Working in the Arts: Dr. Ellen Peck receives a Fulbright Scholarship

Working in the Arts: Dr. Ellen Peck receives a Fulbright Scholarship
Dr. Ellen Peck
Dr. Ellen Peck (courtesy Matt Reynolds/JSU)

Alumna Ellen Peck (BA ‘95), associate professor of theatre at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, is spending the current academic year researching and teaching at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Romania as a Fulbright Scholar.

Peck, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills where her parents still live, and attended Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, originally planned to be a musical theatre major, but she was encouraged by OU faculty to shift her focus to behind the scenes. They saw her strengths, and recognized she would be great on a production team. “At first I was devastated,” said Peck, “but I began to see I really did have skills. Susan Barrett, the design professor at that time, encouraged me to go into lighting. When I graduated I had the option of both lighting and stage managing. I ended up going into stage management because I enjoyed being close to the show.”

In the 1990s OU’s theatre program was small and students were able to participate in just about every aspect of production and performance. Peck says those experiences, and the faculty’s counseling, helped her find her place in the theatre world. She worked as a professional stage manager for almost ten years.

She started with internships at various regional theatres, until Judith Schoenfeld asked her to join her team at the acclaimed Spoleto Festival in Charleston, NC. In addition to being part of the crew that worked one-off events, Schoenfeld wanted Peck as the assistant stage manager for the festival’s production of Luisa Miller by Verde.

“That was my first opera,” said Peck, “and I really enjoyed it. I had all these preconceptions about opera singers and they were mostly wrong. From there, I mostly stage managed opera, including my very next job, which was at Michigan Opera Theatre. I was an assistant stage manager there for three seasons and did ten or eleven shows.”

After ten years managing people, and everything else, backstage, Peck found she missed using her analytical brain. Although running a big crew for a huge production like an opera is challenging work, she missed having intellectual input into the production itself, especially since she knew she had always been good at interpreting plays and finding the underlying themes.

The academic life began to look attractive, so she applied to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with supporting recommendation letters from OU’s Professor Karen Sheridan and Professor Emeritus Michael Gillespie, among others. In 2004 she was accepted to study Theatre History and began work on an MFA, leading to a PhD which she completed in 2009.

Peck decided to focus her research on her first love, musical theatre. Her specialty is musical theatre in the early twentieth century, especially the work of women writers. She was introduced to music professor Jeffrey Magee, an expert in the field. He became her director of research and remains a great mentor.

She wrote her dissertation on the work of three women, Rida Johnson Young, Anne Caldwell and Dorothy Donnelly, who were all active in the New York theatre from approximately 1905 to 1925. Peck is currently writing a book on Rida Johnson Young who wrote the lyrics for the operetta Naughty Marietta.

In fall 2010 Peck accepted a job at Jacksonville State University, Alabama. She was granted tenure this year. And now she has a Fulbright!

Peck explained that the first step on the Fulbright path is an application, which requires choosing a country. She requested Romania because she had visited in 2012 after meeting a Romanian-born professor from Arizona State at a conference. “She invited me to the International Theatre Festival in Sibiu where she was directing a play, and I kept saying ‘I can’t go to Romania,’ but she wore me down. She told me, ‘It will change your life.’”

And it did. “Romania is a surprising, vibrant country. The people are warm and friendly and the food is amazing. The theatre is still a vital part of their culture in a way that it isn’t here.” Peck felt the production standards were so high and the actors so well trained, that although she couldn’t always understand the language, it didn’t matter. “It was the most wonderful theatre,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to go back.”

The grant she applied for requires the recipient to teach in an American Studies program. She will teach classes in musical theatre and theatre history with emphasis on theatre as an expression of American identity. And she will research how the Romanian national theatre system represents Romanian identity. Each of the country’s major cities has a national theatre and Peck hopes to visit them all. She will live in the city of Iași, which is home to the oldest, a beautiful nineteenth century building. She wants to know how they were impacted by communist rule and how they are expressing the country’s changing identity in the new Europe.

Peck is looking forward to her year doing something completely extraordinary. “It’s such an honor,” she said. “It’s amazing to be part of this community of scholars.”

Ellen is writing a blog about her time as a Fulbright Scholar. You can read that here.

Note: The Fulbright Program was founded in 1946 by Senator J. William Fulbright to increase mutual understanding between the people of the US and other countries. Fulbright Scholars are selected by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. A Fulbright Scholarship is one of the most prestigious honors in academia.