(First published in the November 14, 2019 issue of City Pages)
When professor Sarah Rudolph retires this spring, so also goes Wausau’s UW theatre program, which brought to town the kind of art no else dared to show.
Sarah Rudolph, outside the James Veninga Theater in the UW Center for Civic Engagement in Wausau. Rudolph will retire after nearly 30 years at UW Wausau campus.
Protesters lined the streets outside several churches in Wausau on a Sunday morning in March 2003. They weren’t from Wausau. They weren’t even from Wisconsin. They belonged to a cultish church led by Fred Phelps and famous for the most odious of tactics. Their group, the Westboro Baptist Church, made their name by protesting soldiers funerals, and holding up signs that say, “God hates fags.”
But as they showed up to protest, Sarah Rudolph could only smile. The theater professor at UW-Marathon, now called UW-Stevens Point at Wausau, was putting on a play called The Laramie Project, about the aftermath of the murder of a 21-year-old gay man in Laramie, Wyo.
The production mattered to Rudolph for a couple of reasons. For one, she grew up in the small town of Laramie, and even knew a lot of the people depicted in the play. For another, Rudolph has never been afraid of controversy. When she first arrived in Wausau to teach theater at the UW campus, she was told by the outgoing theater teacher that her play selections would never fly in conservative Wausau.
Over the course of nearly three decades, that wasn’t advice Rudolph would ever listen to as she time and again chose plays and musicals that challenged conventional thinking and would inspire deeper conversation. She became known for her talk-backs held after shows that allowed the audience to participate in conversation, learn more, and in that sense engage the broader community.
There was no fear of course. That same season Rudolph also planned the first Vagina Monologues show, for which she expected much more controversy. But the main controversy, making national headlines, came from The Laramie Project.
With that in mind, Rudolph could only smile in the face of the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church. “That was the most incredible thing,” Rudolph says of the controversy surrounding Fred Phelps and The Laramie Project. “You couldn’t ask for better press.”
Her response was typical of Rudolph, who former coworkers and staff describe as taking her craft extremely seriously but never taking herself seriously; of always lending an ear and acting as a mentor… and seemingly always in a perpetual hunt for her lost keys.
The Laramie Project proved to be the most controversial of the many productions Rudolph has shepherded into the Wausau area over the years. Rudolph will be folding up her director’s chair at the end of the school year as, at age 60, she is set to retire.
And so is the program.
After Rudolph retires, there won’t be any more Theater Department at UWSP-Wausau. Enrollments have been low at the campus, and recent productions included more community members than UW students.
Of course, you can take Rudolph out of the theater, but you can’t take the theater out of Rudolph. She’s already working with UWSP-Wausau officials to keep theater going in some form or another on campus, possibly through continuing education.
Higher learning autonomy
Rudolph had no intentions of following her father’s footsteps, despite his encouragement to the contrary. “My father was a lawyer and thought everyone should be a lawyer,” Rudolph says. “I liked theater and I wanted to act so I went to NYC.”
Rudolph enrolled in a program called Circle in the Square, a theater on Broadway with a little school attached (which still exists today and which boasts alumni such as the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). But the Big Apple was just a little too much for this young woman from Wyoming, and though she enjoyed it, she only stayed for a summer session, and returned home.
Some tried to get her to stay, share a studio and go on auditions as much as they could. “I didn’t want that lack of stability,” Rudolph says. “The people I met there were a different kind of person… They wanted it so much.”
Rudolph instead decided to continue her education, earning a PhD from UW-Madison. In 1991 she applied for many theater department jobs and the post at UW-Marathon sounded like a good place to start. She thought Wausau seemed like a nice city and that she would be here a couple of years. Her husband, Brad Schmicker, who worked in lighting, took one look at UWMC’s theater at the time and told her, “Oh God, get out of here.”
“But look now,” Rudolph says, seated on tables outside the James F. Veninga Theater in the Center for Civic Engagement Building. “If you complain about something persistently for 20 years…” she adds with a wry smile.
She didn’t initially think she would last long in Wausau. Her friends in Madison said things like, “You’re not going to stay there, are you?”
But Rudolph fell in love with the two-year campus’ mix of traditional and returning adult students, the fact that so many students were the first generation in their families to attend college, and the close-knit, working class community UW-Marathon offered.
And it gave her complete autonomy over which shows to choose, which she took full advantage of. It wasn’t always easy. “That’s overwhelming, to be the sole person in charge of productions,” Rudolph says.
But she never veered from a potentially controversial or difficult subject matter. There was the Vagina Monologues. There was a play about abortion. Another involving an onstage suicide. It’s a fearless approach to subject matter that would inspire her students, including one now in charge of another theater group in Wausau.
Ka Lo first joined one of Rudolph’s productions in 1999 when Rudolph needed an Asian female for a part in a play called A Piece of My Heart. Lo was still in high school at the time, but Rudolph couldn’t find someone at UW-Marathon so she reached out to high schools.
Lo eventually became a student at UWMC and participated in all of Rudolph’s productions during her time there. She even joined some productions as a community volunteer when she returned to Wausau after finishing up her degree at Waukesha Tech. “Sarah’s productions, she has always been very serious about them,” Lo says. “They always have some sort of social learning to them. She doesn’t just put on a show because it’s good and popular.”
Rudolph is an empathetic person who is always ready to lend an ear to her performers and crew, and protective of them, Lo says. She takes her productions seriously, and things got more serious near production time, but the atmosphere was always close and friendly, she says. “A lot of people thought of her as a mentor,” Lo says. “I think a lot of people trusted her.”
Justin Evans, now the executive director of Central Wisconsin Children’s Theatre, met Rudolph in a similar fashion, when he was still a junior high school student of about 13. He met her when Wausau Community Theater and UWMC Theater put on a joint production of Oliver. He admits he was a little intimidated by Rudolph because of her vast theater knowledge, until her got to know her better.
Like Lo, Evans eventually attended UWMC. He later attended UW-Milwaukee for vocal performance, moved to L.A. for a couple of years pursuing a music career, and moved back to Wausau.
In May, Evans became the director of CWCT. Evans was always inspired by Rudolph’s bold choices in theater productions, and says audience will soon see that inspiration with some of the CWCT’s selections as well. “I feel strongly that our organization needs to connect with kids on a relevant level,” Evans says. “We need to start a dialogue in the community.”
Rudolph often steered into controversy, Evans says. When Stevens Point Area High School wouldn’t allow the play Urinetown to be performed, Rudolph produced the hilarious, edgy musical in Wausau, promoting it with posters that read, “Banned in Stevens Point – see what all the fuss is about!”
Through her talk backs and bold performing arts choices, Rudolph fostered community and student engagement, making the UW Wausau campus seem like a good option for many young people with an artistic bent. Evans, like Lo, says Rudolph (along with vocal instructor Bill Day) influenced his decision to attend UW-Marathon County.
Ann Herda-Rapp, now currently campus executive of UWSP-Wausau, remembers being a little bewildered when she first arrived on campus as a sociology professor. Rudolph was one of two newly tenured faculty members, along with Lisa Seale. “Both scared the devil out of me,” Herda-Rapp says. “They were both so productive. They did so much, seemed so confident and productive.”
Herda-Rapp says Rudolph approached difficult topics exactly as universities should — not pushing an agenda or particular side of an issue, but fostering a conversation. “She just stares down controversy and difficult conversations,” Herda-Rapp says. “She approaches them honestly, like we need to have those conversations.”
While Rudolph is great at producing exceptional and thought provoking plays, fostering community conversation and mentoring students, there is one thing she was not good at: Keeping track of her keys.
“She loses her keys about once per week,” Herda-Rapp says.
Everyone else laughs when asked about inability to keep track of her keys. “She loses them all the time,” Lo says. Even a lanyard didn’t seem to help. “We would say ‘you just had them!’ Maybe that’s why the theater was open all the time?”
Evans could only laugh. “I can’t say how many times at the end of rehearsal she’d say: ‘Where did I put my keys?’” Evan says. “I think it’s because she likes to talk with her hands, so she puts them down. She gets really into what she’s doing and she walks away.”
It might seem like a simple note of endearment from those who know her, it but points to something about her personality: Rudolph did great work, but didn’t have an ego about it. “It would be easy when you’re the head of the department and you’re known for doing great work to have an ego, but she never did,” Evans says. “It was always on to the next thing.”
What’s next for Sarah, and for theater at UWSP-Wausau? Most, including Rudolph herself, doubt she will be able to stay away from theater for too long. Herda-Rapp and Rudolph are discussing the possibility of her teaching some kind of continuing ed. Evans says CWCT’s goal is to play a larger role in local theater, and he could definitely see a role for Rudolph in that plan.
Rudolph hopes that if enrollment at the Wausau campus turns around, perhaps the university can once again hire a theater professor.
Rudolph can be proud of a career of bucking trends, pushing boundaries and inspiring conversations in the community. “I feel good that I exposed people to things they hadn’t seen or wouldn’t have otherwise,” Rudolph says.
That said, sitting down with Rudolph for a couple of hours outside the James Veninga Theater at the Center for Civic Engagement, it’s hard to mistake the passion still burning in her for theater and the conversations it can spark. Wausau isn’t likely to have seen the final curtain call of Sarah Rudolph.