Phyllis Gibbs: Forty years of curtain calls ... and counting
Mar 4, 2011
by Brian Thompson, '95
Theatre Arts Department Chair Phyllis Gibbs looks back on four decades at Flagler
It wasn’t even a college when Phyllis Gibbs first applied to teach at Flagler — only a shuttered historic hotel where plans were being hatched for a women’s college. Flagler officially opened in 1968, and Gibbs started teaching English the next year, only later moving on to what had always been her passion — theatre.
Forty years later (she took a year off for an exchange program in England), Gibbs is Flagler’s longest still-serving faculty member. And, she says, there are no plans to retire. So we sat down with Phyllis to look back at 40 years at Flagler and hear about her love for the stage.
Q: When I say it’s been 40 years, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
A: The first thing that pops into my head is how quickly it’s gone by, like everything else. (Laughs). It doesn’t seem to be 40 years. I can remember walking by the hotel on a Saturday at the time and seeing this sign. I was married to Steve Gibbs. I was already teaching at Levy County High School and he was getting ready to graduate from the University of Florida graduate school. I said, “Look at that sign. It says they’re changing this hotel into a college.”
Q: Having been through those early years when Flagler struggled, and even had to be reorganized, did you ever think the college would become what it is today?
A: No … (long pause) … No, I didn’t … (longer pause) … I actually didn’t think that far ahead. I liked St. Augustine, but to me it was too small a town. I was getting ready to go to the big city.
Q: How many students do you think you’ve taught over the years?
A: Oh, you got to be kidding me? I have no idea! What do I teach 100 people a semester? I’d have to sit down and really figure it out. Last night I went to the induction of Alpha Chi and there was the mother of one of the seniors who got inducted. She came over to me and said, “Do you remember me? I was in your speech class.”
Q: Why do you think people are drawn to theatre and stage?
A: A lot of people come to the arts because they have no other place to go. They are rejected by other groups. They find camaraderie in the arts because the arts are very liberal. They bring their own creativity and accept people. A lot of people who are trying to find themselves in their journey in life are drawn to art and they’re drawn to theatre. You see a lot of kooky people. They’re like little rebels in their own little world, but they want to connect.
Q: It seems like it would be a real confidence builder for students, too. Is that one of drama’s main strengths?
A: It’s not only confidence building. There is an ensemble that develops in a particular group. Every time I teach an acting class I say, “you will be closer to these people at the end of the semester than you will be in any other class.” Invariably — 99 percent of the time — they write me in their journals, “you were so right.” There’s this feeling of a creative project they’ve done together. It’s not only built their confidence, but also their understanding of one another. The ensemble aspect is really great.
Q: It’s about more than just acting and being on stage when it comes to Flagler productions, right?
A: They’re learning every single aspect (of theatre.) We’re rare in that sense. A lot of theater departments (at other schools) want to “track” kids. (Students) have to make a decision very early on, and they have to go into acting, or they have to go into tech, or they have to go into some narrow aspect. We train kids in every area to make them more marketable.
Q: How do you pick shows?
A: I don’t like to do anything twice. I want to be able to challenge myself. I tend to like large cast musicals because I want to be able to get as many of the kids on the stage as I can to get that stage experience. … I’m more like the cast of thousands — the Cecil B. DeMille of Flagler College.
Q: Often in theatre you have to make do with the resources you have and really improvise. Can you think of any instances like that?
A: I did a children’s show of “Peter Pan.” (Laughs). We tried to fly Peter Pan. We had two guys who were in the back with the rope. (Peter Pan) was kinda’ sort of flying around. It worked because we had little kids in the audience. On a larger scale, it was kind of a little weird. … It was the idea that he could fly, and the two guys screaming, “OK, now!” (Laughs).
Q: What’s the sensation you feel right before the curtain goes up?
A: Nervousness. But you know what? At that point, you’ve taken them as far as they can go. I used to not be able to sit down. I used to pace. Now, I’m pretty much, “I’ve done what I can do.” That’s not to say if something is happening on stage that isn’t supposed to be happening I’m not running back stage!
Q: What’s the feeling right after the curtain comes down?
A: Bittersweet. It’s a bittersweet feeling. It’s tough. It’s very, very tough. And for the kids, too. That’s the reason why you have cast parties: To get over that feeling of being let down. You have this party as a finalization — that you’ve done a great job. You celebrate you’ve done it and that it’s time to move on to the next project.
Q: Do you miss being on stage yourself?
A: I like being behind the scenes. Although in my early days I did a lot of acting. But now, you would have to get a tow truck to get me on stage. I like other people being on stage and me being in the background. Kind of the puppeteer manipulating it.
Q: What advice do you give students to overcome being nervous about going on stage?
A: You know, adrenaline is a good thing. As long as it’s not debilitating, adrenaline keeps you on your toes so you can stay in the moment. Even stars say that if they’re not nervous, they’re going to do a crappy job on stage. You have to take that nervous energy and use it.
Q: So, the big question: Any plans to retire?
A: People say why don’t you retire now and just hang out. Why would I want to do that? That means I can’t get to meet the kids in the freshman class who are going to be the creative forces. I just love that. I love meeting the new ones and getting to know them and seeing their work. When I leave I wouldn’t have that. So, they’ll probably have to drag me out of the classroom.