When theater professor Chuck Mike directs a show, his intention is to make the experience for his students just as much about process as it is performance. He speaks from experience. In addition to teaching such courses as Theatre for Social Change, and Ensemble Performance at Richmond, Mike works with the U.K. theater company Collective Artistes and regularly writes and directs new plays.

Mike’s most recent creative outlet was developing and directing Threshold, based on the Nigerian novel The Palm Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. With his creative partners playwright Oladipo Agboluaje and musician Juwon Ogungbe, he spent two years updating the traditional Nigerian folk tale into a contemporary setting. The play premiered at Richmond’s Jepson Theatre in April 2014.

When the time came to hold auditions, rather than casting specific roles for those performances, Mike set out to create a company of student performers who could act, dance, and play instruments. “My approach is to have a workshop audition process, to build a company,” he says.  “It’s important for me to have players, not just actors, and that they be willing to learn.”

Mike assembled a company comprising students from a variety of majors, including several science students whom he describes as “rather gifted performers.” “Once I have that company in the room, we start reading the play, and as we read, who should play what characters surfaces on its own,” Mike says.

Maggie McGrann, ’14, who played the lead role of Kunle, felt Mike’s approach helped develop a close-knit company of performers. “The company involved in this production was unlike anything I’ve experienced at UR,” she says. “It was supportive, interactive, and loving.”

The students discovered early on that the rehearsal process for a new work required flexibility; everything from the lighting to the staging was developed on the fly, with no previous reference to work from. “It was an incredibly long rehearsal process,” McGrann says, “but I’ve never reached a level of understanding and empathy with a character before, and I owe that tremendously to Chuck’s rehearsal process.”

The opportunity to participate in the gestation of a new play is part of what Mike feels makes the Department of Theatre and Dance stand out. “Being able to be part of the process of creating new work is valuable for our students and for us as faculty,” Mike says. “The students were exploring boundaries they never knew they would encounter, and I could see them soaking up information.”

McGrann adds, “This new work introduced me to a completely different culture than the one I’ve been creating in theater for so long. There was melding together of song and dance, interaction with the audience, and watching my fellow actors reach amazing performance heights.”

Mike’s priority remains seeing the students learn and develop as performers. “These students get what performance is about in its largest sense and they’re committed to it in a way that gives rise to a very good show,” Mike says. “It’s been a pleasure to work with them and see them each day.”

And his students appreciate the chance to learn from him. “Chuck is a kind and generous director, both patient and firm,” McGrann says. “I had never worked so closely with him before, and it was truly a transformative experience.”