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Visit by Thompson '95 kicks off MC's Fine Arts Month

Barry McNamara
10/10/2011
Melissa Thompson '95 watches students participate in her physical theatre workshop
When Melissa Thompson came to Monmouth College in 1991 as a freshman from Grayslake, Ill., Wells Theater was the new building on campus, having been completed the year before.

Twenty years after her entrance to the new stage, Thompson was back at Monmouth to help kick off the college’s Fine Arts Month. Now a visiting performance artist at Michigan State University, Thompson walked up the Wells Theater stairs to places where only theatre insiders travel, taking in the sights and smells and being carried back to her days as a major stage presence with the Crimson Masque.

“When I had come for my talent scholarship interview, I told Professor (Jim) De Young, ‘I’m going to be an actor,’” recalled Thompson, as she sat in front of a collection of hats in the costume shop. “He said, ‘I’m going to discourage you from that. I’m going to discourage you every day you’re here, and if you still want to be an actor four years from now, maybe you have what it takes.’”

As it turns out, Thompson possesses that quality, as she is still acting in addition to her work at Michigan State. She founded The Sacred Heart Archive, an experimental theatre company, and recently performed at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, N.C., an experience she called “super awesome.”

“It’s a tiny company,” Thompson explained. “We started with four, and then we were down to two, up to three and we’re currently back to two members. We have one performance that we’re touring. We create what we want to create, and our goal is to get our work into really good venues, where it might complement what they are doing.”

Before the days of Monmouth’s formal theatre major, Thompson graduated with a degree in communications with an emphasis in theatre arts. She also majored in English and minored in women’s studies.

“I wanted to make sure I went somewhere where they knew who I was,” she said of her college choice. “I wanted the professors to know the body of my work, and to have an intimate knowledge of my academic experiences.”

Her first show was “Crimes of the Heart,” and she said that other memorable productions were “Playboy of the Western World” and “All My Sons.”

“It was not an unconflicted experience,” said Thompson of her undergraduate education. “By nature, I’m a troublemaker. I’m not content to sit back. I’m the person who if there is a problem, I will say something is wrong. How do you negotiate that while still discovering who you are? At a giant place, you can disappear, but you can’t do that at Monmouth. The things I learned here are how it actually is in the real world. … There were no easy boxes. I came out of Monmouth a better person.”

She went on to receive her master’s degree from Bowling Green State University and her Ph.D. in theatre and drama from the University of Wisconsin, where she focused on performance studies, gender studies and cultural criticism.

At Wisconsin, “the emphasis was on merging theory and practice, and their idea of practice was to dramaturg (research) a production,” said Thompson. “That’s not what I do. I didn’t believe that performing as an artist had to be separate from being a scholar. I can’t see why they can’t be integrated.”

Returning to her alma mater, Thompson visited a variety of classes in the art and theatre departments and ended her stay with a physical theatre workshop that was attended by 17 students. During the highly physical workshop, the students were urged to consider new ways of storytelling using the physical body as the medium for communication.

“I think the big focus is on how experimenting with tiny, fragile or ‘everyday’ moments is what connects us to other people more so than giant, epic, once-in-a-lifetime events,” said Thompson. “Working with the bodies we have, rather than denying them in favor of bodies we want, is what gives us power as performers.”

Thompson also said that physical theatre “accesses emotions, not logic.” The acting style also relies on physical endurance or skill, with “dangerous or challenging” elements.

“The workshop had the students performing in unlikely locations and creating dynamic situations making for striking new ways of storytelling,” said assistant professor of theatre Janeve West.

The central event in the Fine Arts Month kickoff was Thompson’s all-campus presentation on the topic of “Experimental Performance and the Human Experience.” Using her own experiences with The Sacred Heart Archive, Thompson discussed a variety of topics, ranging from the personal empowerment of the artist, to artistic inspiration, to the creation of her company’s particular style of performance art.

“Be the artist you are instead of what you’re supposed to be,” said Thompson, when asked to give a preview of the advice she would dispense in the presentation. “How do you determine that? You look at what inspires you.”

Seventy students and faculty attended the event and remained afterward to ask questions and discuss the details of Thompson’s work. No matter the major, students responded enthusiastically to the class visits, workshops and presentation.

“It really got me thinking about non-traditional theatre and how to take inspiration from anything, no matter how seemingly silly or unimportant, to make interesting and great art,” observed junior Ivy Bekker, a theatre and English double major from Bloomington, Ill.