From left are Kenneth W. Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State University; Dr. Kenn Stilson, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Southeast; and Dr. David Russell, Missouri commissioner of higher education.
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., April 21, 2015 – Dr. Kenneth L. Stilson, professor of acting, directing and musical theatre and chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance at Southeast Missouri State University, was honored with the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education April 7 at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Recipients of the Governor’s Award are selected by their respective institutions for their demonstrated excellence as a teacher, extraordinary levels of scholarship and service, and accomplishments that are especially noteworthy.
“It was a wonderful event,” Stilson said. “Winning this award came as a complete surprise. It’s simply not something you think about–winning a prestigious award such as this for simply doing what you love to do.”
On hand for the event were deans, provosts, chancellors and presidents from universities and colleges across Missouri. Gov. Jay Nixon delivered the keynote address. Also attending were Dr. Kenneth W. Dobbins, president of Southeast, and his wife, Jeanine Larson Dobbins; Stilson’s wife Rhonda Weller Stilson, director of the Earl and Margie Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Southeast; and their daughter, Emma.
“Kenn Stilson is an extraordinarily talented actor, director and playwright who Southeast students have had the great fortune to learn from over the past 14 years,” said Kenneth W. Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State University. “He has dedicated himself to his profession, and his commitment is demonstrated season after season in incredible performances that come to life on stage at Southeast’s River Campus. His vision for Southeast’s Department of Theatre and Dance has sparked tremendous growth in theatre and dance majors from 75 in 2005 to 165 in 2014. Because of his contributions, Southeast’s theatre and dance program now has a national presence and its graduates are finding success on stage and in film. I am thrilled to congratulate Kenn on this recognition from the governor. This award underscores what we at Southeast already know about this tremendous educator.”
Stilson says that, as a professor, he has the best job in the world and that it is not really a job, but something he is passionate about doing.
“It’s what I dream about, and it’s what makes me the most happy. I get to explore my imagination every day. I get to experience stories through the lives of other people living in imaginary worlds. I get to investigate the depths of the human experience and, in the process, live vicariously through these people,” he said.
“As a storyteller, I get to travel to distant lands and have wonderful adventures. Time travel? Not a problem in my world. I’ve been involved with shows set anywhere from ancient Greece to the Renaissance to contemporary societies to futuristic worlds that exist only in the imagination,” Stilson said. “How cool is that? Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lot of hard work—and I put in long hours seven days a week—but I love it. I don’t know how to do anything else, and I don’t want to know.”
Stilson is a professor as well as a director, published author, playwright and screenwriter. He says he teaches technique to smart, talented, beautiful and highly motivated young professionals.
“We create an imaginary world—in the musical I’m directing now, it’s the world of Dr. Seuss—and I get to help these actors create characters, everything from Whos, to elephants, monkeys and birds to Grinches—who must act and behave truthfully given the circumstances,” he said. “Some worlds are very close to our own, where people are similar to you and me. In other worlds, however, the laws of physics are different. People can fly. Animals can talk. Magic is real. Ghosts exist and can influence the human world. In ‘Seussical,’ an entire world that is no larger than the head of a pin exists, and it is up to Horton the Elephant to save that world from destruction. At the same time, Horton must protect an egg and help give birth to an elephant bird. It’s fantastic stuff.
As an author, Stilson writes acting theory, helping students around the world learn a repeatable technique for acting in film, television and film. As a playwright and screenwriter, he creates stories and invents people from scratch.
“That, for me, is the most enjoyable form of writing,” he said.
Stilson was honored in December with Southeast Missouri State University’s Provost’s Research, Instruction and Development for Excellence (PRIDE) Award, which is presented to a faculty member who exemplifies the teacher/scholar model.
He has played an instrumental role in building the professional training programs in theatre and dance at Southeast, which recently received accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST).
As a professional director, writer, and actor, he has worked in such theatres as the Lincoln Center (New York City), American Academy of Dramatic Art/Hudson Theatre (Hollywood, California), Southern Repertory Theatre (New Orleans, Louisiana), Le Petite Theatre (New Orleans), Alabama Lyric Theatre, Stage West Theatre (Ft. Worth, Texas), Shakespeare in the Park (Ft. Worth, Texas), First Run Theatre (St. Louis, Missouri), University of Missouri’s Summer Repertory Theatre, Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival, Mississippi Shakespeare Festival and the Last Frontier Theatre Festival (Alaska).
From Shakespeare to modern musicals and plays, he also has directed more than 55 university theatre productions for Southeast Missouri State University, Texas Wesleyan University, Texas Woman’s University, Stetson University, The University of South Alabama, and The University of Missouri-Columbia. Last fall, he directed the musical “Hairspray” on Southeast’s River Campus. He has been an acting coach for 23 years, and he has many former students working professionally in theatre, film and television, including two who have recently won Obie Awards and Tony Awards.
Stilson directed and co-wrote the feature film, “Fire Lily,” for Victory Film Productions. The film is based on his own play, “Where the Lilies Grow,” winner of the Critic’s Choice Award at the Edward Albee/Yukon Pacific New Play Lab. “Fire Lily” was later produced by the American Academy of Dramatic Art in Hollywood, and it was adapted to the screenplay, “Fire Lily,” in 2006. Stilson directed that film, having co-written it with Fred Jones of the Southeast faculty and Shirlee Wilson. The film went on to win Best Feature Film, Best Cinematography and Best Actress at the American Artist Film Festival (Kansas City/New York City/Los Angeles), and it was an official entry at the Lakeside Film Festival in Michigan.
He also has published “Ezra Stone: A Theatrical Biography,” as well as numerous national and international articles on acting and theatre. His play, “The Cow and the Milk,” was produced as part of the Mizzou New Play Series, The Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska, and Southeast’s 2011-2012 Second Stage Series, and was recently selected as part of Focus Publishing’s anthology, “Best Monologues from the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, 2009-2012.”
His most recent play, “Murphy’s Law,” won three major playwriting awards: 6th Annual Southwest Playwriting Competition (Actors’ Equity Association), the First Run Theatre’s 2013 Annual Playwriting Festival and Excellence in Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, where it was recently presented as part of the Regional VI annual festival. “Murphy’s Law” premiered in April 2013 at Southeast’s River Campus.
Stilson earned a doctoral degree in theatre in 1991 and a Master of Arts in theatre in 1987, both from the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he studied under the tutelage of Dr. Larry D. Clark. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in theatre from Southeast Missouri State University.
Before returning to Southeast in 2001, Stilson served as head of acting/directing programs at the University of South Alabama, Texas Wesleyan University and Stetson University (Florida), and as an instructor of theatre at Tulane University.
Stilson is best known as the author of the classic text, “Acting Is Believing,” 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th editions, with the late Larry D. Clark and the late Charles McGaw, which has been adopted by more than 150 universities and colleges around the world.
He continues to serve in leadership roles on numerous national committees, and, over the past 15 years, has presented master classes and presentations at various regional and national conventions and at numerous universities, colleges and high schools.
Stilson and his wife Rhonda Weller-Stilson, director of the Earl and Margie Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Southeast, are the parents of a daughter, Emma.
Stilson is a 1979 graduate of Malden High School. He is the son of Juanita Cook, a 1954 graduate of Malden High School, who now lives in Cape Girardeau, and the late Jack D. Cook.