When he couldn’t find a good fit for the part during student auditions for the “Urinetown, The Musical” character Lockstock, show director John O’Connell tried a longshot. Dean of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, O’Connell met with Jeff Casazza, a professor of theatre and accomplished director himself with more than 20 Department of Theatre productions under his belt. Though Casazza has never acted on PFW's stage, O’Connell already knew Casazza was an excellent performer, he loved the play, and especially the part.
Casazza replied, “Ah … Oohhh … I don’t know about that,” O’Connell recalled, knowing he’d offered him an intriguing opportunity.
So, Casazza went home to read the script, sing a couple of the songs, and ask the opinion of his wife, Karin, a senior academic advisor for the Doermer School of Business and also a fine actor in her own right. He was teaching three classes, serving on the general education subcommittee, working on research, and preparing to direct “The Tempest” in February.
But this part.
“If I say no to Lockstock, whom I fully understand and think I can play with the humor, the darkness—if I say no to this, what am I going to say yes to?” Casazza said. “I would probably be done acting. It was really agonizing because I love this play.”
Thinking it was too much, he was ready to decline, but Karin changed his mind.
“If I was being selfish,” she said, “I want you to do it because I want to see you play that role.”
An encouraged Casazza showed up to the first reading with all his lines memorized. He was trying his best to start creating the role quickly, not meaning to set an example for all of the other students, but he did just that.
His preference is for his castmates to treat him like any other actor and not their teacher during rehearsal, which is easier said than done.
“I feel like I am somewhat conscious of the things he’s doing acting-wise because obviously he’s been my professor for a few of my classes,” said senior Lee Martin, who is portraying Penelope Pennywise, “so I’m picking up on a lot of the techniques we’ve been taught in class. We’ve also had some conversations about the character work he’s done for Lockstock, which has really been cool! It’s cool to see what he finds works for him and what doesn’t.”
While experiencing a normal amount of anxiety, fear, and passion playing the part, Casazza said he’s trying to use that tension to provide the edge every actor needs. He’s consuming every rehearsal and every opportunity to interact with young actors who mostly happen to have been his students or will be. There’s only one cast member he hasn’t taught with or had in his class during 16 years at PFW.
“I think that’s one of the reasons it’s nerve-wracking because I am teaching all day, and then I’m teaching in a different way at night,” Casazza said. “I’m not really teaching, I’m trying to do the work, but I know students are in the room, and I’m an example whether I want to be or not. I don’t mind that because it’s another layer that I want to be a good example for them. When I’m in rehearsal or on the stage, singing or dancing, I’m trying to focus on that, so I guess in a sense hopefully that’s showing them how I work.”
Consequently, there’s some electricity on stage because Casazza is there. When the cast was first posted, he noticed several excited students walking past his office and looking in with smiles. They knew what this meant, but still surprised the professor with their excitement.
“Personally, I feel like I have achieved a major step being able to act alongside one of the professors that taught me what I know,” said senior Evan Snaufer, who portrays Hot Blades Harry in the production and is one of two dance captains. “Yes, I am in school doing it, but I am working with someone who has been successful for a long time.
“I love watching him work because it’s fun to witness him apply the many things he has taught us in our movement, voice, and acting [classes] and bringing them to Officer Lockstock.”
There’s also added juice in the opportunity to perform for Casazza’s 14-year-old son, Darwin. Coincidentally, the Casazzas had agreed to audition for a production of “Urinetown, The Musical” in 2009 before finding out Karin was pregnant. Jeff used to sing songs from the play including “Overture” and “Cop Song” to Darwin in the womb, and they became his lullabies for the next seven years. Casazza already knew Darwin's answer if he should accept the part.
Casazza has been journaling every day. Like athletes who may be starting to realize they’re entering the twilight of their time on the field, he’s savoring every moment, trying to enjoy and remember.
“I don’t know when or if it will happen again,” he said. “When an opportunity like this happens, I try to celebrate every day because it’s such joy.”