In the Scotlight

By Barry McNamara


Theatre professor Doug Rankin ’79 has firsthand knowledge of much of the history of Monmouth College and the stage. Growing up in Monmouth, he attended Crimson Masque productions in the 1960s, starred them in the ’70s, promoted them in the ’80s and, since 1989, has been a full-time member of the college’s theatre department.

His complete theatre experience can perhaps best be summarized by the first production at the college’s new Wells Theater in 1990. Opposite soap opera star and MC alumna Helen Wagner Willey ’38, Rankin portrayed King Henry II in “The Lion in Winter.” In addition to playing a lead role, he also designed the sets and costumes.

“The sets were a miracle of two angled turntables,” wrote Willey in a 1991 Scots Newse article.

Whether or not his students will one day find themselves sharing a stage with a nationally-known actress remains to be seen, but what is certain is that Rankin and the rest of his department hope their students will be similarly well-rounded when it comes to theatrical experiences. That is the prime objective, he said, of the college’s new theatre major.

“We’d been seeing more interest in a theatre major,” he said. “What we decided is, with the way our CATA (communication and theater arts) major was set up, it wouldn’t take much more to make it a full-fledged major.”

Rankin feels the addition will be a “good recruiting tool” for the college, as it will set it apart from other schools.

“We think we’ll be able to serve our current majors much better,” he said. “They’re going to learn a lot more skills than they would have. Every theatre major is going to cover all the bases. That’s pretty rare. You won’t find many liberal arts colleges that offer that many skills.”

Specifically, Rankin referred to a pair of courses that offer exciting opportunities. He described “Theatre Performance” as “an upper-level course that majors are required to take once and that they can take twice. The students help with the scenery, lighting, costumes and make-up for whatever production is being done that semester.”

Rankin added, “It’s somewhat flexible, in that they can provide whatever help is needed that particular year. It lets them cover more areas and have a more extensive study of theatre than what a normal course would allow. The students who do take it a second time will likely work on two totally different types of productions. They’ll get a real-world experience that not many other colleges can offer.”

Another unique twist to the theatre major is the bi-annual offering “Theatre Repertory Company.”

“The class will do the entire production – publicity, acting, lights, costumes,” said Rankin of a course that neatly mirrors many of his MC experiences through the years. “They’ll be in charge of all the major decisions that need to be made.”

The diversity of experiences was intentionally designed into the curriculum, Rankin explained.

“All of our majors are required to maintain an electronic portfolio, and these experiences help ensure that their portfolios will be first-rate.”

Rankin said the new major would not have been possible without consistent support from donors throughout the years.

“All of this is tied to faculty salaries,” he said. “Various endowments have been set up by generous donors to help provide for some of those salaries and for some of our equipment.”

According to Monmouth’s academic catalog, the major has been designed to include all the skills necessary to produce excellent theatre, such as acting, directing, design and management. It also provides experiences that are relevant to life-long learning, including creativity, working in a collaborative environment, achieving self-expression and increasing self-confidence. Theatre is both a profession and an art and, whether they are preparing graduate study or using their skills in endeavors such as teaching or the media, theatre majors will gain experiences in applying creative solutions to life’s challenges.

For his part, Rankin said, “I teach in such a way that theatre is a craft and a learned skill. Anyone can master it. Once you learn how to manipulate it, there’s no one right way or one wrong way.”

Although his skills were honed in productions at Monmouth, Rankin “mastered” the craft, literally, as a graduate student at Northwestern University. After working two years in public relations at his alma mater, he served as a teaching assistant at Northwestern from 1981-84. Rankin earned his MFA in scenic design there in 1986, then served as the university’s house carpenter for two years before joining the MC faculty.

As for his skill at creating scenes, MC emeritus professor Jim De Young wrote, “In the years (Rankin) has been designing sets in Wells Theater, he has found a space that can truly cope with his fertile imagination and striking sense of painted décor and three-dimensional detail.”

De Young made reference to the fact that the Wells Theater provides much more room than its predecessor, and that was a theme that was also touched on by Willey in her 1991 article about “The Lion in Winter.”

“The Monmouth College theater is no longer the Little Red Barn plus a dream,” she wrote. “It is a reality, a teaching theater, and you have just seen the first semester’s product.”

Nearly two decades later, that “teaching theater” has been taken to another level. Monmouth’s first semester with a theatre major is nearly complete, and Rankin, his faculty colleagues and MC’s students are excited to see what lies ahead.