Dale McFadden’s influence on local theater in his decades at IU

McFadden’s farewell: “The Heiress” will be his last, at least at IU

By Connie Shakalis H-T Reviewer

If you see Indiana University’s current production of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’ “The Heiress” you will witness the last act of Dale McFadden’s career with the department of theatre, drama, and contemporary dance. He’s retiring and leaving behind nearly 35 years of coaxing the best from theater students. “One thing that has stayed consistent all these years,” he said, “is the great quality of IU students, regardless of their majors.” Directors use various styles to extract an actor’s other selves, and McFadden says he focuses on imparting the value of discipline. “I’m not mean, but it has been said that you’ll never have a problem knowing what I think,” he said.


McFadden joined the IU faculty in 1985. He is the department’s associate chair where he also heads the M.F.A. acting and directing programs. He attended University of London and Trinity College in Dublin before directing professionally in Chicago. He has worked at the Goodman Studio, Steppenwolf, the Theatre Building, the Raven Theatre, Renaissance Rep, Chicago Dramatists, and was artistic director at The Body Politic. His Chicago production of “The King’s Clown” won Joseph Jefferson Award citations.

He teaches his students to pay attention to their audiences, an integral part of any production. “When the audience loves the play, it’s because of both things: the audience and the production,” he said. He prepares them for the “artistic anxiety”of opening nights, a test of nerves for all directors, producers, tech crew and performers. “Opening nights are like funerals,”he said. “People always say: ‘I had to come tonight. I saw it in the paper. It’s so lifelike!’ ” McFadden’s dry wit will be missed once he closes his office door that last time. But one thing he’s serious about is “not turning on your work,” stressing that harshly criticizing one’s own efforts is counterproductive — and “never” to be done.

When directing a cast of performers with different levels of experience and ability, he is careful to start “where each person is,” not pushing, but assessing and guiding. Having worked in many local and regional theaters, including Chicago, Indianapolis and Bloomington — at IU, Bloomington Playwrights Project and the Jewish Theatre — he has seen a range of talent in his actors. “The best performers to work with are those who have done stage, TV and film,” he said. Directing — and acting — for the camera differs vastly from stage work, and having knowledge of all three disciplines helps create a well-rounded performer who can reveal emotions with the full body (stage) yet convey meaning through subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, facial expressions (camera).

A serious director with serious opinions about what theater is, he, albeit with a smile and his tongue in his cheek, refers to musical theater as “the dark side.” He shares this view with many critics who wonder why we Americans have no national theater, as do Paris and London, where intelligent and deeply dramatic plays are routinely produced. It’s not that McFadden disdains the —fluffier — musicals (he loved the unfluffed Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” and Mark Hollmann’s “Urinetown”), but his heart seems to lie with Shakespeare, Ibsen, James, et al. Musical theater has been a boon to theater and to theater-going, getting people in the doors he said. “I just hope that audiences don’t get the sugar-high from the musicals and then choose not to go see the dramas.”   And musicals, with rhythm and pizzazz, can move in a way straight plays cannot.

“I thought IU’s ‘Spelling Bee’ was a detailed, insightful production about young people with a competitive skill that is a refuge from the struggles on their life,” he said. Of audiences, he said, “Our job is to give them something to come back for.” Extolling the wonders of live theater he noted that audiences are aware of other audience members; they are not sitting home isolated in front of a screen. They are in this living, inhaling, heart-beating performance together, experiencing it not with one or two, but with a roomful all at once. A bond forms among people watching live performances.

The “Three on the Aisle” theater podcast even stated recently that audience members’ heartbeats synchronize while watching live theater. Ever wonder what the director does, exactly? Audiences can never really tell how much of the play is the director’s and how much comes from the actors’ own input. McFadden likes to teach about “the hidden hand of the director.” He said the director is responsible for every moment of the show, a frightening thought. “By tech night (usually the last rehearsal before the show opens), not many things are left unexplained,”he said. Directors also control what gets rehearsed and what doesn’t. “Most plays need about 60 hours of rehearsal time, he said.

Those five dozen hours are precious and must be apportioned, hopefully in the right increments. So, probably with feelings as assorted as a New York City brunch buffet, McFadden will watch his last IU play unfold, as we learn about “The Heiress’ ” main character dealing with an overbearing father and an ardent, misjudged (?) lover. McFadden said he might hide, or not — maybe depending on how it goes. And we will observe his directing.

His performers, if he has successfully relayed his message, will show us their three required traits: talent, temperament and tenacity. And the lights will lower again, this last time, on a McFadden-directed play at IU.

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
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