by Kory Riemensperger
It’s difficult to direct and produce a dramatic performance without a stage to call home. This year, Tech theater professor Mark Creter made it work.
When the Backdoor Playhouse, a theater space in Jere Whitson Memorial Building, closed for renovations this year he received a full inbox from alumni asking if the Playhouse would reopen? When? How would this impact theater at Tech?
“One of Tech theater’s strongest traditions is consistency,” said Creter. “When I first arrived, we started rehearsing and performing four plays every year. No matter the roadblock, we’re still doing three or four shows a season.”
Mark Creter began a nine-month contract at Tennessee Tech University in 1992. Twenty-two years later, he’s still growing Tech’s theater program one actor at a time.
Creter is the longest-serving director of Tech Players, the university’s official drama club. He’s an authority on the group, having conducted exhaustive research on shows back to the ’50s. Allusions to a “little theater group” in copies of the Oracle from the ’30s exist, but Tech Players was created in 1955.
“I’ve always loved college. I think it’s because I always had teachers I could count on to inspire me,” said Creter. “The best ones were always honest, and that kind of a relationship in theater is crucial to success.”
Tech Players is linked to the Backdoor Playhouse, where the club has performed since its creation. When he arrived at Tech, Creter says he found the infrastructure wanting – a closed Backdoor Playhouse and a small budget for sets – but the pool of student interest was rich.
“Backdoor Playhouse was my home on campus and the company of artists there were my best friends,” said Matthew Bassett, ’03 English. “I found a community that trained actors as individual artists and as collaborators. I learned almost every job in the theater in the Backdoor and now, as a professional director, actor and educator, I have a stronger understanding for and appreciation for my medium.”
Auditions for Creter’s first show were conducted in an old mechanical building. He tried to shape the entire dramatic process as close to his professional experience with acting in Knoxville, a process for teaching he continues to follow.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I moved. I was surprised to find this litany of talented and enthusiastic students who just needed a direction in which to go. I figured the best way to do that would be as a director and teacher.”
To accommodate performances while the Backdoor Playhouse is remodeled, Creter and Tech Players transformed a storage room in Foundation Hall into the Talon Theater. The performance space is smaller, but a collection of couches and old props keep the student-focused charm of the Playhouse.
For Creter, understanding the student experience is the most important part of education. It’s not unusual to attend a student-directed performance and see him on-stage. The professor participated in Tech Player’s November show “Never the Sinner.”
“I don’t ever want to forget what it’s like to be an actor. Part of teaching theater is understanding the intricacies of live performance: the backstage butterflies; the excitement of opening night or the reaction when something goes wrong on-stage.”
Alumni of his instruction make it clear this style of intimate education has prepared them for a life in the dramatic arts. Many of them have gone on to study, teach and perform in colleges and theaters across the country.
Amy Byrne, ’07 world cultures and business, works as education director for the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. She credits Creter with providing rural Tennessee students access to an arts education, but also for maintaining a friendship after graduation.
“In my youth, theater was this fun thing I went to watch at the Backdoor Playhouse. In college, it kept me sane. Now, it’s my profession,” said Byrne. “Mark has this great knack for bringing out talent in people they didn’t even know they had. He’s the person I call when I need to talk about ‘the business’ and how things are going for me professionally.”
A recurring theme in Creter’s teaching style is the combination of honesty and humor. Alumni prefer calling him Mark over Mr. Creter, and though every student has a story to share about how Mark made their experience memorable, they also credit the professor with keeping them focused during rehearsals and performances.
Richard Strahan, ’97 technical communications, remains involved in theater though he works as an architect for Tech.
“Mark was always a big brother figure to us,” said Strahan. “He could have as much goofy fun as any of us, but when it was time to work, he got serious and expected us to pull our weight. He expected us not to take our jobs lightly but instead treat it as a serious commitment. That ethic allowed many of us to bridge the gap between theater as a hobby and theatre as a life pursuit.”
As a life pursuit, Creter takes the alumni-education relationship role seriously. This year, Creter traveled to music festival Bonnaroo with Matthew Bassett, ’03 English. Between musical acts, the duo discussed theater education and drafted a plan to host “Never the Sinner” at Tech.
“Mark pushes actors to find the best individual expression of their character’s story through example — he’s a director and teacher of inspiring enthusiasm and hunger for strong, clear storytelling — and through individual attention and care,” said Bassett. “He works through humor rather than fear, joy rather than frustration, making his rehearsals fun and focused.”