As the cliché goes: love what you do and you will never work a day in your life. This saying may seem lofty for some of us, but not for James Fisher, head of the Department of Theater at UNCG. This past week I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Fisher; we talked about his past, his recent work, and his feelings toward theater. One of th, he is the essence of passion.
Mr. Fisher grew up near New York City, a major hub for the arts. His parents were avid admirers of theater, frequently attending shows and listening to opera and classical music. However, none of this had truly cemented his love for theater until taking an accidental audition. One of his college friends was auditioning for a part in the play, “Death of a Salesman”, when the director asked if Fisher was auditioning. Fisher said he came out only to support his colleague, yet the director coaxed him into trying out. Soon after this, Fisher changed his major to theater, which forced him to take a few more years of schooling. Fisher received his MFA in directing at UNCG, and then went on to create a productive career in acting, directing, teaching, and writing.
Mr. Fisher has taught theater for over 40 years. After nearly 30 years at Wabash College in Indiana, and he took a position at UNCG. Fisher was also promoted from a professor to the head of the department in 2009. In this time, Fisher has managed to author several books, one of these is centered on his long time friend Tony Kushner, entitled “Historical Dictionary of Contemporary American Theater: Beginnings, Understanding Tony Kushner.”
In his time at UNCG, Mr. Fisher has participated in over 150 theater productions. He told me about the newest UNCG theater production, “Caroline, or Change”, which he is directing. This six-time Tony Award nominated musical takes place in Southern United States during 1963; around the time JFK was assassinated and the Jim Crow laws were still enacted. This atypical sung-through musical, follows a black woman, Caroline, who is a maid for a prominent white family. Caroline is struggling to make ends meet for her 20 year old activist daughter and her son, who is a Vietnam soldier. She also has to look after her employer’s son, Noah, who is a child to a widowed father and new stepmother. The son, being privileged, is loose with his money. He usually leaves change in his pants pockets for Caroline to find when she is doing the laundry. The stepmother tells Caroline to keep the money she finds; however, events turn problematic when she finds the $20 that the boy received from his dad. Caroline decides to keep the money, and soon enough the boy finds out. “Caroline, or Change”, is predominantly a drama focusing on the history, politics, and racial inequalities of the 1960s, and the budding friendship between a boy and his maid. The book and lyrics were done playwright Tony Kushner, and composed by Jeanine Tesori. The musical will be playing in Taylor Theatre from September 29- October 9 2016.
As my interview went on, Mr. Fisher told me the ways that a novice could appreciate theater. He said that it is relatively simple in that people just need to show up at productions, and make a little effort to understand the goings on in the theatrical community. As Mr. Fisher stated, “you’re investing a lot, do a little work,” because that way you get more out of each performance. Fisher went on to say that being open-minded about what you see is important, because you never know what genre of theatre may interest you.
Lastly, Fisher told me why he personally thinks theater is important. To him, theater creates community and provides narratives that make you feel. Theater, for Fisher, is the type of “good medicine” and spiritual fulfillment that avid sports fans get when they are watching game day. Fisher also states that theater gives you the opportunity to “forget about your own problems and share in others.” He says that only a few weeks can pass before he is in need of a theatrical fix.
Work may feel limiting at times, but work can be bold and bright and uplifting.For Fisher, the theatre is an extension of his essence and joy. No one exemplifies that more than the passionate Professor Fisher.