At age 7, Dr. Karen Berman strung a rope across her family’s basement in Atlanta, hung a curtain and invited the entire street in—at 25 cents a pop—to see a fantastical epic, “Hall of the Mountain King,” which she organized and directed with a bunch of neighborhood kids.
“I don’t know how I knew how to do it,” she said. “But I remember listening to all the musicals from the Chastain Amphitheatre through my bedroom window every summer night. I would lie awake, imagining what the plays would be like, if only I could see them.”
Years and hundreds of productions later—Berman, as artistic chair, accepted a 2019 Cultural Arts Award on behalf of her faculty and staff in Georgia College’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The award is given by the Macon Arts Alliance in honor of “significant contribution” to theatrical arts in Middle Georgia.
University President Dr. Steven Dorman nominated the department and was on-hand in early October to bestow the award at Mill Hill Community Arts Center in Macon. Milledgeville Mayor Mary Parham-Copelan wrote the letter, recommending Georgia College Theatre and Dance be chosen.
“This is really special. I’m most proud,” Berman said. “This is quite an honor, because I have the hardest working and most amazing faculty and staff on campus. They work seven days a week. We’re rehearsing plays into the night, and we’re back-to-work early the next morning.”
“We’re creating huge audiences in this Middle Georgia region, where there’s not much theatre for many miles,” she said. “We’re really in a drought for theatre in this area, and we’ve been producing plays that audiences love.”
One thing Berman brought to campus nearly 12 years ago—and part of what makes theatre at Georgia College special—are the social-justice themes. In high school, Berman worked with one of the social-justice giants, Frank Wittow, producing real-life plays about race in city parks across Georgia.
At George Washington University, getting undergraduate degrees in psychology and theatre, Berman also worked with Robert Alexander. He taught how different populations are socially burdened, like prison inmates. Later, she worked with the “master” Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatre theorist who created “Theatre of the Oppressed.”
“His idea was that everyone has been oppressed and everyone has been an oppressor,” Berman said. “By accident or on purpose, we’ve all made it difficult for someone else. We’ve been bullied or a parent told us we’d never be good enough. These men were my mentors, and Theatre of the Oppressed still impacts my work today.”
In 2008, Berman left her job as artistic advisor to theatre groups at Georgetown University. She came to Georgia College to be near her ailing father but, also, to a job she describes as a “perfect fit.”
“They were looking for someone who could teach social justice and that’s me,” Berman said, “It was a made-for-me job. It was like they were calling my name. I felt called to come here.”
Berman built from scratch the empire that exists today winning awards. She grew the department from 25 theatre majors to as many as 75 in recent years. Since 2014, Onstage Blog has ranked Georgia College’s theatre department in the nation’s top 20.
Berman’s first campus production as artistic director was a somber musical “Yours, Anne” about the holocaust and Anne Frank. Her department went on to showcase women and African-American playwrights. Faculty and staff bring audiences face-to-face with poverty, abuse, inequality and violence. They’ve hosted a Haitian dance troupe, Urban Bush Women and Sister Helen Prejean, who advocates against the death penalty.
Eric Griffis, associate professor of costume design, directed “The Laramie Project,” about a boy who was tied to a fence and left to die because he was LGBTQ+. When gay marriage was approved in the U.S.—Dr. Amy Pinney, associate professor of acting and directing, switched her production last-minute to feature “The Gay Marriage Plays.”
Beate Czogalla, professor of lighting design and stage management, brings her knowledge of space and NASA into schools throughout Middle Georgia. Amelia Pelton and Natalie King hold dance classes in local communities. Isaac Ramsey, scenic designer, has painted award-winning murals to get rid of local urban blight. Last spring, new faculty member Valeka J Holt co-directed the African-American musical “Crowns” with Pinney. Costume Shop Supervisor Cathleen O’Neal and Technical Director Jessie Wade work their magic behind-the-scenes.
“They said we couldn’t do all these things, but we’ve broken every barrier,” Berman said. “My faculty are equally passionate about bringing diverse viewpoints to the table to ensure our students are understanding, sympathetic, empathetic and tolerant.”
Early on, even in freshman year, students are given leading roles and the chance to produce or direct their own shows, lead children’s theatre tours, design lights and create costumes. When theatre companies come to campus to cast internships, they say “our students have the best work ethic, the best collaborative skills, the best teamwork and the most positive attitudes,” Berman said.
Eight years ago, faculty brought 25 students to New York City, where they performed “Milledgeville Memoirs” off-Broadway. The New York Times encouraged people not to miss “this history of the South.” Many of those same students later opened their own theatre company in New York.
Other alumni have gotten full scholarships for master’s degrees in acting or costuming. One alumnus, Matt Riley, is back on campus this semester after getting his graduate degree at New York University. He’s designing dazzling costumes for Berman’s upcoming play, “Ballet Russes,” about an early 20th-Century Russian dance troupe. The production’s about unconventional love and freedom of expression, despite a repressive political regime.
These are the kind of productions audiences have come to expect from Georgia College. They’ve been wowed by great costumes, lighting, makeup and acting in shows like “Chicago,” “Detroit ’67,” “Cabaret,” “The Ballad of Emmett Till” and, just recently, “Barbecue.”
Next year, Berman hopes to do “something brand new.” She’s applying for a grant to bring the theatre troupe, “Synetic,” and their unique “physicality” work from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to Georgia U.S.A.
“We need to present plays here that teach,” Berman said. “Our plays have always been chosen for diverse issues, to expand horizons and broaden people’s perspectives. We’re always looking to bring a new discourse to the university.”
“We don’t do things just to sell tickets or shock people,” she said. “We do things, because we believe in themes of freedom and equality for everyone.”