Nyalls Hartman takes the helm of Performing Arts at Louisiana, with extensive professional experience as a teacher, director, and actor. ultoday.com spoke with him recently.

Tell us about yourself.

I'm originally from New York. I'm a professional director, a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. I've been teaching & directing throughout the U.S. for over 25 years.

Prior to coming to UL, I was the Dean of Arts & Humanities at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. Before that, I was head of the directing studio at the University of Kentucky. I'm also the founding Artistic Director of the People's Repertory Theatre in New York.

My interests include experimental theatre, theatre of social action, solo performance, and farce.

Sounds edgy.

You know, I have a very strong opinion about the role of theatre in society. I believe your work defines you, and your approach to your work is about your integrity.

For me, theatre has to be about effecting change in the community. I think the shows you choose to perform have to somehow relate to the interests of the community.

Can you give some examples?

A number of years ago I directed Hair, and it's not the light, fun piece most people think it is. It's a scathing commentary on the societal problems of that time, and even today.

At that time I was in New York, and the local community was rife with racial issues. In Hair there is a song "Colored Spade," that uses-- and lampoons-- every single black racial epithet. The only way to make that work was to have black and white actors singing it, because the purpose of the song was to bring to the community's attention to how inappropriate it all was, to remind them we're all human beings.

It was timely. It was a good choice of production for the community, because now they could step back and look at the issue in a more detached, and more enjoyable manner.

So theatre can serve as the King's Fool, the one person who could safely get the King to laugh at himself, and to reconsider his decisions.

Yes. Bertolt Brecht dealt with this by using an approach he called "historicization." He placed plays in distant time periods so that people could investigate social and political issues without the government complaining. Arthur Miller did the same thing during the McCarthy Red Scare with The Crucible.

That's why I'm now doing The Living by Anthony Clarvoe. It takes place during the plague of 1665. It deals with the government's response-- or lack of response-- to the crisis at hand. But it's really about the government's response to AIDS in the 1990's. It's a lot about the numbers, and how the government wasn't following the numbers.

And today, what's happening? Right now, AIDS is a huge problem among teens, but no one seems to be paying attention. A couple of months ago at the world AIDS conference, it emerged that the US is underreporting the incidence of AIDS by 40%. And we're hearing nothing about it.

So socially, it's a good play for the community to see, it's ripe with issues that are current. It's also a great piece of theatre, and it's a great piece for young actors learning their craft.

Why did you choose to come to UL?

I came to rebuild the Performing Arts program at UL, and to bring viable training to the theatre area. We have a strong legacy in dance, many years of a rich dance program. The goal is to rebuild this as a training program. We want to strengthen Dance, and rebuild the curriculum in Theatre.

It was an opportunity to build another program, and to try a different approach. I'm taking a consensus approach to building the program, and everyone has ownership, including the students. We put together a Students' Advisory Council. The students sit in on the faculty meetings, and we meet with the student body twice a month.

One of the issues we took up recently was building security. We need lock-down buildings, because we rehearse at odd hours. After the NIU shootings, we were dealing with security issues. Students were propping doors open for ventilation, or just to let people come & go, and I said it was too dangerous. It was important to build consensus to resolve the problem. It took half an hour, everyone spoke, but the students finally bought into our scheduled lock-down hours.

We're going to work healthy, and we're going to work happy, with a can-do attitude. We're going to focus on our work, on classes, and on grades.

What we're not going to have is a divisive program, or a competitive one. It's funny in the professional world. Actors are not just competing with one another for roles, at other times they're also dance partners and scene partners. So the only way to succeed is to collaborate.

How do you like UL so far?

The University has been so supportive of us. They're doing several multi-million-dollar renovations, to both our training facilities and our performance spaces. They've given us almost $100K of equipment, and they funded a new lighting system for $100K. They also funded a faculty position. They've been very supportive.

I've been here a little more than a year. I'm enjoying southern Louisiana. I've been enjoying the Zydeco, the dancing, the music, and I'm enjoying working with my colleagues here at UL. I have a great team, I'm really lucky. We're all new except for Kenneth Jenkins.

So it's a really great time to come here. We have a great team, we have a lot of support, and we have some great students.