Making His ‘Mark’

Dinner Theatre comes back to campus with R. Rex Stephenson

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
Navigate Left
Navigate Right

Lindsey M. Foster, Editor

Servers in the evening, actors at night.

Mark Twain was on campus on March 15.

Well, kind of.

Rex Stephenson, Professor Emeritus of Drama, came to campus and performed his adaptation of Mark Twain and spoke to a room full of people with a story based on the famous author’s life and writings.

The evening began with a dinner in the Blue Ridge Mountain Room at 5:30 p.m. with the actors of the performance as servers. With water, tea, and coffee to drink, potato soup was an appetizer with an entrée consisting of fried chicken, glazed ham, collard greens, asparagus, baked beans, candied sweet potatoes, and cornbread. Homemade peach cobbler was also offered for dessert. The meal was based on foods that Twain enjoyed. There was a total of 120 attendees for the dinner, including students and the community.

“The thing that excites me is the turnout, and I know somebody at every table; these were the people who just couldn’t wait to come back (to the campus),” said Bob Pohlad, Professor Emeritus (retired) of Biology and Agriculture. “Having more opportunities for art, entertainment, and good food, to me, is why this is so perfect.”

The Mark Twain show was performed after the dinner at 7:00 p.m., with 140 attendees.

“The turnout was fantastic,” said Rebecca Crocker, Program Coordinator of Theatre Arts and Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and Musical Theatre. “We are really pleased, especially considering it was a Wednesday evening!”

Aside from Stephenson being the main focus, students in the theatre department, campus faculty, and members of the community were also a part of the production. The show included monologues by Twain with musical interludes and small parts played by other cast members.

“It was a nice experience. Everyone was so sweet, so kind, and I felt welcome,” said Lacey Matthews, Coordinator of Residence Life and cast member. 

The cast started rehearsing this semester and practiced their musical additions to the play. Stephenson joined when he started rehearsing his lines on March 1.

“Working with Rex is always delightful; he’s a character and can always make you smile or laugh about something,” said Sarah Laliberte, senior and actress in the show. “Also working with one of the founders of the program is just an incredible opportunity.”

This event was also a 24-hour fundraiser for the Theatre Department that was sponsored by Smith Mountain Lake Gives. With an organizational goal of $8,000, the department reached $3,700 in total, including donations, tickets, and program sales.

“We are very grateful; the amount raised is what we needed to fund the Theatre Archive, which will be revealed on Sat., April 22 at 2:30,” Crocker said.

Stephenson was also part of the theatre department on campus and a professor for 39 years from 1973-2012. He returned to the campus for this event.

“It’s great having Rex back,” Crocker said. “I’ve had the pleasure of bringing my class to join his improv class, and I always learn new things from him, even now.”

After retiring from the department, Stephenson returned to perform his Mark Twain act alongside Emily Blankenship-Tucker, Instructor of Performing Arts.

“It is just such a delight to get to work with Rex, and we always learn so much from him and just feel really honored to be able to do theatre with him,” Blankenship-Tucker said.

During his first couple of years on faculty at the college in the 1970s, Stephenson picked up his show of Mark Twain after being told by a student on campus that he looked and sounded like Twain. After that interaction, Stephenson was persuaded by the student to perform “Mark Twain” in a student variety show and has adapted since then. 

“It just kind of grew. I just kept doing more shows and longer shows,” Stephenson said.

He has now been performing variations on his “Mark Twain” show with different adaptations since the late 1970s, along with being in many other productions during his acting career.

“I’m always on stage if I can get on,” Stephenson said. “I’ve probably been in maybe 150 plays.”

Stephenson, during his time at the college, also started Theatre Department tradition–the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, where the actors of the play served the community before the show began that evening.

This tradition was carried out until Stephenson retired from the college. For this production, the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre was brought back for the first time in 10 years.

“It was a rewarding experience to see the diner theatre back on campus because I was a part of it when it was active,” said Mike Ferguson, Assistant Director of Food Operations. “The greatest reward was seeing so many of my friends from the community and reconnecting.”

“It felt really nice to be able to be a part of something that hasn’t been here at Ferrum for so long,” Laliberte said. “So many people love the dinner theatre, and seeing them enjoy it as much as I did makes me love what I do.”

The last theatre production of the semester will be Treasure Island, another adaptation by Stephenson with new music by Blankenship-Tucker. This production will take place on April 20-23. Dinner will be served before the performance on April 22.