Roger Mays clearly recalls his first foray into the world of theatre, when as a high school student in Doniphan, Nebraska, the school librarian asked him to take a part in a one-act play that had just two actors. Mays recruited his best friend for the other part, rehearsed diligently, and found success with the show in a theatre competition at Doane College.
“We won best play, best actor, and best actress,” said Mays, who is retiring in May after 20 years as professor of theatre at Chadron State College. “I got hooked on theatre.”
That early venture into life onstage led Mays to a career that has included acting, directing, building sets, setting up lights, theatre management, and teaching theatre to college students in the southern U.S and in Nebraska.
A self-proclaimed theatre junkie Mays said he still gets a sense of anticipation and promise just from entering an empty theatre.
“When I walk into a theatre, there is this potential of what could be done, of what happens next,” he said. “That empty space is kind of like staring at a blank white board and looking to fill it up.”
Success in that first high school play landed Mays a scholarship to the University of Nebraska-Kearney, where he studied for a theatre degree, acted in 13 shows and held a work-study position in the department’s set shop.
“I would build sets all afternoon and rehearse most evenings,” he said. “I loved the woodworking and building too. It was like I just couldn’t get enough on both sides of the footlights.”
After graduation, Mays worked in a music store for about five years, then moved to Colorado and earned a master’s degree at the University of Denver. A move to Virginia and another music store job followed before he landed a job teaching theatre at Coker College, a private, liberal arts school in South Carolina.
“I not only taught and directed, but I was also in charge of designing sets,” Mays said.
After five years at Coker, Mays took a job with the Georgia Shakespeare Festival in Atlanta at Oglethorpe University where he later took a teaching position.
A stint as musician and actor with the Montana Repertory Theatre in Missoula followed, where Mays earned membership in the Actors Equity Association, the century-old union representing professional actors and stage managers in the U.S. Returning to Georgia, where his wife, Lucinda, was working as horticulturist at the Callaway Gardens, Mays became production manager at the Springer Opera House, an 1872 building that houses the state theatre of Georgia.
A desire to return to teaching surfaced a few years later, but Mays said he realized that a Master of Fine Arts degree was needed for college level work. He entered the MFA program at the University of Georgia, taught acting classes as a graduate assistant while completing the degree, and in summer of 1998 moved to Chadron to take the position as theatre professor.
Mays’ breadth of theatre experience has been valuable during his two decades at CSC, where he has taught diverse courses including acting, makeup, acting for the camera, directing, and children’s theatre.
Just a year after arriving in Chadron, the start of renovation work on Memorial Hall presented challenges for the CSC fine arts department, said Mays.
“All of us had to move to Old Admin,” he said. “We couldn’t do plays. We didn’t have an auditorium. We were scrambling during that year. That was a pretty fond memory.”
The sacrifice proved worthwhile, though, because of the improvements made to the main auditorium and the smaller upstairs stage, now known as the Black Box Theatre. The project included upgrades to the stage and sound and lighting systems in the main auditorium and a complete makeover of the upstairs theatre to allow seating on all sides of the stage.
“It ended up changing not just how we do plays, but what plays we do,” Mays said.
The CSC theatre department has staged four shows each year since Mays arrived, and photo collages from each production adorn the hallway walls outside his second floor office in Memorial Hall. Mays said he can recall details from every one of the shows. “I remember every one of them so vividly,” he said.
He looks back with pride at the 10 years he spent working with the Post Playhouse at Fort Robinson State Park, where he directed plays, ran the box office, and helped raise the level of professionalism of the popular summer theatre company.
“Not that I accomplished that, but I was in at the beginning of the transformation,” he said.
Starting a children’s theatre workshop at CSC is another contribution to the community from Mays’ tenure.
“We create a production that we take on tour to the elementary schools in the area,” he said. “Students in those grades in these small towns don’t get a chance for live theatre very often. I think it’s important for us to fill that niche,” he said.
The touring production course is only offered every three years, but Mays has also collaborated with the Chadron Public Library Foundation to provide a free show for younger students every year.
“I think we are doing a huge service for younger audiences,” he said. “We have done so much to plant seeds of live performance, literature and all of those cultural seeds.”
The Pine Ridge Job Corps Center south of Chadron has also benefitted from CSC’s theatre outreach efforts.
“We always have Job Corps come for a preview of every show we have ever done,” said Mays. ”They have a free show and we have a preview audience,” he said. “That’s been going on for 15 years. That’s a real fond memory of mine.”
Pressed to select a favorite show from his 20 year tenure, Mays lands on “Big River.” That 2014 show, a musical retelling of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” featured professional actor D. Kevin Williams in the role of Jim. Williams’ work before and during the show gave students an example of excellence to strive for, said Mays.
“That one was fun,” he said. “I wonder if it didn’t create some momentum that we are still enjoying.”
But Mays said the students he has worked with top the list of his favorite memories of working at CSC, and he particularly enjoyed advising those who are the first in their family to attend college.
“I was a bit surprised to find how common that was,” he said. “I always enjoyed sitting down and talking to them.”
Mays said he encountered many students who hope to pursue a theatre education degree, but advised them to consider another major with a theatre minor, as few Nebraska schools have full time theatre teaching positions. “If you have both (theatre and another subject) on your resume, that’s where you are going to be on top of the pile,” he said.
Watching CSC students take that advice and go on to successful careers that include theatre work, Mays said he’s pleased with the results.
”I feel like we are making a real impact in the quality of performances that occur within our service region,” he said.
That’s important, because of the richness that live theatre adds to everyone’s lives, said Mays.
“Theatre is life, with all of the dull bits cut out,” he said, paraphrasing a well-known quote from acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock. “We can extract significance from this, whether it’s a Greek tragedy, or Shakespeare or a Neil Simon comedy…It’s a shared emotional experience.”
Retirement plans for Mays include staying in Chadron for at least a few years while Lucinda continues her horticultural work as CSC grounds supervisor, continued activity with the Campus Arboretum volunteers and plenty of fishing.
“To me successful fishing means I’ve got to get into the rhythm of nature and what’s going on below the water,” he said. ‘It’s more like church to me. I want to get spiritually connected to this day and this world.”
Theatre will remain a passion, though, even if Mays isn’t on stage himself.
“I find myself home alone…and I’ll just start in on a speech that I know and try to play it…and take in what it means to me,” he said. “When I’m done, I go ‘I enjoyed that.’”