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Sean Dillon talks about his life’s work

Professor of Theater Arts Sean Dillon believes in a direct and truthful critique of his students work in class. Because of this honest approach and the many different class that he teaches, Dillon as developed strong relationships with his students. / photo by Scott Mirimanian

Kristen Campbell
Editor in Chief

As assistant professor of theater arts at the University of La Verne, Sean Dillon has devoted most of his professional life to educating the next generation of actors and project managers.

In a sit-down interview, where he sought refuge from a pouring rain, he discussed how he got into theater education, why he enjoys collaboration and the importance of enjoyable work environments.

Tell me about your academic history and how you came to be where you are now.

Well I came to be here because I have had a relationship with the University of La Verne for about 25 years, a little more actually because I was a student here. As a student I was an English major and a theater major and when I graduated I kept in touch. After I graduated I directed a main stage production here at one point and I went to work in the film industry. Then I went to graduate school and in between the film industry and graduate school, I taught an occasional course as an adjunct [professor] here. I taught in things I had a professional expertise in like screenwriting.

Then I went off to graduate school and when I came back I taught another course here, so I have had this sort of loose affiliation as an adjunct professor. I spent most of my time working in film and TV. Teaching was something I had wanted to do but it is a really difficult field to get into. I really enjoyed the times I was able to do it but there then became a time where my commitments to my primary career were such that I couldn’t really do both. I could teach one or two classes and then not be able to make a living or I could not teach and make a really good living doing what I was doing.

Years went by where I would stay in touch and come see productions. Coming back here happened because Jane Dibbell (former theater professor) retired suddenly. She had health issues that kept her from coming back to the school and on short notice; she gave her notice to retire. David Flaten (department chairman) thought that I could step in. Seeing the opportunity that I could stop my other career entirely and come over here was one that I was not going to let go by and so I jumped over here. And that was in the fall of 2006. So I have been here ever since.

Academically, I started with the University of La Verne and got my Bachelor’s degree, I went to Purdue University and I studied theater there. I studied theatrical directing and it kept me plenty busy. Especially since at that program, they only take one directing graduate per year. It was not competitive but it was demanding. I had to really be the directing grad at certain times. There was one semester where I was really the only director there because the third year graduate was off doing a project and the second year graduate was asked to leave the program. So I was alone and I worked really, really hard.

But then what do you do with a theater degree? I could start directing professionally which would have been great but I had commitments and I had gotten into a film company that showed promise in terms of a career. I ended up working at Universal Studios for six years and then for Disney for a few years after that. I dropped it all to come here when the opportunity presented itself.

Have you done anything in particular with your English degree?

Every day! I speak English. I would say all of my educational experiences have served me in the professional work I have done but it’s not like I graduated with a degree in English and then went off to be an English “thing,” right? Because even English teaching is more about teaching than it is about English. And the things I learned in theater helped me to know about dramatic structure and to know how to express things theatrically. The English part helped me understand the literature which helped me with the drama.

When I first went into production jobs, one of the first things I had to do was develop story material. My experience in English helped me immeasurably because I thought about how stories were put together and how narratives were put together. That was directly a result of my English study, of course. The theater study went together nicely because it’s not just about how story points fit together, but how they fit together within the restrictive media of film or TV. Learning to express myself in a written way, which I had to do with production notes and reports, was a result of being able to write effectively. I couldn’t have done as well in grad school without my English study because if I was turning in big written projects I didn’t have any problem with it. People that studied exclusively theater didn’t have that extra dimension of undergraduate training, so it was easier for me. I didn’t take any professional careers directly out of English but everything pretty much comes directly out of it, if that makes sense.

That’s how I feel about theater. If I am going to behave responsibly with respect to the students I am teaching here, I am not going to train them to be Broadway stars any more than a professor in the athletics program is going to tell their students to be a professional athlete. What I can do is say that theater has a lot to teach us about life, culture and how people work together. We learn how to express ourselves creatively and how to communicate complex ideas effectively. If they learn how to apply those thought processes, the stage manager of today can be the project manager at a corporate environment tomorrow. The person who does play analysis can express other things in other environments.

I try to help my students broaden their horizons rather than narrow it down to just theater.

Do you enjoy directing or writing more? Film, TV or theater?

That is a really tough question. I am fortunate that I am able to do all of it because I don’t feel like I have to make a living off all of it. Directing for the stage, to me, is something I am really passionate about and something I enjoy discussing with other people which is why I enjoy teaching.

Of writing and directing, I do them both, but I enjoy directing more. And generally speaking, my writing has been one of my avenues to directing. When I write, I choose more often than not to work with a collaborator because it’s artistic collaboration that excites me. Sitting alone in front of a computer screen is not as much fun and it is not the exchange of ideas I am passionate about. But when I work with a partner, even if I am occasionally working by myself and sending work somewhere else, it is about the exchange of ideas, which is a vital process.

In directing, you are doing that by necessity. You are working collaboratively with artists of other kinds. It is not just like working with another writer, but it’s about sharing a vision of something and realizing it in a project.

The difference I find in directing for the stage and directing for film or TV is due to the differing projects I have had. The TV experiences are the kinds that have had some level of attention, but not great success or financial reward. In any of those cases, I have to be content with what I have learned from them, the experiences I had in creating them and what I can get out of the finished product.

Directing for a medium like film or TV, you create something that will live in a preserved state for as long as we have it around.

Directing for the theater is like building sandcastles. You create something to the best of your ability and you unleash a lot of creative power and you can work with other people, but once you’re done, the tide is going to come in and it’s going to go away. There will be no trace of it anywhere but the vitality of having done it that one time. While it’s a little sad not to have a sense of permanency in the work you create, because even watching a video tape of a live performance is terrible, it is still a wonderful pursuit. People, myself included, get a charge out of the immediacy of it. It won’t be around forever. You don’t get a second chance. There is an immediate, irreversible thing about it.

There’s something beautiful about that. It’s like a flower that blooms, you can press it in a book but it’s not that flower anymore.

What are your plans at ULV for this year, as far as theater?

The next thing I am doing, in terms of a project, is working with a January class to create an original work, or series of original works. I am really fortunate to be working with Gabriel Gomez who is in the writing program. He became available during the January term and there is a course that I have been teaching in the past in January terms.

We usually take a theme or a source of original or existing story material and either adapt or write brand new dramatic material from it. Then the students will produce shows and those shows come together into one performance. At the start of the class, nobody knows, including me, what it will end up being. With the different passions and different students, we end up creating original story material, and produce and direct stories that fit into one cohesive show.

It is a mixed bag of who’s involved. Some are very experienced theater students and others are just intrigued by the idea. This is the first time I will be working with Gabriel Gomez and through the brief meetings we’ve had, we have some ideas as to where it will go and we can divide our attention in such a way that I can work on performing aspects and he can work on story creation, neither exclusively, but we can pay attention to what we are trained in.

Hopefully it will mean that the students will have a much richer experience creating exciting material that is close to them personally and that they can perform in late January, early February.

The last one I did resulted in a show called, “Not So Children’s Tales” and that was fun. It was an adaptation of the Grimm Fairy Tales. We started with around 240 fairy tales and the class winnowed down to the ones we felt strongly about. We discarded the fragmentary stories and the ones that are overdone like Snow White. Some of the chosen ones were gory and graphic and just plain strange. There was a puppet show, a dance number, a shadow play and original music composed by performers.

All they had was two or three stools for furniture and some fabric for costumes and props. If you needed a chair, someone got on all fours and someone sat on them. It was unusual, but I am excited to see what will happen.

What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments either here or elsewhere?

I would say here at ULV, I have directed a few shows, one of which with David Flaten. The first thing I had done flying solo was “Rabbit Hole.” It was great because I had a lot of creative freedom. I try to organize things and be a good campus citizen. I try to be respectful of the time that it takes from other people. I had a group of actors who were willing to work really hard and I had fantastic story material, so I had a great experience with that.

Whatever I work on most recently is what I fall in love with. It has to be that way; your best thing is whatever’s next.

I am most satisfied with the things that teach me something. I have to always look for some way of a project that will end up teaching me something. The first feature film I made was a horror film because my producing partner and I decided we wanted to try a feature length project. So we made a horror film that adhered to a lot of requirements of the genre. What do audience members expect when they see something like this? Truth be told, it wasn’t the resulting project that was the greatest achievement. Getting it done at all was a lot of work. Doing it under the circumstances we were under made it doubly hard because we were in the middle of the desert for two whole weeks.

Being able to rally a group of actors and crew around this crazy idea and say, “We’re going to spend 12 days on the desert floor,” and they can’t wait to go was really satisfying.

When we did, “Something Blue,” that was an achievement of a different sort because we wanted to try and shoot all of the principle footage in seven days. We shot 25 hours of footage in seven days in 27 different locations, in and around San Diego, so the pace was grueling. But knowing it was going to be that way, it took a lot of organizational skill for preproduction to prepare. There is no margin for error. Spending months in the editing room making it make sense was also satisfying.

If you give people the chance to make a wholehearted contribution, they’ll do it and be so happy to do it and you will be so happy with the result.

Is there anything you regret turning down?

I don’t spend time regretting anything. I make the choices with the best information that I have and I know I must do my best. I want to do those things that will challenge me and teach me something. I am not as motivated by money as some people that I have worked with so I am happy to work at a place like ULV because the community I work with is vibrant and caring, which you don’t always find in other working environments. That is worth a lot. No, I don’t think I regret anything. I don’t think I would enjoy being rich and famous. It doesn’t do anything for me.

You said you enjoy doing things when they teach you something. Is there any one thing you’ve learned that constantly radiates within you?

That’s hard to say. When I say I want to do something that teaches me something, I usually choose a project specifically because it is something I want to learn. When I started working in the video medium, I didn’t go to school for that. I had to teach myself sometimes. I wanted to learn. I thought, “Let’s do something that will let me express a style on camera.”

I like things that have specific targets. They are always something that are fun to do and would include people we enjoy working with, and would improve our skills. If I create the right working environment, the work is no longer a chore. I can go back and work with the same people over again. They come back because they enjoyed the environment. As a director I have to create an environment to allow creative freedom. Actors want to work and do things. For all the people that want to make a living, they deserve to be compensated. Finding work is the most difficult part of the work.

I always have a set respectful of the work; I try to offer clear guidance without being difficult. I try to make people feel good about the work they do. People then come back and want to work with me again and again.

I learned that if I do my homework and I prepare and organize the way that I should, then the people I work with will have an experience that will create their best and will finish with the best possible feeling. That’s my lesson for working. I think every part is important. Just don’t wing it; be prepared for what you do and you will be in the best position for success and work effectively.

Actors are the only people we expect to do emotional labor. They are doing their best work when they are vulnerable. If you don’t respect that vulnerability, or aren’t grateful for it, they won’t do it again. I have to be that safety net. If you try something and fail, I respect that you’ve tried it. Even trying is hard for people.

Creating a good environment is key because you don’t want to pound your fist and raise your voice and do all of those things. You do have to be firm about importance, but you don’t yell about things that are important to only you. Lead them don’t push them. I have to set the example. If everyone is tired, you still have to be in light spirits if you expect them to push through the tiredness.

Kristen Campbell can be reached at kristen.campbell@laverne.edu.

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