12/28/2018 9:29 am
“You can really make a difference in their lives.”
That’s Performing Arts Professor Jeff Hendry reflecting on how he has made an impact as a teacher, mentor and guiding force for countless Rockford University students in the Performing Arts department. For 36 years, he has helped students find their passion, whether it’s on, near or off the stage. “Seeing students grow, especially in this field is so rewarding,” Hendry said. “They may come in from high school thinking ‘that was fun and I had a great time’ and not realize there are career opportunities in this field they can consider. On the other hand, they may realize performing arts isn’t their thing and find another direction. And that’s equally rewarding. Having another interest is not a bad thing — I started out as pre-law!”
His students can see how he would have excelled as a lawyer. “They say ‘oh wow you would have made a great lawyer when I argue in class,’ but I always liked theater and I couldn’t see myself spending my life as a lawyer.”
As a performing arts student at the University of Arizona, Hendry had intentions of becoming an actor. But a required costume design class and a natural aptitude for sewing had him considering a different path. “My mom always sewed and I grew up watching her sew all the time,” said Hendry. But he didn’t just observe. “You know when you’re a kid and they buy your clothes one size too big so you’ll grow into them? Well I would sneak into my mom’s sewing room and alter them so they wouldn’t be so loose on me.”
While Hendry had a knack for sewing, the required costume design class wasn’t something he was overly enthused about taking. “I was terrified to take the class because I thought I couldn’t draw,” Hendry said. “But the instructor had an interesting mantra. She would say, ‘anyone can be taught to play the piano. If you’re going to be a concert pianist that’s one thing, or just playing for fun, but either way you can do it.’ It made me realize I could do this.”
Hendry’s professor ignited a passion for costume design that has led to a career not only as a well-respected and beloved professor, but as a gifted and sought after theater costume designer with myriad awards under his belt. Last year, he received the Broadwayworld.com award for Best Costume Design for his work on Mamma Mia! and in 2015, he won the same award for The Music Man and Sister Act. All three of those shows were produced at the Maine State Music Theatre, a professional musical theater organization located on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick, Maine. Over the years, he’s designed for productions at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and Madison, Fireside Theatre, Circa’ 21 Dinner Playhouse and Little Theatre on the Square. His work has been featured in Chicago at the Northlight Theater, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Drury Lane Water Tower and Drury Lane Evergreen Park.
And of course, there are the productions at Maddox and Cheek Theatres where Hendry oversees costume design and often directs the student productions. There have been some amazing costumes and productions through the years, including this past April when Hendry took on one of the biggest and most elaborate yet — Leonard Bernstein’s epic musical masterpiece, Candide. The show was presented as part of the Leonard Bernstein at 100 Festival, a two-year celebration of the Broadway legend and, in addition to massive three-story stage sets and musicians from the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, the show included more than 153 lavish costumes, all created by Hendry. For Hendry, taking on Candide was something he was incredibly excited about and at the same time, scared to death to attempt. “It’s a huge production, boarding on an operetta,” said Hendry. “But the opportunity came up to work with the Rockford Symphony and I knew we had the students who could handle it, so I said ‘if we’re going to do it, let’s go for it!’”
Hendry was right. The production was a beautiful collaboration between RU’s performing arts department and the Rockford Symphony Orchestra and the costumes will go down as some of the most amazing in RU’s history. This Fall, Hendry tackled a completely different type of production, Carrie, The Musical, based on the Stephen King novel.
Having directed and created costumes for so many RU productions, Hendry finds it difficult to name his favorites, but sites Into the Woods and A Little Night Music, for their complexity. “Roshman was definitely one I was most proud of,” Hendry said, “Also Pericles and Antigone because with those productions I was able to do something I don’t normally get to do. I was really proud with how they turned out.” Outside of Rockford, his work on Sophisticated Ladies, at the old Drury Lane South and Grand Hotel at Theater at the Center in Munster Indiana and the Drury Lane Water Tower Place are most memorable to him. “Sophisticated Ladies is so rarely done and it’s mammoth costume-wise. There are 30 musical numbers and it’s so huge people normally don’t do it,” Hendry said “Grand Hotel is 1920s Berlin and you have to do clothes, not costumes. There’s a difference.”
With such an extensive body of work, Hendry may be thinking of slowing down a bit, but for now what keeps him going is seeing students grow and mature during their time at RU and sharing in that moment when the proverbial light bulb goes off in their mind that may lead to a career direction they might not have considered.
While a degree in design typically has very few students, Hendry says even at large universities there are typically only a handful of students who focus on costume design, and most usually do find work in the field.
“We have design graduates who have worked at Milwaukee Children’s Theater and currently the Chicago Lyric Opera,” Hendry said. “One of my former students, Darrin Pufall ’04, is teaching costume design at Boise State. Typically, what happens is they can work in the field while they’re auditioning and trying to get acting gigs. It’s a way to work their way into the business and network.” And sometimes, they go all in and make costume design their full-time career.
Take for example, Ryan Moller ’15, who was nominated for the same broadwayworld.com award Hendry won in 2017 and 2015. Moller was nominated for his work on Guys and Dolls at the same theater where Hendry’s work was recognized. Ryan’s success is just one example of what truly matters to Hendry — his students. “When Ryan was nominated for the Broadwayworld.com award it was very much like a passing of the torch,” Hendry said.
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