OSWEGO — The travails and triumphs of Edward Austin Sheldon, who founded what is now known as SUNY Oswego, will come to life when a famous alumna and four students present excerpts of his autobiography, letters and favorite music in “Speaking of Sheldon …” on Feb. 25 and 26.
The original production will take place at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25 and 2 p.m. Feb. 26, in the Sheldon Hall ballroom, starring Robin Curtis, ’78, best known for her role as Lt. Saavik in two “Star Trek” movies and on television’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Under the direction of Mark Cole, professor of theatre, and Rebecca Horning, adjunct instructor of music, the dramatic reading with the assistance of lullaby, hymn and song will explore one of the 19th century’s foremost educators. The college continues to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School, whose first year of study took place in 1861-62.
“A readers theatre approach to performance places a writer’s text in the foreground, so that character and description, the writer’s style and voice can be appreciated,” Cole said.
Curtis and experienced student cast members Jessica Quindlen, Nick Pike, Clare Bawarski and Michael Beshures all will, in turn, give voice to Sheldon and important people in the life of the man who, in his own words, “despised learning of all kinds” as a boy — and went on to champion the object learning method. He adapted this into the Oswego Method, which became embraced across the U.S. and in other countries.
The student cast members are generous in their praise of Curtis, who retired as a professional actress in 1999 and now lives in Cazenovia.
“She has a presence, immediately, when she’s speaking as Sheldon,” Quindlen said. “She brings a sort of knowledge and questioning attitude and she looks at the text differently than we do.”
Bawarski added, “When she asks questions, it opens a window for the rest of us. We say, ‘I didn’t think of it this way. Perhaps I should have looked at it this way.'”
Cole, who performed with Curtis at Springside Inn in Auburn in the ’70s and later worked with her in a readers theatre presentation he adapted based on the story of the Titanic, said the text of Sheldon’s unpublished autobiography intrigued him.
“I was immediately drawn to Sheldon’s ability to describe his life and times — particularly his rural upbringing which must have shaped his work ethic — in ways that not only offer a portrait of his development, but also fascinating bits of information about social life and education in the 19th century,” Cole said.
Most intriguing, he said, is Sheldon, the learning-averse boy who ultimately founded a college and propelled a teaching method that still holds sway today.
“When someone has such a sterling reputation, you forget all about the human quirks and qualities,” Cole said. “Humor, love of a good time, dedication, spirituality, his work in the Oswego community.”
Necessarily, Cole said, the dramatic reading has to leave a lot out. But one thing Cole and Horning were determined to stage is Sheldon’s love of music, particularly a favorite hymn, “Calm Me, O God,” which surfaced in an anniversary book about the college.
“So the music will add to the texture of the portrait. A lullaby, 19th century parlor songs, the hymns and a parody of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song are included in the show,” he said.
The students in the cast feel they’re part of the stream of the college’s long history.
“I’m a technology education major,” Beshures said. “We talk about the object teaching method a lot — getting students involved in a laboratory setting, experiencing as they learn. To connect this with my (teaching) methods and lab classes is fantastic.”
Tickets to “Speaking of Sheldon …” cost $5 ($3 for SUNY Oswego students) and are available at any SUNY Oswego box office, online at http://tickets.oswego.edu and by phone at 312-2141.
Parking is free in campus lots for those attending this performance. Those needing assistance should call 312-2141 in advance.