Two of Ohio Wesleyan’s theatre luminaries—professor and former student—take center stage as they reunite to bring the award-winning play “Artifice” to campus.
On a balmy mid-February weekend this year, laughter permeated the Studio Theatre of Chappelear Drama Center. The comedic play “Artifice” had the audience smiling throughout its four-performance sold-out run.
The story centers on East Coast elite wannabes who attend a private art reception at the home of an art dealer’s upstate New York home. When the eccentric characters are snowed in, the guests —egotistical artists, conniving dealers, and vengeful wealthy patrons—become entangled in a tale of mistaken identities, secret schemes, jealous lovers, and financial ruin.
The scenario had all the makings of ploy and pretense, but for its director and writer, the performance had a very real and special behind-the-scenes significance: The play marked the reunion of its director and Ohio Wesleyan theatre professor Bonnie Milne Gardner ’77 and her former student and theatre major Anne Flanagan ’87, who wrote the award-winning play. The occasion also celebrated the OWU theatre alumni and faculty connection.
Creating Art and Connections
For Gardner, the George and Louise Peters Professor of Theatre & Dance, and Flanagan, both award-winning playwrights, the opportunity to work together again after so many years was a fitting tribute. Gardner retires this year from the Department of Theatre and Dance after 31 years teaching playwriting, American drama, and theatre education. “Artifice” marks her final production as an OWU faculty member. The play opened on February 18, and Flanagan was brought back to campus as a guest artist.
“Having Anne here for the packed houses meant so much to the cast and crew,” Gardner says. “They loved hearing her stories of the journey from acting on the OWU stage to getting her work performed on multiple continents.
“I’m so grateful that the department’s Hunter-Eyssen-Crosby Guest Fund for guest artists enabled us to make that happen. It is an endowment created by theatre alums to honor three wonderful professors who built our program in the mid 1900s.”
Flanagan says, “Not only did I have the pleasure of watching my play performed incredibly well, but I was able to meet with the delightful theatre students and hold a Q&A about my show biz experiences, which I hope was more informative than depressing,” she laughs.
“It was wonderful to reconnect with Bonnie and the uber-talented Glen Vanderbilt (OWU professor of theatre), plus the performances were completely sold out. We were a hot ticket!”
The students participating in the production were equally thrilled. Sarah Shulman, who played one of the leading roles, calls it “an incredible experience.”
“The rehearsal process was both fun and educational,” she says. “Professor Gardner emphasized parts of the rehearsal that brought both an inward character focus as well as an outward reaction toward the rest of the cast. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to act under Prof Gardner’s direction, and even more so for the opportunity to be a part of her last show!”
Gardner has had more than 20 scripts produced by professional, community, and educational theatres in Alaska, California, Florida, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. A member of the Dramatists Guild, she has worked professionally as a director and arts administrator. She also has been an active dramaturg, an arts advocate who creates links between artists and institutions, and institutions and their communities.
Among Gardner’s many accolades are two awards for Excellence in Playwriting from the Ohio Arts Council, and in 2011 she was awarded the Welch Meritorious Teaching Award. She was named a finalist at the Edward Albee Playwriting Conference and at San Diego’s Human Rights Theatre Festival. In 2001 she published The Playwright-Director in American Theatre.
The first connection between Gardner and Flanagan came in 1985, during Gardner’s first year as a professor at OWU, and in her first production, “The Art of Dining,” a culinary comedy by Tina Howe. The play starred then-OWU junior Flanagan, who played the role of Ellen, a chef whose husband eats almost all the food before she can serve it at their gourmet restaurant.
In order to prepare Flanagan and her “husband” Cal, played by Eric Winzenried ’88, for the part of gourmet restaurant owners, Gardner arranged for chef Kent Rigsby ’75, then a chef at Lindey’s Restaurant & Bar in German Village, to instruct the young actors on culinary cues such as how to prepare a meal, pour wine, and hold a knife. A famed chef, Rigsby went on to operate the iconic Columbus restaurant Rigsby’s Kitchen for 29 years.
Flanagan, who also majored in journalism and minored in psychology, recalls the fun she had with her “Dining” character. “I love comedy that comes out of character,” she says. “As an audience member, I find it really enjoyable, and as an actor, it’s incredibly fun to play.”
“The Art of Dining” remains one of her favorite plays, she adds, because of the food and the social issues and gender politics in it. Still, she says, “For as much as I think plays can and should challenge people, there is also room for a play that simply makes people laugh.”
For Flanagan, who lives in Los Angeles, coming back to Delaware to see Gardner direct her play was an exciting opportunity to celebrate and reconnect with her mentor.
“Bonnie brought a refreshing, positive energy to the department,” she says. “She focused on female playwrights, and she helped me find my voice. Plus, I was thrilled to have a female professor.”
Flanagan remembers Gardner’s guidance as she prepared her one-woman senior project production. “That project was a big leap for me,” she says. “Bonnie really helped me see it through.”
Flanagan moved to New York City after graduation to pursue acting, primarily improvisational comedy. In 1992 she moved to Los Angeles, where she found film and television work. She landed small parts in several major films in 1994, including the thrillers The Last Seduction, starring Linda Fiorentino and Bill Pullman; Disclosure, featuring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore; and White Mile, with Alan Alda and Peter Gallagher.
After a few years the Delaware native says she “got stuck” at a certain level as an actress. “I kept getting boring ‘girlfriend parts’ and there was a lot of just sitting around,” she says, so she started writing plays.
She wrote monologues for herself and friends to perform, short plays, and eventually full-length scripts. Her work went on to win a number of awards, including the Bloomington Playwrights Project/Reva Shiner Comedy Award (for “Artifice”), the Julie Harris/Janet and Maxwell Salter Playwrights Award, the McLaren Memorial Comedy Award, the Mountain Playhouse Comedy Award, and the Playwright’s Theater “Plays for the 21st Century” Award, among others.
Her latest play, “Lineage,” is a finalist for the Strange Sun Theatre’s Greenhouse Project and was a finalist for the Henley-Rose Award in 2015.
Gardner says Flanagan sent her an early draft of “Artifice” a number of years ago. Flanagan revised the draft several times from 2006 to 2010, before it premiered at the Bloomington Playwright’s Theatre. The theatre sent the play to a publisher, which published it in 2012. “Artifice” has since been performed throughout the United States, Canada, and as distant as New Zealand. Inspired by her love of Agatha Christie, Flanagan says she always saw “Artifice” as “an ensemble piece where everyone is a strong character.”
Gardner came across “Artifice” in 2014 when she was looking for her last play to direct as a faculty member—one “with good roles for women.”
“I got a copy of the published form and loved it.”
All in the “Art” Family
“Artifice” also has reunited former “The Art of Dining” castmates and theatre faculty, including theatre professor D. Glen Vanderbilt Jr., who created the set design in the 1985 production and assisted with the props and set dressing for the 2016 show.
Brad Sadler ’04, who teaches part-time in OWU’s theatre department, played the role of Mick and choreographed the fight scenes; Zoe Crankshaw ’15, who is technical director for theatre at the Columbus School for Girls, designed the lights; and Emeritus Fine Arts faculty Marty Kalb provided original abstract art works to be used on the set. Gardner says she took Kalb’s two-dimensional design course in her first semester as a student in fall 1973.
As if the OWU “theatre family” link couldn’t go any further, Gardner in 1987 directed the play “Volleys,” written by OWU Emeritus Professor of English Robert Flanagan, Anne’s father, in the same black box theatre where she’s directing his daughter’s play.
In between playwriting jobs, Flanagan teaches theatre part time for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and she is CEO of Health Education Advocates, LLC, a company that teaches medical students patient care techniques. For over 10 years, she worked as a freelance private investigator, a job where she learned “a lot about public records, not-so-public records, and sneaking around LA’s back alleys.”
As for Gardner’s future, she plans to spend more time writing. She adds that leaving Ohio Wesleyan and moving out of state with her husband, Bruce, will be bittersweet, since three generations of her family have attended OWU, where she’s made lifelong friends.
“I’ll definitely miss the fabulous students,” she says. “They have taught me more than I can say, and served as inspiring collaborators over the years. There’s only one thing I love more—writing—and I look forward to days filled with nothing but!
“Bruce and I plan to simply run away from home.”
Lisa Lopez Snyder is managing editor of OWU Magazine.