and is now retired, the reunion was a terrific way to reconnect with his former mentor and other Hope alums, some of whom he hadn’t seen in over four decades or had never met since the returnees spanned a decade of Hope years. With great affinity and technical jargon, they reminisced about all manner of memories and methodology, including the acquisition of a gas phase photon-counting fluorescence spectrometer that needed construction in Lubbers Hall. Though Wettack was its chief constructor, he allowed his research students to work right alongside him and learn the nuances of laboratory assembly.

The gas phase photon counting fluorescence spectrometer constructed by Wettack Research Warriors in Lubbers Hall.

“Almost anyone you talk to who worked with Sheldon was impacted significantly,” says Bibart. “The recurring theme is this: As we look back, we see how much we were impacted by Hope, Hope science, and Hope science with Sheldon Wettack.”

Janda, who has remained in contact with Wettack throughout their careers, concurs. Wettack opened doors for him and others, providing opportunities that steered him, and them, toward meaningful, reputable science career experiences whether in higher education or industry or public service.

“Sheldon seemed to pick me from out of the crowd to nurture me and mentor me. He was kind and forgiving, never perturbed with a mistake,” says Janda who is the dean for the physical sciences at University of California-Irvine. “He said we had to learn by doing, so mistakes were plentiful. But his patience was limitless.”

Working with those who have youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for chemistry seems to be a Wettack forte. Before finishing his doctorate at the University of Texas-Austin in the mid-70s, he taught high school science. After completing his degree there, he came right to Hope to instill in those slightly older the hard work and love of chemistry.

Patsy Meliere ’72 Janda and Ken Janda ’73 (far left) present a check to former President John Knapp (far right) to honor Sheldon Wettack (center) and benefit the Wettack Research Fellowship.

Janda, along with his wife, Patsy Meliere ’72, also paid homage in one more way to their former mentor. They contributed a significant gift to the Wettack Research Fellowship, a fund that supports Hope students in summer research experiences. “The strength of the sciences at Hope is what drew us here in the first place, and we want to see that continue,” says Patsy of their rationale for giving the gift to the fund’s endowment.

As their time together wound down, the Wettack reunion attendees presented Sheldon and Marilyn with a commemorative book filled with pictures and epistles detailing his former students’ life trajectories and Wettack’s effects on them. Each story — 17 in all — told a tale of determination, scientific passion, and a Hope education used well.

“Marilyn and I sat together and read those pages and lots of tears came to our eyes,” Wettack says. “We were blessed by this very special time with very special people.”

WETTACK’S RESEARCH WARRIORS

James Hardy ’68, Charles Bibart ’69, James Koert ’71, Mark Rockley ’71, Charles Kan ’72, Gordon Renkes ’72, Daniel Dethmers ’73, Ken Janda ’73, Robert Klapthor ’73, Sylvia Ceyer ’74, Bill McAndrew ’74, Mary Millard Mayo ’74, Doug Sluis ’74, Doug Worsnop ’74, James Garmirian ’76, Patricia Dwyer Hallquist ’76, Dave Bartels ’77, Elizabeth Hager ’77, Richard Wood ’77, Mary Koeppe Luidens ’75, Kathleen Stratton ’78

Make a gift to support the Wettack Research Fellowship.