Jack Tale Players to honor children's theater pioneer McCaslin

Lana A. Whited
Iron Blade Advisor

Some students may not remember the name of their professors from last semester, but relationships between students and their academic mentors may endure for years, and the influence of a remarkable professor can trickle down to subsequent generations of college students. Such is the case for Dr. R. Rex Stephenson, professor of drama, and his mentor, Dr. Nellie McCaslin.

McCaslin died on Feb. 28, 2005, in New York City at age 90. She was the leading U.S. authority and one of the foremost experts in the world on children’s theatre, a field she played a huge role in professionalizing.

On March 1, the Jack Tale Players, a company mentioned in McCaslin’s widely used children’s theatre textbooks, will give a special tribute performance in Sale Theatre of Schoolfield Hall at 7:30 p.m.

The Ferrum tribute is part of a series of performances and programs worldwide honoring McCaslin’s career. “Being the kick-off for an international effort is not an everyday occurrence at Ferrum College,” said Dr. Jody D. Brown, executive director of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre.

The Jack Tale Players were founded by Stephenson 30 years ago and, in December 2005, gave their 30th anniversary performance at Callaway Elementary School, the site of their first public performance.

The March 1 performance will be a benefit for the Franklin County Humane Society, as McCaslin was an avid lover of animals and a regular volunteer at an animal shelter in Greenwich Village, where she lived for many years.

McCaslin was born Aug. 20, 1914, in Cleveland and earned degrees from (Case) Western Reserve University (B.A., M.A.) and New York University (Ph.D.). For over 30 years, she was a member of the faculty of the Steinhardt School of Education and the Program in Educational Theatre at NYU. She also served as associate dean of the Gallatin School of Individualized Study from 1972 to 1985.

One of her NYU graduate students was R. Rex Stephenson, a farm boy from Indiana who had already earned his B.S. from Ball State University and his M.A. from Indiana University when he enrolled in NYU’s doctoral program. He remembers McCaslin as a demanding professor who was very much in demand with students. “NYU had no attendance policy,” Stephenson says, but “you had to arrive at her classes early to get a seat.”

In particular, Stephenson notes her concern for students. “I once missed her class two days in a row,” he says. “She called to see if I was sick.”

He also admired his former teacher’s humility. “She knew more about children’s theatre and creative drama than any other person in the world,” he says, “but you would never have known it. She would always listen to your ideas and could normally find something positive to say.”

McCaslin instilled in Stephenson her conviction that theatre for children was not just a means of education but a legitimate artistic undertaking, and that the youngest audience members were capable of appreciating the performance as art.

McCaslin’s influence has also been felt by the students and actors Stephenson has worked with over the years. He invited Emily Rose Tucker to come to Ferrum from New York as a member of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre company in 2001. Tucker, an Alfred University graduate who now teaches in the Franklin County School System, wrote of McCaslin, “Her influence as a mentor and friend has followed me into my own work as a teacher, and, in fact, I use Nellie’s book 'Creative Drama' in my own classroom and frequently look to her for advice and inspiration. . . . I have a hard time writing about Nellie with a consistent past/present tense, because even though she is gone, she doesn’t seem gone.”

McCaslin was a fellow of the American Theatre Foundation, past president of the Children’s Theatre Association, and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from American Alliance for Theatre in Education. She published over 16 books, including two classic textbooks: Children’s Theatre in the United States: A History,” and “Creative Drama in the Classroom and Beyond.”

McCaslin remained active in theatre and in Stephenson’s professional career until the end of her life. In her late 80s, she appeared in several productions of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, and her former student Stephenson particularly enjoyed casting her against type: as an evil queen in “The New Snow White,” as a menacing wizard who enjoys throwing people into the lion’s den in “Daniel,” and as the irascible Ouiser in “Steel Magnolias.”

In the last year of her life, she addressed audiences in Japan and Israel, and, at the time of her death, she was rehearsing for a role in an NYU student production. Her last book was the eighth edition of “Creative Drama,” published a few months after her death and dedicated to R. Rex Stephenson.

The affection and respect were mutual. “I cannot think of any other teacher on whom I have tried harder to model my own teaching than Nellie,” Stephenson says. “I miss her every day.”

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