UWS theater professor remembered for his spiritUniversity of Wisconsin-Superior theater professor emeritus John Munsell was the kind of guy who would “draw an analogy that would stay with you for 35 years.”
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
University of Wisconsin-Superior theater professor emeritus John Munsell was the kind of guy who would “draw an analogy that would stay with you for 35 years.”
So says Rick Sordelet, one of Munsell’s former students. Munsell, 70, died Tuesday. During his 34-year career with UWS, he taught courses in theater, television and speech, hosted a decade of Wisconsin Public Radio programs and directed more than 60 stage productions. He was artistic director of the school’s theater, ran a touring summer theater for the university and acted. In October, he was given the UWS Alumni Association’s James Rainaldo Outstanding Mentor Award.
“He inspired so many people. If I say thousands it would be no exaggeration,” said Mike Simonson, longtime reporter with the Superior bureau of Wisconsin Public Radio. “A lot of them went on to stay in the theater business. They went on to New York and L.A. But more of them stayed active here. They were inspired by what he felt was a noble craft.”
Brian Matuszak, founder of Duluth’s Rubber Chicken Theater, was a student of Munsell’s in the late 1980s. He had tried the theater program at the University of Minnesota Duluth and it didn’t fit, he said. With Munsell, it was different.
“I thought acting was supposed to be really, really hard,” he said. “One of John’s favorite quotes was, ‘There’s a reason it’s called a play.’ That was that you should play and have fun while you are doing it. That’s one of the things I responded to about his teaching. That sense of play and fun and discovery while doing theater.”
Sordelet, a 1978 Hermantown High School and 1982 UWS graduate, teaches stage combat for Yale University’s School of Drama. He is working on a Broadway revival of “Orphans” and says he owes his success to Munsell.
“He gave us all a real sense of can-do,” Sordelet said, explaining: “Here are the keys: If you break it, tell us. If you spill it, clean it. Let’s go make theater. And we did. They empowered us in a way that was unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. It completely influenced the way I teach and the way I approach the business.”
Cathy Fank replaced Munsell when he retired in 2001. Through the years, she asked him to visit certain classes to give feedback to students for things such as monologues, and to guest lecture.
“Every student loved him,” she said. “If I needed anything, he was there to help.”
Munsell was known as an unconventional faculty member, sometimes having beers at the student union beer bar, when one existed, Simonson said.
“You often think of professors in theater as being snooty,” he said. “He wasn’t afraid to bum a cigarette from a student, you know?”
Kelli Latuska, a Duluth-area theater practitioner, graduated from UWS in 2001. Munsell was a storyteller, she said, and there was always a line of students waiting at his door. Most poignant to her, she said, was him saying other college theater programs teach students to go to New York or Los Angeles, robbing the rest of the country of good theater.
“That hit me,” she said. “You do it because you want to tell a story. Really, he believed the best theater was done locally by people who love it.”
Sordelet, who plans to raise money to revive UWS’s summer theater tour program, said Munsell wasn’t the type who toted a pipe and wore a leather-patched sports jacket spouting his views on Shakespeare. Instead, he’d don cleats and play intramural football with students, and from somewhere within that game an analogy relating football to theater would form, Sordelet said.
“I’ve had those professors and I’ve worked with those people and I’ll take a pair of nutty football cleats over that patched jacket any day of the week,” he said.
A memorial service for Munsell is Feb. 21 in the UWS Manion Theater.