Since his arrival at IPFW in 2007, when he first accepted the position of chair at the university’s Department of Theatre, John O’Connell has become an increasingly influential member of the community. Having become the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts – first as an interim dean in 2012, then filling the role on a permanent basis in 2013 – O’Connell has also become a valuable resource for other arts entities in the city, mostly notably as a director and advisor for a couple of recent Fort Wayne Youtheatre productions.
The fact that he landed here is hardly accidental, since O’Connell already had a close connection to the city before he moved here himself. Brother Dan is the president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne and provided John both an incentive to move and a positive appraisal of life in the Summit City.
The seventh of eight children, O’Connell grew up in Minnesota and was driven to serve from a young age. While he was drawn to music and theater, his real interests leaned toward community, specifically mentally handicapped youth. At the age of 13 he began his own chapter of ARC after attending a convention and determining a need in his community. His training in the area came via a summer camp, but since the camp was short of counselors, his training lasted a day before he was put to work. He ended up running the camp for the next four summers while he attended college. But theater was always part of the mix, even as he saw his career possibly going another way.
“I was active in my high school musicals, and we had Sister Judine Sutor directing all of these shows,” says O’Connell. “I was in 13 performances in high school, which was just a huge number of productions for a high school to be doing. They were big, huge musicals too, and she would hire choreographers and bring in costume designers. I kind of fell into my theater degree in college because I hadn’t intended on it, but I kept taking the classes until I was told that if I took four more, I’d have a theater degree.”
Although advised to pursue graduate school, O’Connell opted to get a job and take some time off from academics. Even future professors can face the dread of writing more papers, it seems. But his administrative jobs at facilities which served adults with mental disabilities had a ceiling, and O’Connell felt he had accomplished all he could there and was ready eventually to look toward a career in theater.
“I decided to move to New York City. Four of my friends from my university theater program had already gone to New York, so I had a place to stay when I got there. I arrived there on September 1, 1983, but once I got there I realized I had a bit of an identity crisis. I wasn’t sure if I was an actor or a director, and I was also stage manager for some off-off-Broadway shows. I just never really found my niche.”
It wasn’t until O’Connell began his graduate studies at the University of Alabama that he found his calling. By this time he had already met future husband Jim Williams, and together they found a home – for a few years at least – in Tuscaloosa.
“Once I decided to pursue my MFA in directing, that’s when I knew I had found that niche. I didn’t start graduate school until 1995, so I was 37, much older than everyone else. I had gone through a two-year process of taking the GRE and applying to eight graduate programs. I was eventually accepted to four and chose Alabama.”
Although O’Connell loved directing, he says he always knew he’d eventually end up in a classroom, which is one of the primary reasons he chose Alabama.
“The other programs offered assistantships which would have meant acting as stage manager, but the program in Alabama offered an assistantship in teaching so I was able to get three years of teaching experience while I worked on my MFA.”
O’Connell and Williams left Alabama for Arkansas in 1998, where Williams worked on an MFA in book arts while O’Connell taught and eventually ran the BFA program. The couple knew they weren’t planning to stay in Arkansas permanently, however, and ideas of landing in Indiana were already creeping into view.
“We spent our 40s in Arkansas, but we knew we didn’t want to spend our 50s there. We were already coming to Fort Wayne a couple times a year to visit my brother and his family. Their youngest is our godson. We’d come for the holidays, and we’d rent a lake cottage in the summer. In the meantime I applied for 300 positions over the course of nine years. Theater positions are very competitive, especially in directing, so in those nine years I got two nibbles: Vermont and IPFW.”
After Larry Life’s death, the chair position in the Dept. of Theatre, one which he had held for many years, was open, and O’Connell was eventually offered and accepted the job. He quickly took on the teaching and administrative duties which came with that job as well as directing plays in several of the community theaters. He might have continued on in that capacity indefinitely, but when the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts left in 2012, he was asked to serve as interim while a national search was conducted for a permanent replacement.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to test the waters,” says O’Connell. “If you had told me I’d be dean one day, I’d have said ‘Yeah, right. Now have another drink.’ But it was a good way to try that hat on and see how it fit. When the search was going on, I was one of the three finalists, and in 2013 I was named full-time dean. They say everyone will have five careers in their lifetime, and I’ve had five – actor, stage manager, director of a BFA program, chair of a department and now dean – and this is the best job I’ve ever had. I liked being a chair, but I love advocating for multiple arts, not to mention music teachers, art teachers, theater teachers and students.”
O’Connell also relishes many of the partnerships he’s been able to establish, ones which strengthen the academic advancement of his students and contribute to the artistic wealth of the community at large, bringing Indian music and performance to town while connecting his theater program to Youtheatre, where he directed a production of Oliver! in 2013. He also took a group of IPFW students, a 50-piece wind ensemble, to Carnegie Hall during their recent spring break. Having just married Williams last July 4, O’Connell has definitely found his niche, and his home, here in Fort Wayne.
“We bought a lake cabin in 2012 up near Columbia City. Jim is on our faculty and teaches here full-time. It’s very rare that a couple can both teach at the same institution, and we’re happy here. Our roots are growing very deep.”
Thursday, April 27
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Community Unity — Community dinner, games and prizes, and neighborhood safety forum, 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Jennings Recreation Center, Fort Wayne, free, 427-6028
Issues and Ales — Panel of experts discuss important issues in the community with audience Q&A , 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits, Fort Wayne, free, 456-7005
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Chris Worth — Variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Fort Wayne Comedy Connection — Comedy at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Hubie Ashcraft — Acoustic at River View Tavern, Decatur, 7-10 p.m., no cover, 724-3500
Open Mic — Hosted by Mike Mowry at Pedal City, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 415-6167
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Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Karaoke at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 422-5055
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., ,
Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at By: Belle Haven, South Whitley, 8 p.m., no cover, 866-716-9243
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Shut Up and Sing — Karaoke at Duesy's Sports Bar, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 483-5681
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-1311
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Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, April 26-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
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37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3 , Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru April 30, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568