The curtain opens on the Speech for the Stage class. The setting is the black studio theatre in the basement of Esch Hall. Junior theatre and creative writing double major Elise Campagna just finished her monologue from Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” when her professor, Theatre Faculty Adjunct Robert Neal, says it was good, but wants to try something different.
Neal makes junior theatre major Eric Brockett stand next to her in the middle of the stage. Great, Neal tells her, now do the speech again, and this time push him around the room.
This is nothing out of the ordinary, Campagna said, at least, not in one of Neal’s classes.
“I did a ‘Richard III’ scene in Movement [for the Stage], and he wanted me and my scene partner to play [tag],” she said. “He threw a bunch of chairs in the middle, and we were supposed to play tag while we were doing the scene to get that idea of cat and mouse.”
Neal has developed his own style of teaching through years of working as a professional actor in Indiana, as well as in New York and Chicago. At the Indiana Repertory Theatre alone, he has performed in 30 plays during the last 13 seasons. He also is a regular performer in Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre’s Shakespeare on the Canal.
“I don’t believe that old adage that ‘those who can’t, teach,’” Neal said. “I think for me, uniquely, as a teacher, because I work as a professional actor, I’m able to bring a unique perspective into the classroom.”
Most recently, Neal was the lead in the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “Kurt Vonnegut’s: Who Am I This Time? (and other conundrums of Love).” However, he said that his favorite role, if he had to choose, was playing food magnate James Beard in the one-man show.
Before he got into acting, Neal said that he was a tall jock in his hometown of Brazil, Ind. According to Neal, no student as tall as he is can get passed over by the school basketball coach. He was never in any high school plays because his sports schedule aligned with the plays.
However, Neal joined the school’s thespian club, “Stage and Stammer,” because one of his English teachers—“a little spark plug of a woman”—dragged him to the club’s meetings.
“She was a huge influence on my life. I mean, she made me feel like it was okay to be a jock and to do this as well,” he said. “My football coach was that way, too. He was like, ‘I want people to see our athletes have other interests.’ So they were both really good influences in that regard.”
When he graduated, Neal went to Indiana University. He began studying telecommunications, then did business for a year before he finally settled on a major.
“I ended up majoring in English because I always had this love of reading and language and that kind of thing. I found out what I really loved and what was great about that [studying literature] was it taught me the power of sound and meaning together,” he said. “Then when I ended up in acting, it really coalesced for me in that I loved language, but I love the sound of language, too. So I was using both things.”
Neal taught high school English for a few years, acting in community theatre at night, until he went back to school to get his master’s of fine arts in acting from Pennsylvania State University.
Director of Theatre Brad Wright said that because Neal is such a prolific performer, students have many opportunities to see him model the things that he talks about in class.
“He is able to teach some of our more specialized courses in movement and speech for the stage,” Wright said. “Furthermore, because of his link to the professional theatre world in Indianapolis, he is a great resource for our students in terms of networking. He has helped a number of our students make connections with the professional theatre in Indianapolis.”
One of these students is senior theatre major Ross Percell, who will be performing with Neal in HART’s production of “The Tempest” this summer. Neal said that many other students have done internships with IRT. Watching the students progress into professional theatre, Neal said, makes his job the best of both worlds.
“I love the teaching, not that it doesn’t come with its own frustrations, and certainly adjuncting has its frustrations because you don’t make as much money. The positive side of it is, however, you don’t have to go to meetings,” he said. “… The positive thing for the university is I’m bringing all of my experience from professional acting and connections to the theatre, getting kids in there to intern and things like that. So I think it’s a really good, symbiotic relationship in that regard.”