Modernizing a classic: Tech theater student directs play inspired by Oedipus Rex

The Virginia Tech theater department cast its newest member to the troupe: meet Laura Epperson, a lifelong theater enthusiast and Post-MFA Fellow in Applied Performance. Epperson’s journey to a career in live theater started during her childhood after seeing a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a comedy by William Shakespeare that chronicles the journey of lovers, fairies and actors during one magical and crazy night in the woods.

“One of my first memories of seeing theatre was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when I was in first or second grade,” Epperson said. “The production was in a small black box theatre that had been transformed into a beautiful and mysterious forest. I didn’t understand anything that was going on, but I felt like I’d been transported to another world. It was magical and I loved it.”

This theatrical magic made a lasting impression, as it ignited Epperson’s love for theater and led her to auditioning for productions at a young age. 

“My first memory of performing in a play probably happened around the same time. It was a play for church about the “true meaning of Christmas” and I played Santa Claus,” Epperson said while reflecting upon her first memory on stage. “I was a total ham and I remember being both surprised and delighted by the laughter of the audience. It made me feel powerful! I’ve been involved in theatre ever since, always chasing the empowering feeling that comes from building new worlds.”

The journey to Blacksburg wasn’t linear, however. Just as every aspiring artist does, Epperson headed to New York City in search of artistic success while picking up every odd job along the way.

“As I started auditioning and working on creative projects, I supported myself with approximately ten thousand part-time jobs/gig work: barista, temporary office work, nanny, cater waiter, envelope stuffer, hot chocolate sample preparer — you name it, I probably did it,” Epperson said. “While I loved performing and creating theatre, I struggled to find meaning and personal fulfillment in the “survival job” side of being an actor. A few years into my life in New York, I was introduced to the term “teaching artist” and was immediately intrigued.”

Eric Booth, an arts learning consultant, defines teaching artists as "a practicing professional artist with the complementary skills, curiosities and sensibilities of an educator, who can effectively engage a wide range of people in learning experiences in, through and about the arts.” Integrating artistic expression into education. A new door was opened.

I thought pursuing teaching artist work might offer opportunities to use my artistry as my survival job,” Epperson said. “I started a teaching artist training program with an incredible youth arts organization called Community Word Project and immediately realized that not only had I already been a teaching artist without knowing it, but that teaching and creating art at the same time makes me feel more alive and fulfilled than anything else, professionally. Eventually my teaching artist path led me to graduate school where I realized I love working, making, playing and learning with undergraduate students.”

Epperson decided to refocus and dedicate her talents to arts education, a decision that would eventually lead her to a higher education job board with a listing for Virginia Tech.

“I felt like the position was made for me!” Epperson said in regards to when she first found out about the job. “I loved that the job involved so much teaching, specifically teaching acting and collaboration to non-theatre majors which is one of my favorite things. I was also excited about the focus in applied theatre and the opportunities to work with the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech. I love using theatre and performance to collaborate with “non-artists” (which isn’t a real thing — everyone’s an artist!) to serve diverse purposes and audiences. I also thought this position would be a great opportunity to build my experience in academia in hopes of eventually securing a full-time, long-term academic teaching position.”

Top off a new job at a new school with the fact that this is the first in-person school year in over a year, and the job becomes quite a daunting position to have. However, Epperson has hit the ground running during her first year at Virginia Tech. Epperson’s favorite part of teaching so far has been getting to know her students. 

“I love witnessing people open up and share themselves through performance,” Epperson said. For some people it’s the first time they’ve ever done something like that and it feels really special to be a part of.”

However, that’s not to say that teaching in person again doesn’t come with its difficulties. Every professor, teacher and administrator had to readjust to instructing in front of a class, not a camera. 

“All of my teaching and creative work over the past year happened virtually, which was both challenging and inspiring,” Epperson said. “I hadn’t taught in a mask, or even been in a room with 20 other people in a year and a half, until the first day of classes at Virginia Tech. I wasn’t sure how theatre exercises and performances would work with masks. And frankly, I’m still figuring that out. I’ve been very grateful to be working with awesome students who are down to be flexible and experiment as we figure out how to stay safe while playing and making art. 

“I get really high-energy when I teach, which isn’t my normal way of being,” Epperson said. “I think I’m even higher energy these days to compensate for half my face being hidden behind a mask. On Mondays and Wednesday, when I teach two sections of acting, I come home and totally crash. It’s great to be back in-person, but I’m still working on getting back into (teaching) shape.”

This adjustment was just an adjustment — not a roadblock — and Epperson has fully embraced teaching in-person to theater and non-theater majors alike. Especially at a school like Virginia Tech — well-known for its programs in engineering and architecture — Epperson is tasked with not only teaching theatre arts, but teaching it to groups of students who have little to no background in the dramatic arts. 

“I love teaching non-theatre majors,” Epperson said. “It’s really fun to work with people who have a different relationship to and/or perspective on something that I love and am totally steeped in. I’m always learning new things: about theatre, myself, and the world. I also really enjoy getting to build a class that’s pretty different from the other classes a lot of the non-theatre majors I work with take. After acing a chemistry test or submitting a rad engineering design, who wouldn’t want to spend a little time telling a story or getting competitive about sitting in a chair?”

“The first production of the season is coming up at the end of this month.” Epperson advertises and encourages everyone to support Virginia Tech theatre by keeping upcoming productions on our radar.  “Wondrous Strange directed by Cara Rawlings, September 27-30.”

Find out more about this upcoming season and all Virginia Tech theater has to offer here

There is a beauty to be found in theater at a school that specializes in more than just performing arts; students are taking these classes because they want to, not because they have to in order to graduate or compete for a role. At the end of the day, theater is the discovery of the individual and how they come together to become an ensemble. “Theatre is about learning how to be more human together,” Epperson said. “No matter who you are or what you do, that’s important.”