The University of Iowa

Interview with professor of theatre arts, Eric Forsythe

After 30 years at the University of Iowa, Eric Forsythe is set to retire.

Forsythe, a professor of theatre arts, head of the directing program, and artistic director for Iowa Summer Repertory Theatre, arrived at the UI in 1986 and has deep ties to the university; his parents, Henderson and Dorothea Forsythe, were both actors who met as undergraduates at the UI in the 1930s. They later relocated to New York City, where his father acted in television, film, and Broadway productions, eventually winning a Tony Award.

Raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, Forsythe received training as a child actor at the Erie Playhouse before earning a BA in theater from Dartmouth and an MFA and PhD from Carnegie Mellon University.

During his time at Iowa, Forsythe has directed or acted in more than 100 UI productions, in addition to work outside the university.

Forsythe will retire after the 2017 spring semester, and his current play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, will mark his final directorial role as a UI faculty member. The play will run Nov. 10–19 and will be presented at the David Thayer Theatre in the UI Theatre Building.

Forsythe sat down with Iowa Now to talk about his final play and his career at the UI.

So what does it feel like to be directing your last play as a UI faculty member?

I tend to get focused on the work in front of me, so I haven’t dwelled on it too much, but I’ve enjoyed this play in many of the same ways I enjoyed the others. I really love what I do. I love working with students and professionals. I love finding a way to mix professional actors, designers, and directors with our students. Finding a way to bring professional standards to the work that the students are doing is very gratifying, so it’s been a meaningful career.

What can you tell us about Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike?

It’s about a middle-aged brother and sister who haven’t done much with their lives. They’re living comfortably because their other sister is a movie star and has been sending them money. They haven’t bothered to get jobs and are living in their childhood home without their parents, who are deceased. Things change when the other sister comes home with a new boyfriend and decides she wants to sell the house so she can retire from acting, and that sets off the events of the play.

It’s a comedy, but there are serious moments as well. I have a great love for the tonal complexity of the play, the mix of serious and comedic material.

What are some highlights from your career at the UI?

Some of the biggest productions we did come to mind. The Kentucky Cycle (a series of nine one-act plays) which is a massive, two-evening work we did in Summer Repertory was special for me because I was able to work with the playwright, Robert Schenkkan, who was a guest of Summer Rep., as well as a mix of student and professional actors and designers.

This was pre-Broadway; they had done one production in Seattle, but they wanted to rework it. So he chose the UI as the place to do it, and so we were able to do that developmental work here, and that had an impact on how that worked developed, and then it opened on Broadway later that year. That was a unique and special experience.

And I’ve loved working with new playwrights, and a lot of the work we do here is with new playwrights. Also, prominent playwrights, such as Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, Lanford Wilson, and so many others have sent us plays that we’ve produced here.

How has the department changed since you arrived?

It really hasn’t changed all that much. The focus, the collegiality, the respect that we have for each other, the fact that we demand the best from each other, has been consistent throughout. If it at any time that had not been the case, I would be working somewhere else. I find all those things here and all of those elements are important to a joyous professional life, and I feel I’ve had that.

What have you learned from your students?

Students teach me things all the time. They remind me of things I may have forgotten; they remind me of my youth. They help give me a perspective that is so different from my older perspective, which I think keeps me young, vital, and on my toes. They challenge me to be better than I would have been by interacting with just old professionals. Students will always amaze me with the unpredictability of their questions. It makes me look at people more fully, in terms of the potential you can find in them. It’s so gratifying when people call you five years after they left and tell you how they used something from a class in their professional work.

What are you plans for the future?

I’m leaving my plans open. I’m very much a present-tense person. I think that’s what artists need to be. People keep saying I should have a plan for retirement, that I’m going to have all this time on my hands. But I’m focusing on this last show right now, and I’ll handle the next step when it’s time.

However, I’m sure I’ll continue working as a director and actor and doing voiceover work, and I may direct some more plays at the UI as a freelance director if I’m asked to.

I also have two children who are both students here at the University of Iowa. My daughter is an undergraduate creative writing and theater double major, and my son is a graduate student in organic chemistry. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.