A Sense of the Stage

by Empish J. Thomas, Lithonia, Georgia

Imagine seeing the stage of a college-level production of one of your favorite Shakespearean plays. Where do you set up the props? Where should the actors stand or sit? How should the lighting be placed? These and many more are the questions, David Richman, Professor of Theater and Humanities at the University of New Hampshire, must answer when working with his students.

“You must have a sense of the stage,” said Richman, who has been a theater professor for 24 years. “Reading a script is different than what is happening on the actual stage.” Richman, who lost all his vision after turning 12, uses his imagination, visual memories and some sighted assistance to help him set up the scene. He teaches and directs the classical Greek and Shakespearean plays that have few stage directions in the actual written script. “You have to imagine how the scene will look,” said Richman. He also pulls from his childhood of attending numerous plays. “I grew up in Philadelphia and was always in the theater and loved the language,” he said. “When I got older, I became even more interested in literature and poetry and wanted a career where I could combine them.”

This passion for the stage was the driving force behind the career that Richman has today. He decided that teaching theater on a college versus professional level would be easier for him to do with his visual impairment. “I wanted to create a job that would allow me to do most of what I wanted to do,” said Richman. “I wanted to teach the older plays like Greek and Shakespeare. I knew the academic route would be my best bet.” So Richman applied for positions and thought that it would be fairly easy to get a teaching job, but he was wrong. “University teaching positions were scarce then and even (more) now,” he said. “Some positions have 200 or 300 applications for one job. Also, once professors get tenure, they tend to stay until retirement.”

Richman credits his ability to break into teaching by “having self-knowledge” and being straightforward when interacting with others. “I examined all my opportunities, looking at what I could and could not do,” he said. “I was realistic and upfront with everyone I was dealing with. I mention my blindness myself because it sets the stage for what happens going forward.”

He uses that same straightforward principle in his classes as well. He is open about his disability to his students. He tells them that he will not know if they are sleeping in his class, but he will sporadically call on them. He encourages them to be prepared for the lecture and ready to answer questions in the class discussion. “I tell them on Day One how the lectures will be,” he said. “I don’t use PowerPoint or slides but more discussion.” He also notes that he is unaware of any students dropping his class due to his disability. He reasons that this is due to his years of being at the university and his good reputation as an instructor. Richman teaches a full load each semester, between 3 to 5 courses, and directs one play during the year. Every seven years he takes a sabbatical to work on a project; this time he was in Connecticut directing ROMEO AND JULIET. He teaches a basic introduction to theater and humanities courses, along with advanced courses for the theater majors. He is venturing into teaching online courses, too. “I can record the lectures, and the students can sign on and listen,” he said. “Currently, I am only offering intro courses during the summer semester online.”

Part of the reason that Richman chose a career teaching classical plays was the easier access to the literature. “I do use audio cassettes and screen reading software on my computer,” said Richman, “but a lot of the plays are also available in braille.” He uses a braille embosser to print out his scripts to read when he is directing on stage. He also uses a white cane to navigate safely around campus. “I have memorized my route around campus,” he said. “I work primarily in the art building but ask for help for places I don’t frequent.”

Richman is approaching his last phases of teaching at 60 years old. “I want to keep teaching for another ten years,” he said. “I have made an agreement with the dean to teach more than the usual load versus publishing work in journals, and we are both happy with the arrangement.”