Associate Professor Henry MacCarthy: Miracle man on the run

<em>Photo by: Alex Messenger</em>
Photo by: Alex Messenger

Within three weeks of arriving at Gustavus in the fall of 2007, Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance Henry MacCarthy had a whirlwind schedule. “We had to think up a set and costume design for columbinus in one week,” he explained.  The week after that, he cast students he had never met before, and the week after that he defended his dissertation on Caribbean Musical Theater at Ohio University.

“Oh, and for most of last year, I only knew how to get to my house, my office and the Co-op,” he said.

But this sort of whirlwind schedule has been the norm for MacCarthy for many years, and this week was no exception. On Friday, the Gustavus Theatre Department will present its spring comedy, Carlo Goldoni’s The Impresario from Smyrna, the fourth play MacCarthy has directed in the last two years.

But MacCarthy’s story actually begins in Florida. It was there that his Venezuelan father met his Columbian mother while enrolled at the University of Miami. Soon, they moved back to Venezuela, where MacCarthy grew up learning English as a second language. “I thought I was pretty good at it,” MacCarthy said. “Then I came to do my undergrad at American University [in Washington, D.C.], and I found out I was actually terrible. They wouldn’t even let me take classes until I went through ESL first.”

But after three years of International Studies, MacCarthy realized his heart was not in it. He returned to Venezuela and auditioned for the theatre conservatory in Caracas. As the first-born male in his family, such a move strayed far from the expected path of doctor, lawyer or accountant. “Growing up, whenever my dad and I would fight, I’d always assure him, ‘Don’t worry, at least I’m not going to study theatre.’” His family supported his choices, however, and after four years, MacCarthy graduated with a B.A. in theatre performance.
MacCarthy’s first big break came with the National Theatre Company of Venezuela. After a grueling three-day audition process, he landed the part of King Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was twenty-five years old. The director took him back out to the lobby after the audition and warned him that there were no divas in the company and that they simply needed hard-working people.

MacCarthy still carries this work ethic today. “There’s no doubt that he’s pushed me, that I’ve worked my hiney off for him in a myriad of situations, but there’s also no doubt that there’s almost no one I’d rather work my hiney off for,” said Sophomore Religion Major Bethany Ringdal, who worked with MacCarthy in this fall’s production of The Lesson.

In the years following his acting break, MacCarthy doggedly pursued the craft. He began writing and directing small productions of his own, and soon discovered an interest in opera. After interviewing at the three American graduate schools with a program in Opera Directing, MacCarthy settled on Indiana University.

And not a moment too soon. The political situation in Venezuela had grown increasingly unstable, and living in the country was no longer safe. “A man was murdered outside my building for his shoes,” MacCarthy said. “The situation was really nasty.”

While completing his studies at Indiana University, MacCarthy directed regional operas and attended workshops over the summers. He returned to Venezuela every other year to direct operas, including Carmen and Sweeney Todd. Although MacCarthy enjoyed working with young students in his plays, he knew a college teaching job would be difficult to secure without a Ph.D.

So, after a grueling program at Ohio University, he earned his Ph.D. and began looking for a school that would value his experience as an artist as well as a scholar. Gustavus Adolphus College was looking for a professor and a director, and MacCarthy applied for the position.
Shortly after securing the job, the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy occurred. In keeping with the department’s mission of social justice theatre, MacCarthy knew his first play should therefore be columbinus, a dramatic piece exploring the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.

The production was a challenge. The entire cast broke down during the initial read-through, and the proposed set design was a daunting challenge, but Adjunct Instructor of Theatre and Dance and Costume Designer Andrea Gross said the work was worth it.

“Henry’s enthusiasm is infectious. He always brings a strong vision to the table, and the conversations that we have and the solutions we come up with as a team are extremely rewarding,” said Gross.

MacCarthy produces plays from a range of genres, including the dramatic, the whimsical and the abstract. For his latest production, MacCarthy tackles the hilarious backstage world of opera, full of its raging divas, manipulative agents and the habitual reliance on the casting couch. The production, set in 1760s Venice, boasts a sprawling golden set, authentic period costumes, wigs and makeup.

“The cast and our crew have worked so hard; I am very proud of them,” said MacCarthy. “These truly are amazing students.”

His first advisee, Junior Theatre and English Double Major Andrea Gullixson, believes it is MacCarthy who is the amazing one. “Once he signed my theatre major form as my advisor, he told me that it was an incredibly proud moment for him, and asked if he could give me a hug,” said Gullixson.

Ringdal shares a similar view of MacCarthy. “Henry is at least 800 kinds of magnificent,” said Ringdal. “When you’re with him, you know you’re with an artist.”

MacCarthy’s latest play is showing May 1, 2 and 8 at 8:00 p.m. and May 3 and 9 at 2:00 p.m.