“You like to think that as a professor you profess your knowledge. But that’s garbage. What you really do is learn with the students and try to understand the world around you.”
Teaching at Transylvania, according to Tim Soulis, involves constant change and constant learning. “You think that after you get the Ph.D. you know it all, and you don’t. You’ve barely even scratched the surface. The students keep challenging us to be better than we were. And sometimes that’s frustrating. But I think it’s also very humbling and rewarding.”
As a theater professor, part of that learning and self-discovery comes during the search for a character. Typically, both the student and the teacher learn something about themselves in the process. “You discover aspects of yourself that you’ve not been consciously aware of. That can be frightening at the same time it can be exciting.”
Theater students have to learn self-discipline while simultaneously opening themselves to others and examining interpersonal relationships. It’s a complicated and sometimes daunting process to take something written on the page and turn it into a dynamic performance on the stage. It is essentially creating “a vision of our own world, but it’s a vision that has been ordered. As Aristotle says, drama is an imitation of action, of life.“
Transylvania students have an advantage that makes this process a little easier: the Lucille C. Little Theater. Many professional theater groups don’t have their own space where they can enjoy a permanent home. That perk offers a comfort level and a sense of ownership that can nourish the creative process. As Soulis puts it, “When you have your own playground, life becomes more personally involving and engaging.”
These days, Soulis is doing less directing and more acting and writing. For many years, he was known for his one-man performance of the Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. He recently played Aegeus in Lexington’s Summerfest performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He has also agreed to act in a friend’s new play about the family dynamics surrounding an Alzheimer’s patient, and he is writing a play of his own.
Soulis has also written lyrics and music for shows. In 2010, using a new translation of Euripides’ Bacchae, he turned the 2,000-year-old play into a sort of rock opera, which he called The Bakkhai. Soulis wrote a simple musical schematic based on the melodies provided by the Greek scholar and modern translator Khalli Anna Mossi, and Transylvania students scored the accompanying parts and put together a three-piece band for the performance.
Soulis feels it’s important for students to be familiar with plays from all historic periods, not just contemporary plays that seem more “sexy” and accessible. By creating a contemporary production of an ancient play, Soulis hopes students begin to understand the timelessness of great literature and the value of performing it.
“I think Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is just as important today as it was when it was written. And that’s not because of some Freudian oedipal conflict that some person has, but the individual search for one’s identity that is at the core of that play. And it’s one fine detective story, too.”
Soulis enjoys teaching first-year seminar classes, which give him some latitude in the material he chooses for his students. He recently taught a course titled Performing Life that addressed the theatricality of everyday life as seen in politics, religion, games, and sports. He referenced Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which attempts to explain why we do the things we do. It becomes clear that we all play a role in our everyday living—a role guided by a hidden subtext we might not even be aware of.
One of the goals of the first-year seminars is to introduce students to a liberal arts course of study: how to see the relations and connections between disciplines and how to get away from our preconceived notions. In one class, Soulis joined the students in writing a paper where he proposed the idea of water as a “useful way to think of oneself.” It’s a simple conceit that captures the goal of a liberal arts education.
“Water has three phases: gas, water, ice. If you’re ice, you’re frozen into a set of views. You’re unable to thaw or bend. If you’re gas, there’s nothing really there. Everything just dissipates. But if you’re water, you can roll with the punches. You still have a type of container: the shore, the sides of the pool, whatever. But you can flow through life. And that’s the ideal. The aquatic metaphor, I think I called it.”