Curtain call: Barry Marshall

Barry Marshall retired this spring after teaching theater and performing arts at Moses Brown since 1985. Barry played a key role in the growth of our performing arts program, and shares these departing thoughts.

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Why teach drama? What led you to Moses Brown?

In the summer of 1982, my wife Carole and I left New York City to live and practice at the Providence Zen Center. While there I worked on a play, learned about Zen and began to practice meditation. One of the members of the community had children who were attending Moses Brown and I learned that there was a job opening for a drama teacher there. I applied and was hired by headmaster David Burnham. The thing that really connected me to MB was its Quaker identity. Coming from a place like the Zen Center that valued silence and meditation, I was drawn to those same qualities in Meeting for Worship. That connection between spirituality and silence took root in me right away. Also, the opportunity to make a theater that served a whole community of learners felt like a wonderful challenge. I found a home at MB.

When I got here, the theater program was understaffed and under-appreciated. There was no set designer or tech director; the whole job fell on the shoulders of one person. Dave Burnham gave us the support we needed and over the years we’ve staffed the program with skilled professionals who give our students a full theater production experience. I also worked to give the drama program a more respected place in the community. In my first few years directing plays, I would often have to wait until the sports teams had their tryouts and then take the “leftover” students to be in the plays. It took time, but we built our resources, created learning opportunities by adding academic classes, and developed a theater model that prospered.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the job was working with children of all ages. I loved exploring theater’s developmental impact on children pre-primary through 12th grade and the ways that theater works differently with different age groups. I’m proud of the cross-divisional work we’ve done, bringing disciplines and divisions together to collaborate. For example, upper schoolers not only write their own one-act plays, but they also mentor second and third grade playwrights; those plays are then produced by upper and middle school learners.

In my time at MB, middle school drama has also flourished. Every seventh and eighth grader takes a semester of drama. Theater is an excellent vehicle for allowing middle school students to safely explore the social challenges and developmental issues. A more vibrant middle school drama program has also helped to energize our upper school program. One of my favorite interdisciplinary projects happens in middle school. Sixth graders make hand puppets in art class; eighth graders create stories and perform puppet plays using those sixth graders’ puppets. The whole community becomes a laboratory for collaborative theater projects.

What are the secrets to your upper school plays’ success?

In building the theater program, we’ve tried to embrace Quaker principles and community values. We never turn anyone away, and we minimize competition. Another hallmark has been to provide opportunities for students to work and learn from professional artists. Our larger community offers so many wonderful artist-collaborators: Dan Butterworth and his puppetry for Peter Pan; original music by Keith Munslow for As You Like it; Chris Turner and Rachel Maloney created a score with students for Antigone; and so many others. When we did Shaw’s Major Barbara, Trinity Rep was doing Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the same time. Our two casts spent hours together, sharing scenes, discussing Shaw and exchanging acting tips.

I’m especially proud of our playwriting program. Often playwriting sparks something transformative and puts students on a new path. Several years ago our students put on a playwriting festival of student and alumni work. The students curated the whole thing, and invited the alumni back to see their plays performed. It was a fantastic event for the community and very meaningful for me.

Is there a special experience that stands out in your memory?

Eight or nine years ago, my son got me involved in a national 48-hour film festival. Entries would form a production company, receive a genre assignment on a Friday night, and deliver a finished short film just 48 hours later. I put together a mostly-MB company, with students and alums interested in film and theater: Nate Silver, Bill Domineau, Jeff Church, Elana Chernick-Kritz, Nuala Cabral, Alex Casagrande, Johnny Shaw. It was such a blast! The young ones stayed up all night working on our film. I put my hand in here and there, corralling it, helping with artistic choices. Out of 40 entries, our film won! I’d never touched film before, but this project inspired me to consider possibilities for film and video projects in the future.

Speaking of the future, what projects do you look forward to, in your next act?

I’m certainly not going to stop doing theater. I’m working on a play-with-music about the Brown family, Moses Brown and the Slave Ship Sally, and hope to produce a concert performance next summer with Ocean State Pops Orchestra. I want to be involved in socially active theater in the community. Already this year I’ve enjoyed taking part in the Tenderloin Opera Project, working with the homeless population to create theater at Mathewson Street Church in downtown Providence. I also have some ideas for children’s video and film that I’d like to develop.

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