Inside WPI

A Dramatic Role

A Dramatic Role

Destined for drama from an early age, Susan Vick’s career might have remained a dream if not for the encouragement of women mentors. 'I come from a long tradition of women supporting me,' she says.

Vick, who has overseen WPI’s drama and theatre programs since 1981, produced her first play at age 5 at her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. 'I was hell-bent for it,' she says. 'But the idea of doing theatre for a living was very remote.'

Her parents hoped she might follow a traditional career path, but a few teachers saw the potential for something more. At Catawba College, for example, where she was a history major, her European history instructor told her, 'You love history, Susan, but your passion is theatre. You’re just going to have to do something about that.'

What she did was enroll at Southern Methodist University, where, in 1969, she became the first woman to earn an MFA in directing. Through posts in academia, including Bowdoin College, where she was acting director of theatre, she developed a zeal for teaching. Returning to school, she earned a PhD in theatre at the University of Illinois—again, she was the first women to do so.

As the 1980s dawned, Vick’s theatre resume was growing at an impressive pace. There were awards for acting, more than 20 directing milestones, and a budding career as a playwright—including a script accepted for production by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. 'Still,' she says, 'I needed to have a little more bread on my table.'

When a position opened at WPI, she applied. The fact that the job required directing two productions a year was a plus. 'It’s very difficult to get those jobs where you also direct,' she says. She recalls thinking the job might provide a short bridge to the next phase of her theatre career.

But she stayed, in part, because of friendships with other women faculty members (including JoAnn Manfra, who, as head of the Humanities and Arts Department, became an important mentor and supporter), and the opportunity to work with WPI students. Her resume continued to grow: founding New Voices, the longest running university new plays festival in America; becoming the first woman to win the WPI Board of Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Teaching, and the third to become a full professor; and shepherding the creation of the Little Theatre, WPI’s first dedicated theatrical venue.

She considers WPI’s theatre program unusual because it spans so many student affiliations, something you would not see at many other schools. 'I’ve always had great relationships with, among others, WPI's athletic coaches, who've encouraged their undergraduates to take part,' she says. 'There’s always that person in an area you wouldn’t expect who wants to participate. Here it’s legitimate. You can do it. Everybody has a place at our table.'

Looking back, Vick is pleased to realize that many of her fondest WPI memories have to do with the achievements of female students—most notably, the four trips by playwright Catherine Darensbourg ’02 to the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Original Short Play Festival in New York; and the many women who’ve blossomed as actresses, playwrights, directors, and theatre majors and minors.

'I work hard to find the best person for the job, from the wee roles to the producer,' she says. 'I’m pleased that, so often through the years, the best person has been a woman.'

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