By Ben Peterson
How do you move performing arts from a nice-to-have extracurricular activity to the place it belongs — at the center of the liberal arts curriculum? You need a champion or two, people who believe that something like theatre is at the heart of human experience. In the mid '90s, that move from nice-to-have to center stage took place because Dan Cawthon advocated for it. "With the support of Brother Mel Anderson, former Dean Paul Zingg and a few others, we were able to make the performing arts into a real academic discipline," says Cawthon, now professor emeritus. That transformation helped recruit talented students, and today, observes Cawthon, "we offer as many as 21 scholarships each year — seven each in music, dance and theatre."
And thanks to Cawthon, the approach to theatre that evolved was entirely consistent with Saint Mary’s way of seeing art as transformative. On stage, a performer takes another name, sometimes a different manner of speaking, an altered appearance. Is it all artifice? Not the way Cawthon teaches it.
Now retired after 28 years at Saint Mary’s, Cawthon took an approach to acting that challenged his students to discover the truth of themselves and the characters they played. "In doing so they are led to the perennial questions that have plagued humans from the beginning," he says. "And that’s what liberal arts education is all about — wrestling with those questions." For his students, those lessons lingered long after the final bows were taken.
"With Dan, an exercise in theatre was an exercise in the biggest and most important themes in life," says former student Andy Bouvier-Brown. "Under Dan’s direction, I learned about the human condition." Though Bouvier-Brown no longer plays to the back row of LeFevre Theatre, he’s found a new audience to engage, as an attorney. "You can’t win for your client by sitting back and questioning the prosecution’s case," he says. "Instead, I try to mimic what I learned from Dan about performance. It’s about putting forward your client’s narrative and convincing your audience it is real — and that’s theatre … at least, theatre as Dan taught it to me."
With a Ph.D. in theology and a rich history as a working actor and director, Cawthon offered a unique constellation of skills to bring truth-in-performance to his students. Over the years, he kept the marriage of spirituality and drama strong with his performances of "Damien," a one-man play celebrating the life of Father Joseph Damien de Veuster, the fearless missionary who cared for those exiled to Molokai because they suffered from leprosy.
"Saint Mary’s was very supportive of my performing "Damien," says Cawthon. "In many ways, that play embodied the values and mission of the College."
Cawthon worked with wave after wave of students — some with serious theatre aspirations, others just curious to explore something new. There were moments of magic along the way, when his young actors would connect the power of a play with something within themselves.
While the productions and students changed over the years, Cawthon’s overarching message remained the same. "In the performing arts, a student has to risk going into the unknown," he says. "The creative process requires that they put faith in the darkness within. It is there that the Muses speak and something unique and wonderful is born. In the theatre, that’s when magic happens."
The message was received loud and clear. Though the curtain has fallen on Cawthon’s time as a Saint Mary’s professor, his legacy of connecting deeply and honestly lives on.
"You cannot fake the ability to connect and empathize with people," says Bouvier- Brown. "If I come across as a 'likeable’ person in the courtroom, and therefore can help my client’s case, I owe that in significant part to Dan’s mentorship."