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Theatre professor talks life, changes

Photo by John Hollins.

If he is not teaching a class or helping a theatre student work through a design, Professor Stephen Judd can be found working in his office with the door slightly cracked open. The board beside his door has welcoming pleasantries beside a big red-and-black United Campus Workers Union sticker. Although Judd might not always be the first in the building, he is often the last to leave.

Judd is one of the oldest theatre professors on staff and has taught stage design at Southern Miss for more than two decades. However, he has not conceded to teaching just yet. Recently, Judd worked as the stage designer for the Southern Miss production of “Ah! Wilderness!” His job included months of research and collaborations with fellow designers and the director to recreate a stylized early 1900s home. This long process has become second nature to Judd, but getting to such a level had its costs.

“I was born in Harristown, Maryland, but I moved away from there when I was three-weeks-old. My dad was in the military, so I got used to moving every one to three years. And as a kid, my parent’s families lived on both coasts, so every summer my dad would get a 30 day leave and we would travel the country by car. I loved that. I felt I grew up in the back of the car,” Judd said.

Despite the bohemian-like beginnings, his exposure to anything art and theatre did not come until high school. Despite being a jock in high school, Judd developed a passion for scripts, particularly Shakespeare. Eventually, he tried his hand at acting.

In college, Judd’s undergraduate years were during a metamorphic period in the world. Vietnam was going strong, and the United States’ civil rights movement was on the rise. Judd invested himself in writings from figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and novels on Mexican and Chicano liberation. 

“I was really wrestling with those ideas, like how we live in the world and what we do,” Judd said.  

Theatre came back into Judd’s life after a friend asked him to direct a scene from “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. The role he was offered was Judge Danforth, a kind of tyrannical-religious fanatic.

“I know in a sense he was kind of type-casting me, and at the same time he was trying to sort of wake me up a little bit. So, I did the role, like I really bit the head of the snake. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I really love this. This is fantastic,” Judd said.

Afterward, Judd swapped from theology to theatre. He hurled himself into every theatre course or show he was allowed to take, much to the detriment of his other courses. He grew invested in every aspect of theatre from design, make-up and acting.

After studying design at the University of Georgia, Judd’s resume expanded. He worked for a commercial theatre, which included designing work for Disney shows, the Maryland Ballet and local colleges. Eventually, he began to miss academia and returned to university to become a teacher.

Lou Rackoff, the theatre department’s directing professor, has worked with Judd for over 15 years. Their collaborations have developed a relationship that many artists in theatre hope to obtain.

“One thing that happens right away is that a short-hand develops. If you work with someone many times, they might show an image for an idea for the show. Let’s say a color, or style, some image. What you read from that gets more mature the longer you know someone,” Rackoff said.

Claire Brenia is a junior in scenic design. Brenia first began designing with Judd on the musical “Bullrusher.”

 “He was a great springboard for ideas. We’d sit down and have discussions on how I’m seeing the set, thought and ideas I’m envisioning, which really help me tailor them into an actualization because sometimes you just have these abstract ideas you can’t really translate into a physical world. He’s really good at guiding us to do it subtly,” Brenia said. 

The ideas of rethinking and change are crucial to Judd, as his own life has left him witness to so much transformation.  

“Someone like me, I’m pretty representative of my generation. I was born in 1951, and that generation is one that went through huge changes. The civil rights movement, then the free speech movement, which happened while I was still in college. Of course, Vietnam, and then the gay and lesbian movement. If I look at my life, my life is a series of transformations because I was always in a place where I had to confront them, or they confronted me,” Judd said.

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Theatre professor talks life, changes