This Reunion of SMU Drama Grads Includes Names and Faces You’ll Know

This weekend’s two-day get-together in Studio City, Calif., of dozens of SMU theater grads from the 1970s and ’80s might turn out to be the greatest cast ever assembled of accomplished middle-aged American character actors from stage, screen and television.

The guest list, according to reunion planner Judi Dickerson (MFA, class of ’81), includes Tony- and Emmy-award winner Debra Monk, four-time Emmy and double Golden Globe nominee Patricia Richardson (all for her role as the mom on ABC’s Home Improvement), Broadway-TV-film veteran Dylan Baker (a three-time Emmy nominee for his guest spots on The Good Wife), Broadway star Donna Bullock, ubiquitous movie and TV actor Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day, ABC’s The Goldbergs and the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley), Bill Fagerbakke (Dauber on ABC’s Coach, the cop in the Oscar-winning film The Artist and the voice of Patrick Star on SpongeBob), Saundra Santiago (of Miami Vice and The Sopranos, on which she played both of the Cusamano twins), Patrick Garner (from all the Law & Orders), Pulitzer-winning playwright Beth Henley and many, many more.

The reason for the party? Mainly to honor three of SMU’s much-loved former theater professors: Jack Clay, who chaired the department in the Meadows School of the Arts from 1968 to 1985, and voice teacher Margaret “Peggy” Loft (now both in their 90s); and movement and fight choreography teacher Jim Hancock.

Dickerson, who’s worked in Hollywood for years as a dialect coach, helping stars such as Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe sound authentically American, started planning the reunion last May. In a Facebook group for SMU drama grads, someone had suggested doing something to recognize how much Clay, Loft and Hancock influenced the lives and careers of so many actors, directors and writers, and “the idea stuck,” says Dickerson by phone from her LA home.

“Jack Clay was the first one to say, `I’ll be there,’ and then all these other people said they wanted to come. The ones who can’t be there are sending in messages to be read at the dinner,” says Dickerson. (Those are expected to include Oscar winner Kathy Bates and Emmy winner Powers Boothe.)

Longtime Dallas theater actors Gail Cronauer, Terry Vandivort, Pam Dougherty and Wendy Welch are flying out for the bash. “This is going to be a time to reconnect with friends and classmates, many of whom haven't seen each other for decades, to share memories, stories and pictures, and to remember those we've lost,” says Welch, who graduated from SMU in 1980. “And it will be a unique opportunity to see, honor, celebrate and thank the faculty who shaped so many artists’ careers.”

Calling it a “once in a lifetime gathering,” Judi Dickerson says the Friday and Saturday events will feature personal tributes from individual grads, “remembering what an extraordinary time and place it was to be at SMU in the Jack Clay years. It will be like a roast without the meanness.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, SMU’s undergraduate and graduate theater programs were among the most rigorous in the country, says Dickerson. SMU then was one of 10 colleges in the now-defunct League of Professional Theater Training Programs, along with Juilliard and NYU. To admit just 12 new students a year into SMU’s theater MFA program, Clay would travel the country auditioning prospects, says Dickerson. (He found her in Idaho.)

Once students were in the SMU program, says Dickerson, “we were under a lot of pressure to meet certain standards. They wanted us to be able to go into any play walking, talking and behaving the way the characters did in any period. We learned how to hold a snuff box. How to do sword fights for Hamlet or Peter Pan. We were given training with phonetics. You had to be in great physical shape. Your voice had to be right.”

(In a long ago interview with Saundra Santiago when she was on Miami Vice, the actress told me she was placed on “voice probation” one year into her MFA studies at SMU. And I’ve heard stories, unconfirmed, that Kathy Bates was put on “weight probation.” Neither voice nor weight has held either of these actresses back in their long careers.)

“Yes, things were said to us as students that were really harsh and wounding,” Dickerson recalls. “They broke you down and put you on a physical journey, realigning your body, voice and spirit. Freeing your inhibitions. And in nine months, you were transformed. The teachers then were all at a level of brilliance and passion that was just rare. At the end of the day, they’re forgiven. Because they wanted us to know it to our very marrow. It wasn’t, `Let’s put on a show.’ We were blessed by these people. And we want to honor them and have a lot of hugs and tears with them and for each other.”

And it’s a good bet that nobody will be acting.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner