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Backstage with Paul Patton

Dr. Paul Patton engages with a class

By Wally Metts, Ph.D.

You never get the impression that Paul Patton ‘74 is offstage. Even in casual conversation, he is intense and animated, speaking as though every line matters. As he retires next year after 17 years, there is a fierce urgency in his reflections about his contribution to drama at SAU.

Act 1

Coming to teach acting and directing in 2002 was not Patton’s first performance on our stage. He was playing baseball for Redford High School near Detroit when he was recruited by Hank Burbridge in 1971, but he was denied admission for academic reasons. He framed the rejection letter and later pointed to it as a way of encouraging students who were struggling.

After completing a couple of courses at a community college to prove he could do college work, he was admitted. But baseball was not to be the focus of his experience here, where he says he “caught fire,” leaning into the Lord under the tutelage of men like Bob Imhoff ‘71, one of his Resident Assistants. And it was here he met his wife, Beth (Dean ’74) Patton, in a speech class taught by Esther Maddox.

After graduating, he taught at a school in Lansing while pursuing a master’s degree in education counseling. He then worked as a high school counselor for a few years before becoming the youth director at Trinity Church in Livonia. After he became the pastor, he founded Trinity House Theater, which is still active and for which he still serves on the board.

His vision was not rooted in evangelism, but in discipleship, bringing creative people into the orbit of the church, creating a safe place where Jesus is “Lord of the Arts.” This is a lifelong passion that informed his later work, after he earned a Ph.D. at Regent University as a playwright and later taught at Hampton University before being encouraged to apply for an opening at Spring Arbor.

Act 2

Patton says that he has flourished at SAU, as both a teacher and a performer, creating relationships through Christians In Theater Arts (CITA) and hosting regional festivals. The Department of Communication itself was fertile ground for cultivating servanthood, he says. This fostered a “process that is not idolatrous,” where opening night and stardom are not the focus but rather a “sanctuary” where every member of the cast and crew feels safe and valued.

In this environment Patton also felt safe, experimenting, taking risks, talking with administrators and addressing larger questions. He opened “Dracula” on Halloween, staged “A Street Car Named Desire” (unusual for a Christian campus) and premiered new work, including English professor Dr. Brent Cline’s “Guts.” His own experimental work included the “Eddie and Elmyra Show,” a mixed-media collaboration with the video program in the department as well as new works in his series of historical reenactments, one of which, “Meeting at Newburgh,” will be featured at Homecoming this year.

This has not been possible without a supporting cast, which he says includes his departmental colleague Dr. Robert Woods, who “could see things I couldn’t” and pushed him as a writer and scholar, collaborating on their book “Prophetically Incorrect: A Christian Introduction to Media Criticism.” An upcoming project deals with Jesus as Lord of our bored moments, tentatively titled “Your Dance with Pop Culture.”

However, he says, “the best gift I found here” was his co-laborer in drama, Jen Letherer, whose sense of theater’s therapeutic role fit perfectly with his pastoral instincts. She is the “comprehensive package,” he says, a compliment she readily returns.

For Patton, Letherer says, acting was the essential aspect of drama, and “something sacred was at stake in every moment.” Because of this, “I don’t know anyone who has worked with him who was not impacted personally and professionally.”

Theirs was a fruitful collaboration, one where students grew and “the work was holy,” she says.

Act 3

Patton, who spends two hours a day memorizing and reviewing Scripture, encourages students and others to “memorize what moves them, stewarding the stirrings of the soul.” He hopes to do more of this in retirement, offering workshops in what he calls a “theatrical hermeneutic” that captures the emotional and cognitive contexts of Scripture. A new website is in the works. There are books and plays to come.

Patton also hopes to encourage a legacy at SAU where independent, original work still has a platform “that takes a chance on new voices.” It is difficult to help 20-somethings “navigate a culture of renown,” but this happens when we “pursue excellence, not known-ness,” he says. Patton has certainly paved the way to help the SAU community continue to tell the stories that need to be told.