Ripon College has a long and distinguished history of nurturing love of the theater. Some students came to Ripon with that love already instilled in them. Some discovered it in College productions.
Two of the most celebrated actors in film history, Spencer Tracy ’24 and Harrison Ford ’64, first lit up the stage as students at Ripon College. Highlighted here are other alumni who have found their place in the theater world.
- James Bohnen ’70
- Francis Lee McCain ’66
- Andrea Williams ’04
- Alisha Gard ’06
- Amanda Herrmann ’12
- Anne Negri ’03
- Perfecto Diaz ’09
- Amber Kind-Keppel ’05
- Nicholas Osenberg ’11
James Bohnen ’70
James Bohnen ’70 of Chicago, Ill., had no ambition toward theater, but he got into it at the urging of others.
“I was running lines in my dorm room with my college roommate, Rick Dinkel ’70,” Bohnen says. “He had a show he was going to direct and he said to me, ‘You really should try this once.’ That’s the sort of accident in life that leads to all different journeys.”
Later, while teaching high school history in Colorado Springs, Colo., Bohnen again was talked into auditioning for a play. A friend had just died, and he thought the activity might make him feel better. The success and satisfaction he found doing that play led him to help found a community theater that is still running in that city 40 years later.
He became actively involved in several areas of the arts. He wrote film criticism for a newspaper in Colorado for a time; owned and operated a movie theater in northwestern Connecticut; was artistic adviser to a summer theater in Aspen, Colo., for several years; and founded theRemy Bumppo Theater Co. in Chicago, which he was artistic director for 15 years.
Among his many directing positions, he has directed plays for the last 16 seasons at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wis. “What I love about directing is making a play something that people can understand and relate to immediately,” he says. “I feel like storytelling is what we do. It’s how we learn and relate to one another. The thing that draws me to theater is being able to shape writers’ stories for 1,000 people a night into a story in their head they can’t quite stop thinking about, and it makes a small difference in their lives.”
He says that the arts – theater, visual arts or reading a good book – can impact people’s lives profoundly.
“I think artists can help you see into your own world better so they can change you or provoke you in quiet ways to think about the way you live and the way you are as human beings,” he says.
“The truly great artists see the world changing before the rest of us do, and they lead us to the door and try to get us to walk through. With every play, you create a kind of close-knit, complicated family, all aspiring to the same goal of unlocking the puzzle and making it clear. There’s a wonderful communality in the work with people who share your passion for getting it right, and that’s very exhilarating. It’s life-giving. When a rehearsal is really engaged, there is no place quite like it.”
Francis Lee McCain
One of Ripon College’s most successful theater alumni is Frances Lee McCain ’66. She has had a steady career in stage, television and film work for more than four decades.
At Ripon, she majored in philosophy, but also appeared in theater productions. “I started out in the Red Barn,” she says. “Then it burned down, and I was teased that it was due to my final performance there in “Antigone.”
“I really had no plans to go into theater professionally,” she says, but Philip Clarkson, professor of speech and drama at Ripon, suggested that she consider acting as a career. I was amazed and asked if he were serious. ‘Yes, I think you can do it,’ he said.”
So at Clarkson’s suggestion, she auditioned and was accepted to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London and found she loved the world of theater. “I discovered a heightened sense of being alive on stage,” McCain says. “I like the camaraderie, the process, discovering text and doing plays together. It opens you to others — why we do what we do, what motivates us. It gave me access in a way I wouldn’t otherwise have had.”
She says this same connection is what makes theater important for everyone. “We love stories, and we love to have ourselves reflected back to us,” McCain says. “It gives us the opportunity to see ourselves with an interpretation we might not be able to make otherwise. It’s a shared communal experience that is essential in community.”
On stage, she first appeared on Broadway in Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam.” She also has been active with the American Conservatory Theater’s acting company, ZSpace Studio in San Francisco and Alter Theater Ensemble in San Rafael, Calif.
On television, she has appeared on numerous shows and co-starred with Ronny Cox as the female lead in the series “Apple’s Way” in 1974.
During the 1980s, she appeared in several major films, including “Gremlins,” “Footloose,” “Back to the Future” and “Stand By Me.”
In the 1990’s, she received a master’s degree in psychology.
Among a lifetime of myriad projects, she remains content in the present. “I tend to enjoy whatever I’m working on at the time,” she says “The things I remember the best are not necessarily the starriest moments but the people and the quality of collaboration on any given project.”
Presently she focuses most of her time on community activism, as well as the visual arts, at her home in Albuquerque, N.M.
“I find it is absolutely an extension of what I’ve been doing all my life in performing arts,” she says.
McCain received the Ripon College Distinguished Alumni Award in 1984 and an Honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts in 1988.
Andrea Williams ’04
Clothes can make the man, and also the stage character. Andrea Williams ’04 of West St. Paul, Minn., is a free-lance costume technician for Chicago-area theaters such as Steppenwolf and Goodman Writers Theater; Milwaukee-area theaters such as Milwaukee Rep and First Stage Children’s Theatre; and a job in Kansas. She also has worked for seven seasons for American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wis.
Williams discovered her unique passion as a work study student during her freshman year at Ripon. In the costume shop, Adjunct Professor of Theater Susan Hill taught her to use a sewing machine.
“I leaned I had a talent for it at Ripon,” Williams says. “I’d sewn a little bit by hand, but not serious sewing. I leaned a little from her and then made it up as I went along.”
Williams had a triple major – theater, history and classical studies – and all have served her well as a costumer. “For historical plays, there is a great deal of research that goes into what I do. My classical and historical knowledge helps me a lot. So much of what I do is a lost art or dying art. People don’t always realize that underneath the fancy costumes are bustles and corsets, and we do still make all of that and create our own patterns.”
She says costumes are the first impression an audience gets for the character, even before they speak. “They tell you how important that person is, how wealthy they are. Whether it’s a big, fancy dress or ripped-up clothes with mud on them, they’re going to tell you something about that character. They give you an added layer of who that person is. I like seeing the product up on stage and knowing I had a part in it.”
Williams received a master’s degree in fine arts in costume design and technology from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and she likes being a part of the theater community.
“Most of my best friends are here [the theater], and it’s this whole other family I’ve created for myself,” Williams says. “I’ll never make a fortune doing what I do, but I love it. It makes it all worthwhile.
“It really was Ripon that gave me the basics. I was going to be a history professor, and now it’s almost 10 years later and I’m still doing theater.”
Alisha Gard ’06
After catching the acting bug in middle school, Alisha Gard ’06 found her calling.
“My sister and I used to play softball, but she was always way better than me,” Gard says. “So, I decided to try something different and auditioned for a musical in eighth grade. I got a part in the show, and ever since I have loved acting!”
Gard now lives in Burbank, Calif., where she trains and is building up her resume.
“I have been going out on as many auditions as possible, and even if I don’t book the part, I learn something new every time,” Gard says. “I most recently booked parts in the All-American Rejects music video for the song ‘Beekeeper’s Daughter,’ as well as a commercial for a local hospital here in Los Angeles.”
She hopes to become a series regular on a television show, “but as long as I am working and paying my bills doing what I love, I won’t complain,” she says.
“Besides the simple fact that it provides entertainment, theater is beneficial for so many reasons,” she says. “I find it to be a confidence builder, as you have to be super comfortable in your skin and be willing to take risks. It also teaches empathy and team-building because you have to relate with the character and work as a team with your castmates. I wish it were a requirement for everyone to take at least one theater class because you learn so much even from the most basic theater games.”
Gard says performing gives her the chance to play characters different from herself, live vicariously through them and do and say things without consequence.
“For most characters, you have to do a lot of research and really invest yourself in creating the most believable character possible,” she says. “It’s just nice to be able to step outside of your shoes sometimes and do something outside of your comfort zone.”
Amanda Herrmann ’12
An all-encompassing exposure to theater at Ripon College helped prepare Amanda Herrmann ’12 for an internship at Peninsula Players in Door County, Wis., last summer. “It’s an intense program with long hours, but if you’re serious about starting your career in the theater and making connections, you couldn’t choose a better theater,” Herrmann says.
At Ripon, Herrmann was involved in props, set, lights, costumes, box office and acting, and Peninsula Players capitalized on those varied skills. “This exposure to all aspects of theater gave me a leg up at Peninsula Players,” Herrmann says.
Herrmann recently finished a lighting design job for “The Music Man” at Paramount Theater in Aurora, Ill., and next will be the assistant props designer for “Collected Stories” at American Blues Theater in Chicago, Ill. – through a connection she made at Peninsula Players.
“I love working in the theater because I am an artist at heart, and the theater allows me to focus my creative talents into a developed concept put together by the entire cast and crew,” Herrmann says. “This collaborative artistic expression is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, and I love contributing to this particular type of art.
“Theater isn’t an easy field to be in. There is no steady paycheck. Once one show is over, I have to hit the pavement and look for the next job, but it’s my passion.”
Anne Negri ’03
Now an award-winning playwright for children’s theater, Anne Negri ’03 of Evanston, Ill., credits her Ripon College experience with inspiring and challenging her. She received a degree in theater and French and stayed on for an extra year to attain her post-baccalaureate education degree and a K-12 teaching license in both subjects. She taught English in France for a year and then completed an internship with Milwaukee’s First Stage Children’s Theater. She then received a master of fine arts degree in theater for youth from Arizona State University.
While growing up in Kenosha, Wis., Negri’s parents frequently took her and her sister to children’s theater plays at First Stage in Milwaukee. As a student at Ripon College, she began to consider children’s theater as a possible career.
Ken Hill, professor of theater and chair of the department at Ripon College, was a large influence, both as a teacher and a colleague doing summer stock at St. Croix Valley Summer Theater, Negri says.
For a graduate playing-writing course, Negri wrote “With Two Wings,” a play for family audiences. It received a staged reading at the Phoenix Fringe Festival. It won the Kennedy Center-American College Theater Festival Award for Playwriting in Theater for Youth in 2009; was a 2011 finalist play in the biannual Bonderman Playwriting for Youth Symposium in Indianapolis; was produced by Childsplay, a professional children’s theater in Tempe, Ariz.; and was at The Growing Stage in New Jersey in February 2013.
The play is about a young boy named Lyf who lives an isolated existence in the woods with his parents in a world where people are born with wings and the ability to fly. When Lyf discovers his father’s top-secret invention, he must confront his parents and face a reality that will either tear them apart or bring them closer.
“I’m overjoyed that this story has touched other people emotionally and is connecting with children and families in various areas of the country,” Negri says.
Negri is a drama specialist with the Evanston and Skokie K-8 public schools and is working on a new play.
Perfecto Diaz ’09
Theater and writing helped Perfecto Diaz ’09 of Chicago to find his voice. After witnessing a sister’s death when he was young, he could not speak for nine years and entered speech therapy. “I found out that if I started mimicking people on the radio, my diction would be fantastic,” he says. “I loved pretending to be different people because it gave me a chance to communicate.”
Diaz started writing stories to express himself but wasn’t interested in acting until he starred in a high school classroom production of his own play, “Yo, Romeo!”
“Even though it was not an actual play performed in front of a big crowd, it still gave me a chance to express who I really am to my classmates,” he says. “After that, my English teacher asked me to audition for the school musical. Part of me felt honored that she would ask me. The other part of me felt like she was just asking because no one wanted to audition for her production and that she could use any help she could get! But I auditioned anyway and got a great role as Beauxhomme in ‘Once on This Island.’
“When I finally performed on stage in front of people for the first time, I didn’t care about what people would think. I didn’t care what kind of applause I was going to get. It just felt good that after nine years of listening instead of communicating, and feeling like I would never truly be myself or express my feelings, it felt good to finally have a voice.”
After graduating from Ripon College, Diaz took classes in Second City as both an actor and writer; and interned for Child’s Play Touring Theater as a teaching artist and for American Theater Company as an education intern. For a year, he worked with eight playwrights and 12 eighth-grade students to write a collaborative docudrama play about the life in the Logan Square area in Chicago. He then joined Child’s Play Touring Theater as a full-time actor and writer.
He currently is focusing on writing.
“Theater gives people the chance to gain the confidence in themselves that they never had before,” Diaz says. “It finally gives us a voice that we may never have thought we had. It’s like that song on the radio about how the world is one big stage and we all have a role. Some people seem to associate theater only with a stage – but if that song is true, then we are playing a role every day of our lives. You don’t need an actual stage to be somebody. Understanding that we all have a voice – and understanding how to use it in order to express ourselves to other people around us – is theater. Theater is placing life on stage. Shouldn’t we know how to be ourselves?”
Amber Kind-Keppel ’05
Amber Kind-Keppel ’05 has just finished her seventh year as an English teacher and theater director at Whitefish Bay (Wis.) High School. She directs both the school’s annual one-act play and the musical. The one-act is a short play that competes with other schools across Wisconsin to advance to state and win awards. The musical is the largest production of the year.
Kind-Keppel was exposed to theater from an early age. She was 4 years old when her family put on a production of “The Three Little Pigs” at their cottage in northern Wisconsin. Kind-Keppel, her siblings, and her cousins starred in the play while her aunts were the directors. The family went all out to build the set, design costumes, create props and run rehearsals.
“I loved the experience and have been embracing theater ever since,” she says.
She says performing offers the ability to escape into being another person. “To become someone else and feel their pain, their joy, their motivations, their complexities is an incredibly special, challenging and enriching experience,” Kind-Keppel said. “I also love the ability I have as a performer to impact the audience. A great performance can make an audience laugh, cry, think, question, to act. I love making this happen. Impacting others through art is deeply rewarding.”
Her favorite work to direct was “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged),” which won a 2008 Critic’s Choice Award, an Outstanding Ensemble Acting Award and an Outstanding Directing Award at the Wisconsin State High School One-Act Festival.
Over the past few years, she has won four Outstanding Directing Awards, Five Critic’s Choice Awards, and Six Outstanding Acting Awards.
“A huge reason I have been able to achieve consistent success in my career is because of the phenomenal theater education I received at Ripon,” Kind-Keppel says. “Bob Amsden, Ken Hill and Susan Hill inspired me as an actor, a director and as an academic. I am forever indebted to them for all they have given me!”
Nicholas Osenberg ’11
Nicholas Osenberg graduated from Ripon College in 2011, but the love of theater that he cultivated as a student has not left him. He recently opened two theatrical shows at Lyric Arts, his local community theater in Anoka, Minn. – the musical “Annie” and the children’s show “The Further Adventures of Nick Tickle, Fairy Tale Detective.”
During the summer of 2011, Osenberg completed an internship at Peninsula Players in Door County, Wis., the longest-running professional summer stock theater in the nation. He rotated time between the scene shop, costume shop and box office.
At the height of the season, he acted alongside Lee Ernst, a notable actor of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Resident Acting Co. “It was a summer full of learning about myself and learning about the wider world of theater,” Osenberg says.
At Ripon College, Osenberg got experience in every aspect of theater. “The theater and I were inseparable for most of my time at Ripon,” he says. He was part of the College’s first 24-hour Theater Festival, which began in 2008, and participated in every production while he was at Ripon. He worked his way up the proverbial ladder, including stints as a crew member, lighting designer for two shows, stage manager and assistant director. He also attended the Kennedy Center’s American Collegiate Theater Festival.
“Ripon did a great job providing me experiences on every angle of a show,” Osenberg says. “One thing I am always grateful for is the trust I have in my education, thanks in part to the blunt and honest opinions I received from my professors about the career field I am pursuing.” He says working in Ripon College’s theater also taught him how to make amazing theater on a budget and with limited supplies.
Jaye Alderson, Allie Pasdera ’14 and Tsering Yangchen ’14 contributed to this report.