May 15, 2012
Contact: Chloe Kennedy, News and New Media Writer
“I can do that.”
That’s Alan Reihl’s motto – and a good one for someone who has been tasked with constructing elaborate sets and creative lighting for Maryville College Theatre Department productions since 1989.
Now, after 23 years, the longtime technical director and theatre instructor is retiring. He said he has lost count of the number of sets he has designed or supervised at Maryville College, although he does have his favorites, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, School for Wives, Elektra and Medea, to name a few.
“They’re all different,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the theatre.”
As he flips through photo books containing photos of productions on which he has worked while at Maryville College, it’s easy to see his passion for the stage
It’s also easy to see how much he’s enjoyed teaching his skills to students.
“My grandfather was a machinist, and he taught me how to work with my brain and hands together – you’ve got to use both if you’re going to be backstage,” Reihl said. “He instilled in me the attitude of ‘a project needs a plan,’ and it’s the same thing with set design. And that’s carried right through all the years. I don’t really teach stagecraft to undergraduates, I try to teach them how to think. ‘Think 101.’”
To properly send Reihl off into retirement, students, faculty and staff held “The Roast of Sir Alan Reihl” at the Clayton Center earlier this month. During the event, students told funny stories about Reihl’s “eccentricities.”
“But the stories always ended with life lessons – not just the technical lessons but the life lessons that he taught them,” said Vandy Kemp, vice president and dean of students, who was worked with Reihl for more than 20 years. “It was a lot of fun, a lot of laughter and a lot of poking fun at him, but there was also a lot of ‘Alan, I’m a better person because of my time with you.’ Just what a roast ought to be.”
Students also joked about the fact that they were scared of Reihl when they first met him – a thought that makes Reihl chuckle.
“They’re all afraid of me from the beginning, because I give them ‘the look,’” he said. “The look as to say ‘Do you know why you’re here?’ Technical things happen. The rigging in theatre is probably one of the most dangerous segments of the occupation, and they need to be aware of that.”
In retirement, Reihl will continue to work with his hands. He’ll finish working on his house – a project he’s been working on for the past 20 years – and hopes to add a sunroom and a greenhouse. He also hopes to work on one of his longtime hobbies – restoring old Volkswagens. He might be convinced to help work on a set or two for a future Maryville College theatre production, but for now, he’s focusing on retirement.
When asked what he would miss the most, he didn’t hesitate when he answered “The students.”
“I’ll miss seeing the work of the students who ‘get it,’ and I like to see the students as they develop,” Reihl said. “Especially the ones that stay around long enough to work past their required hours because they found something that interests them or more than likely it’s because they have a goal somewhere, and I can only hope that they’ll carry with them something that I taught them,” Reihl said.
Maryville College Theatre alumnus Brian Prather ‘95, who is now a professional set designer, told the Highland Echo in a recent interview that Reihl was “a huge inspiration” to him.
“My education [at MC] helped me get where I am today,” he told the Highland Echo. “We had to build and work on every aspect of the show.”
And Reihl will be missed, too.
“Alan has dedicated the last two decades to the MC Theatre Department, creating wonderful production designs on a shoestring budget and instructing countless students in the art of stagecraft,” said Dr. Heather McMahon, associate professor of theatre at Maryville College. “In my work with him I have known him to be a tireless champion of the program and a dedicated theatre practitioner, often putting in long hours in the evenings and on weekends to ensure the success of our productions. While we may find someone to fill the job, there is no way we will find someone who can do everything Alan can do; his knowledge of all areas of technical theatre is very rare indeed.”
Kemp, who describes Reihl as “peculiar” and “a zealot,” said Reihl is a great example for students, and he is passionate about what he believes in.
“One of the things he believes in is a very strong work ethic,” Kemp said. “If you say you’re going to do it, you do it correctly, and you do it correctly the first time. He loves to party and have a good time, but you party and have a good time after the work is all done. And for me, as dean of students, having that kind of model out there working elbow to elbow with students is really powerful.”
Kemp said one of the many contributions Reihl has made to Maryville College is teaching students how to “make magic out of next to nothing.” Many Maryville College theatre majors will not work in world-class, state-of-the-art theatres after graduation – instead, they might work in community theatres, public schools or small colleges, Kemp explained, and his ability to teach students how to create art is “far more valuable than knowing how to run a multimillion dollar light board.”
“People who haven’t done theatre don’t appreciate the subtleties of construction and light and sound and how it can take an old grungy theatre space and transform it,” she said. “I still admire Alan’s work so much.
“He’s just one of those eccentric, amazing quiet people here who has been changing lives for years and is an unsung hero,” Kemp said. “There are a lot of people on this campus who don’t even know who he is, and I am sorry for those people. I am glad my path has crossed with him.”
Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state‘s third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for its academic rigor and its focus on the liberal arts, Maryville is where students come to stretch their minds, stretch themselves and learn how to make a difference in the world. Total enrollment for the fall 2012 semester was 1,093.