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Southeast Missouri State University

Dr. Kenneth Stilson


Dr. Kenneth Stilson, professor of the Department of Theatre and Dance, continues to challenge the belief that “those who can’t do, teach.” His award-winning play, Fire Lily, was picked up by an independent film company with production beginning this summer. His professional and artistic success demonstrates his philosophy: “Only those who can do should teach.”

Stilson said the original play was titled Where the Lilies Grow and won the critics award at the Edward Albee Theatre Conference. It was performed in Hollywood at the Hudson Theatre by the American Academy of Dramatic Art. From there, it was re-written with the title Independence Day and selected by Victory Film Productions, Inc. However, in light of the blockbuster flick of the same title, Stilson re-named it Fire Lily.

 “Fire Lily is the tale of a sparkling person trapped in a putrid existence. Inspired in part by Henrik Ibsen’s great 19th-century drama, A Doll’s House, it is a ‘coming-of-age’ film about the maturation of a 22-year-old girl living in a small Midwestern town who emerges from the drama of love, sex and relationships.”

Once it is complete, the film will be entered into a number of festivals around the world during late 2007 and early 2008.

“Hopefully it will be picked up by a distributor and released at large from there. I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed.”

Not only has Stilson written a critically acclaimed play, he also is in control of the authorship for a textbook used by over 150 universities worldwide. He said the first edition of Acting is Believing was written in 1954 by Charles McGaw, dean of the Goodman School of Drama. It soon became a staple in university acting classes across the country. After McGaw passed away, Larry D. Clark, chair of theatre at the University of Missouri-Columbia, took over as the singular author of editions five, six and seven.

“Dr. Clark was an extraordinary teacher and writer, and I was lucky enough to have him as my advisor throughout graduate school. He taught the likes of Tom Berenger, an academy-award nominee, and Chris Cooper, an academy-award winner.”

Stilson said when Dr. Clark retired, the publisher of Acting is Believing wanted an eighth edition. In 2002, Stilson received an exciting phone call.

“I had kept in touch with Dr. Clark after graduating, but of all the people he had mentored over the years, he called me out of the blue and offered for me to take over the authorship of all subsequent editions. It was very humbling, and very scary.”

After growing up in Malden, Mo. and graduating from Malden High School, Stilson received his bachelor of fine arts degree from Southeast and both his master of fine arts degree and doctorate degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia. As a faculty member at Southeast for six years, Stilson said he has great love for all of the visual and performing arts.

“I don’t really believe people choose to become artists. It’s like a vocation. It’s simply what I do, who I am. I could never envision doing anything else.”

Stilson said his greatest inspiration was his eighth grade English teacher, Dr. Mary Prentice, because she encouraged him to make a difference.

“As a boy, my family lived in a small town and had little money. Even at that young age, I believed my options were limited. When no one else seemed to be paying attention, Dr. Prentice pulled me aside and said, ‘You can do anything you want. You can go anywhere you want.’ On the day I received my Ph.D., she drove five hours to celebrate with me and my family. She left me a note which read, ‘Remember young Dr. Stilson; if you wish to be the great teacher I think you want to be, you must always remain a student.’ I consider myself to be a student of life and a student of art. I don’t have all of the answers, but I will spend the rest of my life asking questions.”

Stilson said his teaching style can be summed up in the poem "Apollonaire Said" by Christopher Logue:

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
So they came.
and he pushed.

and they flew.

“Students find it difficult to take notes while I teach, because my class is an artistic laboratory filled with experiments designed to teach them to recognize both their failures and successes. Some students think I’m a little too intense and too animated when talking about my art, but othersᾰthe ones who know me from productionᾰknow that I’m really just a goofball. I’m a guy who likes to have a good time but I’m very serious about my work.”

Stilson’s favorite moments in teaching are witnessing a student make a breakthrough as an artist or get a job as a working professional.

“This summer alone, we have over 40 of our majors working professionally in the field. Watching the Department of Theatre and Dance develop over the years has been very rewarding. We have created what we hope to be the best undergraduate liberal arts theatre and dance program in the Midwest.”

Stilson said he likes to believe each of his students will become passionate and innovative leaders in their art and in their world. He said it’s important not to be afraid of failure.

“Success comes from failure. Take risks, lots of risks. Be a student your entire life. Also, eat an oyster every day – now that’s dangerous eating!”