This spring, Suzan Zeder and Dr. Coleman Jennings retired from the University of Texas at Austin. Incredible leaders in Theater for Young Audiences and mentors to hundreds of graduate students who are working all over the world. Of course, being who they are, Suzan and Dr. Jennings are continuing to work and contribute to our field. The following text comes from the University of Texas at Austin’s press release announcing their retirement.
Dr. Coleman A. Jennings
For Dr. Coleman A. Jennings, the art of storytelling has been a lifelong love. As a youth, he spent hours making films for the neighborhood children in his hometown of Taylor, Texas. Play upon play – from the road shows presented along Austin’s Congress Avenue to UT’s touring production of Moor Born presented at his high school – Jennings was captivated by theatre. This passion culminated into a career as a seminal professor in the evolving fields of children’s theatre and theatre for youth and communities.
Following his study at Temple Junior College and service in the Army Signal Corps, Jennings first arrived at UT as an undergraduate student in the Department of Drama in 1955. Degree in hand, he worked in the theatre as an off-Broadway stage manager in New York. He returned to UT to pursue a master’s degree in directing, and later completed his doctorate in education at New York University.
In the fall of 1963, Jennings joined the faculty of UT’s Department of Drama. Fifty years of service later, his imprint on The University of Texas at Austin, its students and patrons cannot be overstated. Jennings helped establish a mandate requiring theatre arts for all Texas elementary school students, ensuring that all children be exposed to the power of the arts.
During his tenure as department chair (1980-1992), Jennings aggressively recruited a diverse faculty including Amarante Lucero, Stephen Gerald, Omi Jones, Judy Dearing, Ted Shine and Whitney LeBlanc. And through his leadership, the department established several new student scholarships as well as the Theatre for Youth Chair held by Professor Suzan Zeder. With these funds, the Department of Theatre and Dance was able to attract and retain talented artists and educators.
Jennings has received a Texas Educational Theatre Association Founder’s Award, is an inductee into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre of the Kennedy Center, and the College of Fellows of the Southwest Theatre Association, and in 1997 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education. In 2011, he was awarded an Orlin Corey Medallion of the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. This honor recognizes Jennings’ significant achievements in theatre that have contributed to the cultural enrichment of children and youth in the United States and Canada.
Nearing his retirement from full-time teaching at UT, Jennings is busy editing a new anthology entitled Steven Dietz – Five Plays for Family Audiences (University of Texas Press, 2014). He will also continue to teach. He shares, “Through my years in this profession, I have learned that even more satisfying than creating the stories myself, is teaching others to do it.”
Professor Suzan Zeder
As a graduate student at Southern Methodist University, Professor Suzan Zeder was encouraged by Professor Charlie Helfert to write an adaptation of Wiley and the Hairy Man, a Louisiana folk tale. That play, now 40 years old, continues to be Zeder’s most produced play and helped direct the path of her accomplished career. She is recognized nationally and internationally as one of the leading playwrights for young and family audiences in the United States.
Recruited by former Department of Theatre and Dance Chair Coleman A. Jennings, Zeder joined the UT faculty in 1991. “At that time the profession really needed a safe place to develop new work,” explains Zeder. “The concepts of ‘what is a dramaturg’ and ‘what is new play development’ were just dawning on theatre for young audiences. I realized through the resources of my Theatre for Youth Chair that UT could be a home for that developmental work.”
Zeder forged UT’s New Play Development Workshop, partnering the university with national theatre companies and professional artists to develop new works. Projects included a two-year collaboration on David Saar’s The Yellow Boat with Metro Theater Company (St. Louis, MO) and Childsplay (Tempe, AZ); and Wesley Middleton’s Tomato Plant Girl, jointly premiered at Metro Theater Company and Idaho Theatre for Youth (Boise, ID).
With the untimely passing of UT Professor David Mark Cohen in 1997, Zeder became head of the department’s playwriting program. Championing Cohen’s commitment to new work, Zeder shifted resources to support student playwrights, using the same professional standards executed in the New Play Development Workshop.
In 1999, Zeder formed a coalition of students, faculty and local artists to imagine a festival honoring Cohen and supporting new plays. The Cohen New Works Festival was born. The biennial event, now one of the largest of its kind in the country, serves as an incubator and celebration for student-generated works in all mediums.
After 22 years at UT, Zeder has placed the Department of Theatre and Dance firmly center on the national stage. As a playwright, she continues to delight audiences of all ages with stories of characters struggling with and conquering real world issues, and she encourages her students to do the same.
Professor Steven Dietz, who Zeder recruited to join the faculty in 2006, shares, “Beware the student playwright who says, in passing, ‘I’ve never written a play for young audiences, but I’m toying around with an idea for one.’ I can promise you that this sentence, uttered within 20 feet of Suzan Zeder, will not only result in a play, but with Suzan’s remarkable guidance and encouragement, will likely result in a play that will garner awards and acclaim and change the trajectory of that writer’s career. The answer to hundreds of questions about the success of 20 years of UT writers is this: Suzan Zeder.”
Personally, I can’t thank Dr. Jennings and Suzan enough for their guidance, passion, mentorship, and encouragement. Attending the University of Texas at Austin for the MFA program in Children’s Theater/Creative Drama (as it was then called) was the best decision I have ever made in my career. Dr. Jennings and Suzan opened my eyes to the power and potential and the art of theater for young audiences. They encouraged my work as an actor, writer, teacher, director and leader in the field. They were incredible models for being a committed and caring teacher, a dynamic leader, and a passionate artist. They challenged me, created opportunities for me, and celebrated with me every step of my journey. Like so many other graduate students from University of Texas, I feel so fortunate to have been taught and mentored by Dr. Coleman Jennings and Suzan Zeder.