When Stephen Skiles became Xavier University’s director of theater in 2012, he wasn’t exactly a newcomer. His experience and background have helped him in bringing to the school a lively and often topical series of productions, like the one that opens the new season Wednesday night, Slut Shaming. It was first staged at the 2014 Cincinnati Fringe.
Inspired by real events in Steubenville, Ohio, when a young woman was raped and then scorned through social media, it’s a story relevant on today’s college campuses where sexual conduct is a hot-button topic.
“We’ve had some meetings over the summer with 15 to 17 programs and departments working with us on it,” Skiles says. “To me, it’s the most important show we’re doing this year.”
Skiles’ first experience on Xavier’s Evanston campus was a decade earlier than 2012. He’d only been teaching in 2002 for a few weeks when he eagerly told his wife, “This is where I want to be.”
“I knew it almost immediately,” he says today. “The students were terrific, and there was a great energy. They didn’t even have a major, but there was interest. I knew if I could dictate my career, I wanted to write a degree program at Xavier.”
After graduating in 1994 from Indiana’s Hanover College with a theater major, Skiles acted with Fahrenheit Theatre Company, the initial incarnation of today’s Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Grad school at Ohio University was next, including a third-year internship at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
He subsequently became the Playhouse’s company manager, supporting actor logistics. His inclination to teach landed him a job in 2004 as Anderson High School’s drama director.
In 2007, he headed north to teach at the University of Akron. But Xavier was still on his mind; he spent eight weeks in 2009 commuting from northeast Ohio to stage a production of the musical Urinetown at Xavier’s Gallagher Student Center Theatre. In 2010, he returned to southwest Ohio as chair of theater and dance at Dayton’s Sinclair Community College. Two years later, Xavier hired him to establish a theater degree program.
He didn’t want to copy programs at other local universities such as the University of Cincinnati’s respected College-Conservatory of Music.
“They’re incredible in what they do,” Skiles says, “and they have a long history. But it’s a B.F.A. program, and their students are training professionally. They’re not getting a liberal arts education. Xavier students come to get a ‘large’ education.”
Skiles broadens student experiences by engaging theater professionals as a core aspect of the Xavier program. He invites local directors and actors for productions, master classes and audition training. In 2013, a director and actors from Cincinnati Shakespeare worked with students to stage a much-admired production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Last fall, he engaged Ed Stern — retired artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse — to stage a show.
That practice has been a cornerstone of Skiles’ program. “In four years, I’ve never had someone say no,” he says. “The Cincinnati theater scene is incredible, and that played into our thinking in 2012. Why not tap these resources? Our community here in Cincinnati wants to share.”
Xavier’s program is young, with just eight grads so far. Skiles says he’s “batting a thousand” with them. All eight are pursuing theatrical careers — some in grad school, others with professional internships.
“From their first day, they’re mingling with professionals,” he says. “By the time they graduate, they have a long list they’ve worked with, many of them multiple times.”
Beyond Stern, current students have worked with directors such as Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers and Cincy Shakes’ Brian Phillips, as well as veteran actors including Bruce Cromer, Torie Wiggins and Pamela Myers, who has Broadway experience.
“That’s a huge thing to offer,” Skiles says.
Skiles encourages majors (there will be 45 this fall; the program’s goal is 64) toward broader horizons. “Most of our students are double majors,” he says. “I really like that. They’re experiencing the whole universe of a college campus. Here you are at a great university, getting a great general education with great departments and programs. I tell them to get the experience, do another major or take two or three minors.”
Skiles fundamentally believes theater in a college setting should be “the crossroads of the curriculum.” “We can offer an insight into any subject in a very humanistic way,” he says.
Trey Tatum’s Slut Shaming is an example of that. The playwright and his wife, director Bridget Leak, worked with Xavier students on this production, which is onstage Wednesday through Sunday. Skiles saw the show in 2014 and envisioned staging it at Xavier with Tatum and Leak involved. He recognized the show’s relevance to campus conversations.
“This is something a theater program can do that I don’t think any other program on campus can do,” he says.
Xavier students can see the show for free thanks to four on-campus sponsors. “Whatever is not sponsored, we’ll just give away free tickets,” he says. “There will be a small number of community tickets available.”
Skiles has more plans for topical programming, including a reading of the 9/11 aftermath play, The Guys, on Sept. 11, and one for The Vagina Monologues next February.
Xavier’s ambitious upcoming season includes productions of The Music Man (October); Jim Leonard Jr.’s The Diviners (November); Hamlet (February); The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), staged by Stern (February); Into the Woods, staged by ETC’s Meyers (April); and Annie Baker’s The Aliens (April). It’s likely that more and more Cincinnati theatergoers will pay attention to productions at Xavier this year and beyond.
SLUT SHAMING, presented by Xavier University Theatre, will be onstage Wednesday-Sunday at the Gallagher Student Center Theatre. If free tickets remain, visit xavier.edu/tickets for information about obtaining them.