A foot in the door: theatre students in the spotlight at Derby Dinner Playhouse

5th February 2019
IU Southeast theatre majors Matthew Street and Megan Johnson are getting valuable stage experience at Derby Dinner Playhouse.

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Two IU Southeast theatre students, Matthew Street and Megan Johnson, are wowing audiences in “Love, Sex and the IRS,” an uproarious comedy now running at the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind.

Street and Johnson play Leslie and Connie, a young couple caught up in a madcap whirl of passion, deception and spousal deduction in 1979 Manhattan.

“Love, Sex and the IRS” is the latest example of the unique partnership between the IU Southeast theater department and Derby Dinner Playhouse. It’s a win-win relationship that has seen working local theater pros teach courses at IU Southeast and has provided a proverbial foot in the door for students in a highly competitive field.

It all started when Jim Hesselman came to teach acting at IU Southeast ten years ago. Hesselman brought with him 27 years of experience at Derby Dinner Playhouse, and immediately leveraged its potential as an entry to the professional theatre world for exceptional students.

Over the past decade, Hesselman, now dean of the School of Arts and Letters, has helped some 20 qualified students find work at Derby Dinner Playhouse, not only on stage, but also in backstage technical areas such as costuming, lighting, set design and more.

“It is the perfect place to learn so many things about theatre, and the professional life in general,” Hesselman said, who also directs plays at Derby Dinner Playhouse, including “Love, Sex and the IRS.”

Without that professionalism—the painstaking work of organization, networking, promotion and business—even the most talented actor will go nowhere.

Hesselman makes it clear that this is an actual job, not an exercise.

“The difference between this real-life experience and an internship is that you must uphold your commitment to both places, and work out calendar, transportation and other things for yourself,” Hesselman said. “There is no option for failure here—the show must go on!”

Or in this case: shows. A lot of them.

That was initially a big challenge for Street, a senior from Sellersburg majoring in theatre.

Street has performed in six productions at IU Southeast, but this play is a new level of commitment.

“This show has taught me a huge lesson in longevity and stamina,” Street said. “Before this, the most performances I had done of a show was ten. When this show closes, we’ll have it done it 49 times.”

It has also helped him extend his creative range. Over the course of the play, Street betrays his best friend, goes incognito as an ungainly woman, and plunges off a fifth-story ledge clad in a pink terrycloth bathrobe.

“I had never actually been in a farcical comedy, so working with material like this has been very informative,” Street said. “It has taught me many lessons with regard to timing, working as an ensemble and making bold choices.

The same can be said for Johnson, who clings, begs, whines, giggles and yells her way through the part of Connie, Street’s jilted girlfriend.

For Johnson, the play has been an education.

“I’ve learned so many things just listening in to other people and the stories they share about their experiences, watching others rehearse, watching Jim [Hesselman] direct and, most of all, asking a LOT of questions,” Johnson said.

One of the most important things she learned: how to scream.

When she found that her scream was not believable because she was overthinking it, Hesselman encouraged her to practice in a private spot before the show.

“So before the final dress rehearsal, I went out in my car and screamed several different ways to see which scream felt best,” Johnson said. “I probably spooked a few passersby, but it was simply to enhance my performance.”

Johnson, a junior from Georgetown also majoring in theatre, has prominently featured in seven plays at IU Southeast, recently as the title character in Junie B. Jones: Jingle Bells, Batman Smells. She has played a range of different roles, but this was a different kind of challenge: a new type of audience.

“This experience has made me more comfortable in my acting abilities, outside of IU Southeast,” Johnson said. “Working at Derby Dinner Playhouse has made me realize that, even when working in new spaces, it is okay to make big, bold choices—as a matter of fact, it is highly encouraged and will only help you to learn more about yourself as an actor.”

“Love, Sex and the IRS” runs through Feb. 17 at the Derby Dinner Playhouse.

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