Episode 7 - Performing Arts: WSU on the National Stage

Episode 7 September 15, 2022 00:28:49
Episode 7 - Performing Arts: WSU on the National Stage
Forward Together
Episode 7 - Performing Arts: WSU on the National Stage

Sep 15 2022 | 00:28:49

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Show Notes

Episode description: In this episode of Wichita State University’s “Forward Together” podcast, President Rick Muma talks with Julius Thomas III and Amy Baker Schwiethale — two graduates of the WSU School of Performing Arts. Julius Thomas III is an actor, singer and dancer with credits in movies, television and stage —  including starring roles in […]
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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 00:00:06 Hello, shocker nation. And welcome to this month's edition of forward together podcasts. This month, we're celebrating some shocker alums who have made remarkable contributions to the national and international arts entertainment scenes. My first guess you might know, is Alexander Hamilton. Julius Thomas II is an NAACP theater award nominated actor from Gary Indiana. He stars as Alexander Hamilton in the smash hip musical Hamilton. He's half of the critically acclaimed entertainment team. The Kings of soul and swing, and recently has appeared in the lead of the mega box office, hit Motown the musical as Barry Gordy he's appeared in four Broadway shows six Broadway national tours and on several television shows and perhaps most impressive. He's a 2005 graduate of Wichita state university. It's quite a resume. Joyus welcome to the podcast. So good to see you. And, um, being here with you and hearing more about what's been going on in your life since you were here at Wichita state in 2005. Well, Speaker 2 00:01:10 Thank you. When you listed all out like that, it actually sounds like I've done something with my life. Speaker 1 00:01:14 <laugh> I first want to congratulate you on being inducted into the college of fine arts hall of fame. Um, that's where you got your start, uh, Wichita state and we're so proud of you. And, um, it was great to see you in that environment and accepting that award. Speaker 2 00:01:29 It was a very cool moment, very, uh, top of the list thing that I will always remember and, uh, to be honored by my school in that way is, is just such a cool thing. Such a cool thing. That's Speaker 1 00:01:41 Great. So you're from Gary Indiana. So how did you end up at Wichita state? Speaker 2 00:01:47 Yes, I am from Gary Indiana. Steeltown USA smack dab in the middle of the Midwest and home of the Jackson five <laugh>. Um, and, uh, you know, I grew up there singing and, uh, performing and, uh, originally when I went away to school, I didn't want anything to do with any of that. You know, I'd done it as sort of like a, a, a in between of track and cross country, just something to do and also in church. And so I originally went to school in Iowa for physical therapy and halfway through that, I was hating, you know, being a biology major. I was ACE in everything, except for that and thought that I should probably be doing better than I was in my major. And I was trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to do. And I was complaining pretty much to everybody that would listen that, that my major wasn't cutting it, but I didn't know what was gonna be the thing that I was gonna do with my life. Speaker 2 00:02:39 And I went to, uh, the national tour of rent came to my school and I went on a whim. I didn't know much about rent. And as I was sitting in the audience, I just noticed that the, the folks around me were really invested and that they were going through, uh, emotional moments. And, and I looked around and I just said, like, I wanted to work on people as a physical therapist, but like, maybe I could do this because it's working on people and sort of getting instant gratification. So next semester I signed up for the national student exchange and moved halfway across the country and started my career here at WSU. And I have nothing but good things have come from it. Speaker 1 00:03:22 So now you, you just mentioned the Broadway show rent. I, when I was in New York for a meeting back in the, I think it was 1996, when that show opened, I, I saw the original Broadway cast. Um, and you know, Jonathan Larson who wrote that show, um, uh, he unfortunately died right before it opened on Broadway. Yeah. I used his story because he had, um, something, uh, uh, had a cardio myopathy, uh, an aortic condition mm-hmm <affirmative>, um, that I used in my classes, you know, cause I was my started in healthcare and taught cardio, pulmonary medicine and that sort of thing. So I've never forgotten that show and I, I, I think it's interesting how that, um, that intersected with you as well and made an impact on you too. Speaker 2 00:04:12 Yeah. It's affected both of us for, for the better it seems like. Speaker 1 00:04:15 Yeah. So tell me about your time here at Wichita state, some memorable moments, um, uh, what, what that education here at Wichita state did for you and, and where you are today. Yeah, Speaker 2 00:04:27 So I think the, the big thing that was a difference for me and what I was missing at my first university that I love, um, was that I, I felt like one in a crowd. And when I got to Wichita state, I, I definitely felt and was given individual the individual help and the individual very specific, uh, attention to the things that I needed, especially as an artist and one who was starting two and a half years later than everybody else. Um, so I just remember getting here and Speaker 2 00:04:58 Being set straight and let know that like you're behind and you're gonna have to do a lot of the work that you should have been doing over the last two and a half years. You're gonna have to do it very quickly. And it sort of set me on the path to, uh, to this work ethic that I have now. That means that I'm gonna get up at five o'clock in the morning and be the first one at the audition. And, you know, I'm gonna grab a studio and I'm gonna sing, uh, as often as I can and tap dance to try to get on the same level as everybody else, that this is where I sort of learned that work ethic. Um, and while I have that in my mind, I also have still some of the most important people in my life, my best friend I met here, uh, some of my most wonderful and cherished friendships are still from shockers or shocker alums that we all perform in New York together. And, uh, and so those are, those are the things that I've taken with me. Speaker 1 00:05:54 That's great. That's great. So I talked a little bit in the opening about your time playing the lead of Hamilton. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what that's like? I mean, that's gotta be awesome. Speaker 2 00:06:06 <laugh> I don't know if there is a word to describe it. Awesome is probably the close that we can come to. But I mean, this show has just, it's been the biggest gift I, before, before I booked this show, I was very much doubting my abilities very much wondering whether or not it was time to, um, maybe, uh, take a different direction, a different path, uh, maybe go back to the drawing board, go back to physical therapy. Um, because what I wanted was to use all of me, all of my abilities, actor, singer, dancer, storyteller, um, leading man and I wasn't being, given the opportunities that I thought that I could rise to and enter the biggest show in the world, uh, coming to me and saying, Hey, not only are we gonna allow you to be in our show, you know, and not just in the ensemble, you're gonna actually take the show and put it on your shoulders and run with it every night and bring it over to the finish line. Speaker 2 00:07:07 And it was everything that I needed to validate me and remind me that there is something that I can bring to this art form and that, that I do have something to give to this world. Um, something that is uniquely mine, and the fact that I've been doing the show now for five years and, you know, we, we, we get standing ovations every night and we get rave reviews is just sort of, it's been the thing that the, the actor thing that I've needed to remind me that I have a place in this world, and I have a thing that I have specific to give to this world and that I have to continue to give that thing in order to, um, you know, sort of make my existence here matter. Speaker 1 00:07:47 Yeah, it's such a legacy too, that you're leaving behind and giving to others who follow you. You know, you, uh, the listeners don't know this, but you also recently gave, uh, a commencement address to the Fairmount college of liberal arts and sciences here at Wichita state. And you have a few bars of, of, of a net show. And anyway, you can recreate that because it just kind of brought the house down and listeners, uh, we don't have people who give commencement addresses that get standing O ovations, but, oh, Jillious good. Speaker 2 00:08:22 <laugh> and my heart is still racing from that moment. I mean, I'm so good with other people's words and interpreting other people's words when I have to actually stand up and speak for myself and like tell my own story and talk. I'm a little less sure. But we're getting there. Um, uh, I'll, I'll try my hardest. It's a little early in the morning. I haven't warmed up, but I'll just say, Speaker 3 00:08:45 Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. Speaker 2 00:08:52 It's one of my favorite quotes from the show. And Speaker 1 00:08:55 What's the significance of that for, for our, our listeners? Speaker 2 00:08:58 Well, I think that, that everybody can take a moment. I, I think gratitude is, is just often a great place to start from when we begin our day, when we're going throughout our day, it's the way a way to sort of keep the SADS and, um, the self pity and a lot of the other negatives that we allow in, uh, just to sort of push them to the wayside because there is always something to be grateful for. And if we just take a second to sort of look around and count our blessings, then we'll recognize how lucky we are. That we're where we Speaker 1 00:09:29 Are. Yeah. It was just awesome. And a great moment. No one was expecting it. Speaker 2 00:09:35 <laugh> well, I like to surprise every now and again. Speaker 1 00:09:38 Well, um, Broadway cares, equity fights aids is if those people who are listening know, usually at the end of most shows at certain times of year, uh, the cast actually talks about that. And I don't know if they still do that. I don't know if you do that in your show. We do. Speaker 2 00:09:54 Yeah. Speaker 1 00:09:54 Yeah. And you've written, uh, a song for, for, uh, part of that fundraising effort. Could you talk about that? Speaker 2 00:10:00 Yeah. Well, let me plug Broadway cares really quickly because it's my favorite charity in the world. Uh, Broadway care is equity fights, aids, or BCE E F a as it goes by, it's my favorite. And I've been helping collect monies for it for, since I joined the Broadway community, because I see the amazing work that it does every year, we're raising millions of dollars and I'm seeing it go out into the communities that need it, including $300,000 was just, uh, given over to the, uh, humanitarian efforts in the Ukraine, in Ukraine and, um, you know, men, women, women, and children living with debilitating diseases and, uh, food and medications. Everything that they do is just so helpful in this day and age. And so I had the opportunity to write a song. I occasionally dabble in songwriting and I wrote a song of inspiration called I am here, and it's on the carols for cure album on iTunes. You can look up Julius Thomas II and I am here and it'll pop right up and you can pay to have a song by a fellow shocker, a dollar 29, and also, uh, support a really amazing charity that is doing some really, really great work. Speaker 1 00:11:11 Yeah, that's awesome. And you know, people don't understand that, that we're still battling this, uh, particular disease and although it made a lot of progress, there's still sure there's still, still a lot of support that's needed. So going back a couple of years, um, and we have COVID and the pandemic that's, we're still still with us. Um, Speaker 2 00:11:33 Oh, her, oh, miss Ronna. Yeah. Right. Speaker 1 00:11:36 <laugh> um, so what did you do during that time? Cuz we know that Broadway basically shut down shows across the country shut down. What, what, what, how did you spend your time? Speaker 2 00:11:46 Well, the philosophical answer to that question is I learned a lot more about myself. Um, the practical answer to that question is I got to work figuring out how to carve a living out when, uh, there's no theater when there's no producer handing me a contract. Um, I really had to go back to the, to the, put my nose to the, the grindstone and really remember who I am and remember my, uh, my work ethic and, and figure out how do I make a living doing what it is that the only thing that I'm trained to do during a time where, uh, we're not doing that in gathering on mass. I mean, my, my business is people and gathering in rooms with people and that's exactly what we couldn't do. So I began to farm myself out to, uh, create concerts, virtual, uh, moments. Uh, I found, um, financial people who still needed to, uh, entertain their clients, companies that were looking to find online ways to entertain their, their clients and their constituents. And I just offered up my services. I said, you've got a guy here who's played Alexander Hamilton. That's the buzzword of the day, you know, Hamilton, the musical is the buzzword and I'll put on an event for you and you, uh, fund my living for the next <laugh>, you know, uh, foreseeable future and created a business out of that and became a company and just started, uh, um, making my way in a different way. And it reminded me that, that I, I have an ability outside of theater to sort of cultivate art. Speaker 1 00:13:26 Did you enjoy that, that the, the, the aspect of putting yourself out there as an individual to, to do that kind of work Speaker 2 00:13:33 Eventually at, at first it was terrifying because you're like, who am I to reach out to people at Morgan Stanley and say, Hey, do you want a virtual concert? But, um, once I started to figure out what the demand was and what the need was and, and fit myself into that niche, then it became like, no, there's, there's, um, there's a place for me here and I'm pretty good at it. So yeah, this is fun. Speaker 1 00:13:55 Yeah. And, and you made some money. I Speaker 2 00:13:57 Did. I sustained myself through a pandemic. Yeah. Speaker 1 00:14:00 So looking forward to the future, um, what's next for you? Speaker 2 00:14:05 The fun thing is, I don't know. Um, my plans have never been big enough for the things that have happened in my life. All I ever wanted to do was to, uh, make good art and to make a reasonable living doing that so that I didn't have to rely on my parents or, or anything else like that. And every time I turn around, we're far exceeding that, you know, I'm, I'm now the lead and the biggest musical in the world, and I never would've foresee anything like that. And I got to be on a, a show like modern family and on Sesame street and things of that nature things I never would've imagined. So I've learned to not do too much planning as far as what I think is going to be next. What I would love to do is to produce some of my, my own music. I've written a few scripts. So I would love to have those at least looked at by a studio or two, if I could be so bold as to say, um, I, I, I think that the sky's the limit and I'm not going to, uh, put myself in a box of what I think, because it usually exceeds that. Yeah. Speaker 1 00:15:09 Well, I bet you, it's gonna be pretty fabulous, whatever it is. I hope so. Um, we've, we've seen a lot of fabulous things, uh, from you, and not only as a student here at Wichita state, but as a professional so much appreciate you being here today. Joyous. Um, hope to see you again soon, if not in person here at Wichita state, maybe in a, a show somewhere Speaker 2 00:15:31 Fingers crossed. Speaker 1 00:15:32 <laugh> good to see you. Speaker 2 00:15:34 Thank you. Perez. Speaker 1 00:15:37 My next guess is Amy Baker, sweet all professor and program director of Wichita state's music theater department. Amy's professional credits include performance directing and choreography for local state and national productions, including the first national Broadway tour of 42nd street. Disney's my son Pinocchio and honk in 2016, the national Kennedy center, American college theater festival in Washington, DC honored Amy for her direction and choreography of smokey Joe's cafe. It's also notable that Amy is a graduate at Wichita state's college of fine arts. Hi, Amy. It's so good to see you. Thank you for joining the podcast today. Of Speaker 4 00:16:15 Course, it's so good to see you. Thanks for having me. Speaker 1 00:16:17 Well, we have a great, um, uh, lineup today. Of course, you're one of them. Um, uh, Julius Thomas, the third, he was one of our graduates or alums. Can you talk briefly about him and how you seen him grow over the note? Last number of years, Speaker 4 00:16:33 I would love to talk about Julius Thomas. The third he is, is so beloved to the school performing arts. Um, I mostly know Julius through the, the also beloved <laugh> Linda Starkey who retired last December mm-hmm <affirmative> he was her student. And so then when I came on at WSU, she and I would travel to New York and go see Broadway shows. And so we would always see Julius in his shows and just to, just to see the way she and, and, and Julius would interact after the shows was so special, you know, and I was a new professor then, and I remember being like, oh, I want that kind of relationship with my students. Um, and then Julius, he's so grateful. He's so grateful for what WSU has, has given him. And he's really good about saying that, but he's also really good about showing it. He comes back all the time and he works with our students in the school, performing arts. He works with our musical theater students and everything from like a, you know, a master class to just a Q and a about how in the world to navigate this crazy business. And, well, I mean, the highlight was last spring when he was our commencement speaker. Everyone got to know Julius, Thomas. Yeah, Speaker 1 00:17:52 That was great. Um, you just talked about this crazy business that, um, Julius and you are in. Um, and I probably not a crazy business, just a, a demanding business, a business that, that has a lot of expectations. Yeah. And in your own, right. You have been on the stage, the world stage, uh, Kansas stages, uh, university stages, Wichita state stages. Tell us more about your journey and what brought you to Wichita state as a professor. Speaker 4 00:18:25 Well, like you said, like you alluded to, I was a student here mm-hmm <affirmative> so, um, I'm very proud to be part of the first group of music theater students at WSU. And then, so while I was in college, I was really lucky and I was working for music theater, Wichita downtown. So I did that for five summers and I'm, I just think working along like seasoned Broadway professionals for five years, it just made sense that, well, yeah, I'm gonna move to New York mm-hmm <affirmative> and I'm gonna do this professionally. And so I did, and I, I definitely had stars in my eyes for 42nd street. I was like, I'm gonna move to New York and I'm gonna do 42nd street. And somehow the stars aligned. And I did, I got to do the first national Broadway tour, and I got to play a really fun role of Phyllis Dale mm-hmm <affirmative> and then, well, and I got to see the country, cause I mean, we went all over the us and Canada, so that developed my love of travel. Speaker 4 00:19:25 And then when I got back to the city, I started doing the radio city Christmas spectacular show. And mm-hmm <affirmative>, they have a, an arm that's the Christmas across America where you go to different cities. So everyone in the country can see the rockets. And I always got to go to Nashville. So those are some of my highlights, I would say from my New York days. And then, um, long story short, I reconnected with my high school sweetheart, innate sweet, all, hence my funny, last name <laugh> and, uh, and came back to Wichita and ran into, of course all my favorite people and the job it opened up. And, and here I am. Speaker 1 00:20:07 Yeah. Uh, you know, we were talking off Mike earlier about, um, being a performer and being on stage. Yeah. And just the anxiety around that we were talking about, well, what what's that like here on, on a podcast. Yeah. Um, so, um, certainly not as nervewracking as, as being a performer where there's expectations. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you've dealt with that? How, how you help students deal with that? Speaker 4 00:20:33 Yeah. Yeah. That's a great, that's a great question. Um, I actually suffered from terrible nerves and I think if you, if you know me or like, yeah, whatever, cuz I don't know a stranger I'll right. I'll talk to anyone and I'll ask 'em how their, their mom, their dog, their brother, sisters mm-hmm <affirmative>, you know, is doing, but I, I have really bad stage fright. I always did. Um, but now as a, as a teacher, as a professor, I think it's a gift that I struggled so much with that because my students do mm-hmm <affirmative> and, and we can really talk about it and I've developed so many different little methods and little exercises to help them deal with that. Mm-hmm <affirmative> um, and, and deal with it in a really safe space. The classroom. Yeah. Um, and then honestly, it's gonna sound silly, but so in 2014 I got to perform again with music theater, Wichita, they did 42nd street and of course I can't stay away from that show. Speaker 4 00:21:32 Mm-hmm <affirmative> and I got to play anytime, Annie, my dream role. And uh, and I think, I think I had more nerves than ever because now I'm, I'm this professor of musical theater. I'm supposed to know what I'm doing. I'm not, you know, I can't mess up WITA I mean, Wichita, I can't mess up. Yeah. And so I think my nerves were probably the, the worst then, but I gotta, I gotta tell you what I do. It's crazy, but it works. I picture Fred van fleet at the top of the key in those, in those final four games. And I just think if that 20 year old man can, can handle that kind of pressure. I can do this, I got this, but I just, I think it's funny. That's who, that's what I picture Fred van fleet at the top of the key. Speaker 1 00:22:14 So we need to see what Fred says, how he handles his nerves. Maybe he's got Amy bakers <laugh> yeah, yeah. Speaker 4 00:22:24 That, there's your next podcast, right? Yeah. Fred fleet and you know, Ron Baker's in town. Yeah. I like, like to joke that we're related, so Speaker 1 00:22:31 <laugh> right. Yeah. Okay. Duh, didn't even think about that with baker. Yeah. I always remember sweet all. So Speaker 4 00:22:38 Thank you, my husband. Thanks you for that. Speaker 1 00:22:41 Um, so what are some of the upcoming performances for which UF states music theater department. Speaker 4 00:22:46 I'm so excited. Okay. So the answer is the Fox sisters, September 29th through October 1st, but I'm so excited because thanks to the Joe Z legacy foundation, we now have the Mt. Music, theater, incubator, sorry. We always call it Mt. Music, theater incubator. So my new colleague and I rich beaver, our, one of our mini goals is that Wichita state becomes the go to place in the Midwest to produce new work. Mm-hmm new musicals. Yeah. I mean, there's all these incredible writers out there and they just need, you know, they need people to try their, their workout on mm-hmm <affirmative>. And so, and what the, the Joe Z's foundation is helping us with is those writers fly in from New York or wherever they're from. And they work with our students. So we're part of their process and they're part of ours. And I mean, where I get really excited is say, say one of these shows does go to Broadway or does make it big. WSU will always be a part of that. Yeah. And our students will always be a part of that. Yeah. I think that's Speaker 1 00:23:53 Really cool. That's awesome. And you're referring to Joe Z, um, providing that gift the late Joe Z is she's a long time community supporter. So that's great that we're Benefic benefiting from that gift, uh, that she provided. So, and, and part of her legacy. So if anyone is interested in attending those shows like me. Yes. And you know, usually Amy shows up in my office with, you know, tickets and or reminders to get a ticket. Um, you can purchase those tickets at wichita.edu/the arts box office, wichita.edu/oh, excuse me. wichita.edu/fine arts box office. Yes. Yeah. You're looking at me like, no, that's not right. That Speaker 4 00:24:37 Doesn't sound right. Yeah. Um, we're also doing Pippin February 23rd through the 26th Speaker 1 00:24:42 And that was Julius's show. Speaker 4 00:24:44 That was the big Julius show. Yeah. Yeah. And that went all the way to the Kennedy center. Mm-hmm <affirmative> the last time we did it, so yeah. Right. We're excited for that. And I mean the whole school performing arts has, has a whole lineup on our website, but plays, dance, concerts, films, musicals. Speaker 1 00:25:00 Yeah. And, and we're back to sort of pre C we are in person. So that's also, that's gotta be exciting for the students and for you all. Yes. And so what's on the horizon for performing arts students. What are some of the projects and experiences that they're working on that's, you know, different from these shows or initiatives that you, your, your new colleague or you all are working on what what's going on there? Yeah. Speaker 4 00:25:26 So when I think of like our school as a whole now, so Chayla class and Chandler is running the school performing arts, and I'm very lucky. I'm her associate director of the school. And I, I think what comes to mind is that we're really focusing on building community this year, like genuinely. Um, so not just our own students and our separate programs and WSU students, but shocker neighborhood too. Mm-hmm, <affirmative> like truly building communities. So, you know, like something we're doing in our school is every Friday at three 30, from three 30 to five, we have these very collaborative times together. Um, everything from, from like a guest artist coming in and sharing their experience to this last Friday. And this Friday, Larry Daniels is coming over at three 30 and he's creating, he's teaching our students about immersive theater and how to create immersive theater, cuz it's really cool, but I mean, even I've never done it, I don't know where to begin. Speaker 4 00:26:24 And so just all those, those learning new skills, creating new projects, new works with outside guests and influences as from our, our own WSU community. Yeah. And then I think even bigger picture shocker neighborhood community. So for all our shows that we were kind of talking about earlier, all the plays, all the musicals, the dance concerts, we've added a student show like K 12, depending on the material, you know what ages are. Right. But, and we're reaching out to high schools in soccer neighborhood and trying to get those kid doing a whole special show for those students. That's, that's great. And teaming up with big brothers, big sisters once a semester to do workshops and master classes just genuinely finally going, Hey, this is our community mm-hmm <affirmative> and we've gotta, we've gotta build it. So, Speaker 1 00:27:15 And that fits just squarely into what we're doing at Wichita state in general, and reaching out to the shock neighborhood beyond shotgun neighborhood to, you know, the, the city and the state. And mm-hmm, <affirmative>, that's what urban public research universities do. We help our community solve problems. We, we, we work on things through creative activities and remind people that the arts is important. So really glad to hear that, that you all are doing that. Well, I think a lot of people don't, um, I think sometimes it's a hidden gym, what you all are doing over in, in performing arts. And when they show up from one of those performance, they're like blown away, totally out of the water. And I really want to thank you for all your work and your energy, everything you bring to the, to the department and your students. Um, it's palpable when I see them on stage. Um, and I really appreciate everything you do here as a faculty member. So Amy, thank you for, for joining me today and, um, talking a little bit about Julius and other things that you're working on and wishing you a great semester. Speaker 4 00:28:16 Thank you. Thank you so much for having me and thank you for all you do. It's it's an honor that you're our president. You're Speaker 1 00:28:23 Welcome. Thank you. Join us for our next episode of the forward together podcast. When I talk with our new athletic director, Kevin Saul go shockers.

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