Editor’s note: Tessa Gaffney is a graduate assistant in the Arts Admin program at the University of Akron. This is the second in a series of interviews with notable UA alumni.
Wendy Duke is the coolest person I’ve ever met and my new role model. She views theatre the same way I do: as a tool for building community and a platform to talk about important issues.
I arrived at our meeting place, Angel Falls in Highland Square, to a message from Wendy that read: “I am at the coffee shop wearing a purple coat and a blue Bernie hat.” But more on that later.
Wendy matriculated at The University of Akron in 1969. Originally a Visual Art student – “I remember seeing Jane [Startzman] when she was there dancing with the Chamber Ballet. I used to take my sketchpad and go to dance practices and draw them,” she recalled – by the end of her first year, she switched her major to Theatre. She had been doing it her entire life and she realized she could use her art in the theatre in various ways anyway.
Soon, she was President of Theatre Guild, and with her leadership, it became the producing organization it is to this day. She and the other officers changed the charter, working with Student Senate Leaders, and making connections in the community for performance space. “We stumbled through” learning about arts administration in the process, she chuckled. “There was a lot of creativity at that time. These were the radical ’60s and ’70s. We weren’t into hierarchies. It was whoever had a proposal – we were very supportive of each other’s ideas.”
Under the tutelage of Dr. Sterling and Dr. Slaughter, one into the cutting-edge and avant garde, the other, a traditionalist; and the example of one particular female graduate student, Wendy discovered she loved directing. “[It] kinda took my visual art abilities and my creativity and meshed it into a new art form for me,” she elaborated. “And it makes me feel good that I learned from a woman.”
Dazed and Confused
Wendy Duke graduated from the University of Akron Theatre Program in 1973, and for the first couple of years, she was “dazed and confused.” She had a few odd jobs: creating displays for the O’Neils Department Store downtown, training to become a radio voice at WCUE FM/AM before being fired “for being too progressive.”
Then, she went to Washington D.C. and joined Earth Onion Women’s Theatre as Company Manager. The theatre troupe consisted of two women, Jane and Bridget, and was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Beginning with small skits about oppression, they eventually toured a production of “Thunder and Sweet Wine” – based on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” that turned into Stella and Blanche from “A Streetcar Named Desire” halfway through – up and down the East Coast.
At the New World Theatre Festival in Baltimore, Wendy met Leonard Pitt, a mask performer. “I had started making masks and I didn’t know how to wear them.” So, next, she moved to California to study with Pitt at his studio. “I must tell you, I was the worst in the class. I was not physically adept. In those days, the acting training at UA was not physical based. You just sort of strolled in after smoking your cigarette and chatting with your friends and went on the stage. No one did a warm-up. Starting in D.C. I began to learn the importance of physical work and went with Leonard and challenged myself. It was the hardest work I ever did,” she admitted.
She returned to Akron in 1984 and immediately realized two things: (1) the cost of living was much lower than on either coast; and (2) she felt at home here. “The people here have my kind of humor. I made good friends and we did a lot of great collaborations,” she reflected. “I never wanted to be famous. Infamous, yes. But not famous. The higher you got in the hierarchy of the professional theatre world, the less control you had over making decisions. And for women in particular, there was typecasting, so you would be geared to play a certain role and you’d be doing that the rest of your life. And your likelihood of directing is slim. So I avoided it and was happy about it.”
Right away, she started a one-woman company called Theatre of Sorts in which she portrayed a bag lady named Wanda S. Duck with a shopping cart full of masks, props, and costumes. She began to perform in between sets at various clubs including The Bauhaus, now Tear-Ez on Main Street, a bar modeled after the German art movement. She began creating improvisational events there that involved audience collaboration. “I met all these wonderful artists, musicians, and theatre people and we would just converge there night after night.”
Wendy was accepted into the first Performance Art Festival at Cleveland Public Theatre and soon took her act on the road, hopping on a train with her bag lady cart, performing at anarchist bookstores and even a Kinko’s at midnight. She published her own zine called The Dumpster Times to go along with her character and political philosophies. “I was very much opposed to the Bush regime and the wars that were going on in Iraq and so forth,” she described. “Before the internet, zines, began, I think, the national and international movement of artists communicating in a very intense, creative sort of way.”
She was an instructor at Brad French Studios in an old school building at Five Points when she saw an ad in the Akron Beacon Journal for a new art school opening in Akron. “So I applied and I walked in with a bag full of masks and my resume and I told them, ‘Well, I’m the best acting teacher in town so you gotta hire me.’” And they did.
Education and Advocacy
Wendy Duke completely designed the Drama Program at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts. She arranged it to be entirely hands-on so that starting in fourth grade, each year had more and more responsibilities until eighth-graders were directing their own projects. “I kinda cut back on my radicalness to be a teacher, though I kept parts of that aspect. Like I refused to have them call me Ms. Duke,” she laughed. “Because I’ve always felt that in the theatre, you’re on the same level.”
She was there for 22 years, until 2015, when the federal government mandated standardized testing. “The very idea of doing that was so appalling to me that I had to leave,” she intimated. “I knew that I would have to give up some cherished aspect of my program.” So she quit. But not before collaborating with Miller South special education teacher, Laura Valendza, to create what would later become The Center for Applied Drama and Autism (CADA).
Wendy and Laura began teaching an acting class once a week at Weathervane Playhouse for kids who had autism. These classes expanded and moved to Balch Street Theatre (home of New World Performance Lab, alternative theatre company of James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta, who continue to be mentors and tremendous inspiration for Wendy), then into a studio space downtown, and finally, into a fully accessible building in West Akron in partnership with Ardmore, Inc, a local non-profit provider of services to people with developmental disabilities. “We figured out theatre was probably something that could be helpful, because they seem to gravitate toward my program, and I would always find a way to include them and make them feel comfortable,” she explained. The CADA website elucidates how theatre provides a safe space for practicing the ability to self-advocate, follow directions, collaborate, and meet deadlines: through role play, improv games, mask work and character study, participants strengthen their social and emotional awareness.
To date, The Center for Applied Drama and Autism has won two Knight Arts Challenge grants. The first win, in 2016, was a performance of “The Glass Menagerie” through the prism of autism. The play was written before autism was a diagnosis, as scientists didn’t begin studying it until the 1940s, but the character of Laura was based on Tennessee Williams’ actual sister who was institutionalized and lobotomized. The script was acted as written with devised scenes depicting the very short history of autism wrapped around it. The second win happened just this last year, a project called “Along the Graveyard Path: A History of Disability.”
This project started with a 2009 Akron Beacon Journal article by Mark Price revealing hundreds of bodies underneath Schneider Park in West Akron. Located near the Summit County Infirmary, the park was once a countywide dumping ground for those who could not afford burial: the poor, the disabled, unclaimed infants, and immigrants. The discovery inspired UA Anthropology Professors Tim Matney to map the unmarked graves with his class and Carolyn Behrman to begin working with Theatre on the Spectrum, of which there is a youth and adult company. With Carolyn’s help, the companies have researched local archives and collected oral histories from Akron’s disabled community, their family members and caretakers to give voice to their experiences of invisibility, segregation, hope and inclusion.
The first showing was supposed to be April 18 in Sandefur Theatre and has been postponed due to COVID-19, but please stay tuned for updates as the show will go on. Wendy recently celebrated her birthday and asked for donations to keep her vital operation running during this public health crisis. If you would like to help, please find that link below. Wendy and the others at CADA envision a world where our diverse community unites to celebrate and advocate for a more inclusive future so people of all abilities can choose to navigate the stage and the world effectively.
On leaving the public school system, she concluded, “I almost wish I would’ve started doing this earlier because it’s become such a passion for me and such a wonderful way to live one’s life.”
Back to Campus
Wendy Duke always seems to find herself back at The University of Akron. “It’s a very working class campus, brings in all kinds and I relish that kind of atmosphere,” she said.
After participating in several of James Slowiak, Coordinator of UA Theatre and Interim Coordinator of Arts Administration, and Jairo Cuesta’s Grotowski-based physical acting workshops, she returned to her alma mater to receive her M.A. in Theatre during her public school teacher days, a Master’s Boot Camp over the course of three summers.
Then, when she saw The University of Akron would be producing “Richard III” this semester – her favorite play, ever since seeing it at 12 years old with her parents – she thought, “Well, this would be a safe place for me to realize my dream.” She was cast as Richard’s mother, in her opinion the best role, and in addition, Memo Diaz Capt, the actor portraying her son, the title role, was one of her students at Miller South. Everything, full circle. It was a disappointment for the entire cast that the run was cut short.
On her Facebook announcing the news of the second weekend’s cancellation, Wendy noted, “[I] haven’t experienced anything like this since UA was closed due to the Kent State shootings.” On May 4, 1970, The University of Akron Musical Theatre Program was in the middle of rehearsing “Once Upon a Mattress.” By the end of the day, campus was closed and the performance had been postponed. She and several other theatre students camped out on Jackson Field in solidarity. “We were enraged,” she proclaimed.
She described working in Bierce Library, watching from the upper windows at passersby stepping on hand-drawn bombs chalked onto sidewalks, a peaceful protest eliciting empathy for those who were being killed in Cambodia. Wendy grew up with the only registered Democrats in her township. “It was a relief to leave Medina and come to a more open and challenging place. [The University of Akron] was the first time I was in a multicultural environment. Medina was so white, so straight-laced,” she lamented. “My first semester, in the fall of ’69, the black students took over Buchtel Hall. And I remember walking around campus and seeing soldiers up on the top of the buildings with rifles. So, yeah, I have been a Bernie bro since my early days.”
She was also there when The University of Akron suspended the Theatre Program in 2015. “I was in the thick of it. I was writing poems and performing them outside the board meeting. I was on the front page of the Beacon. I was outraged. It was like they were going to chop off my very existence and just bury it and erase me.”
The program has since been reinstated and reimagined with new interdisciplinary options, making it one of just a handful of universities offering an undergraduate degree that focuses on applied theatre, the practice of using drama in community settings. According to Wendy, there are very few books on the subject, but that just means you should be expecting hers in the near future. She’s even willing to teach a class or two.
Wendy Duke remembers her undergraduate career fondly: “Because it was a small program, there were many more opportunities. And when there weren’t opportunities, there was room for us to make our own opportunities. So it gave me a sense of ‘can do,’ do-it-yourself theatre, which led into the whole zine culture, punk culture. I was born in the hippy culture, but I really didn’t find my family until the punk scene, that’s where I really felt at home: do it yourself, working to fight the system in very positive ways. It might not be the pathway to Broadway, but it’s the path to following your dreams and making your own work.”
And she should know. She’s been doing so for over 40 years.
Here is the link to donate: