When the curtain rises this evening for the opening performance of the Tabor College musical ?Godspell,? it will signal both a beginning and an ending for director Judy Harder.
It will be Harder?s 74th public production over a 26-year run?and it will be the 72nd and final one in her leading role at Tabor.
The finality is only beginning to settle in.
?This fall has felt like it?s normal?it?s what I do every fall,? Harder said late last week. ?So I haven?t had those nostalgic moments. But all of a sudden it will be, ?My, this working with this kind of opportunity, I will miss.??
Like a good director would, Harder has brought her run full circle. ?God?spell? was the first public production she directed when she stepped in as a volunteer at Hillsboro High School in 1985 while her family spent sabbatical time back in her hometown.
?I haven?t missed the fact that it was my first,? Harder said. ?It?s kind of bookends.?
A starting place
It?s also fitting that the Lohrenz Building, where the current production will play, is less than one block away from the place where Harder?s journey in theater truly began: the backyard of the Prieb family home at the corner of Adams and C streets.
One of her early memories is of accompanying her English professor father, Wesley Prieb, to a rehearsal of ?Oliver,? which he was directing.
?I probably saw that as a 5-year-old,? she said. ?While he rehearsed students, I got to write on the chalkboard.?
That simple seed took root in the company of neighborhood friends.
?I lived in a neighborhood with an amazing number of kids that played outdoors?and put on plays in the summer,? she said.
?We were outdoors, unsupervised, creatively playing and put on ?Sound of Music? with a blanket on the washline (as backdrop).
?I might have already been directing,? she added with a laugh. ?I was very involved in those, that?s for sure.?
From there, Harder took on minor acting roles in school productions as a student at Hillsboro High and Tabor.
After college, she and husband Keith and their three children settled in Elkhart, Ind., where the fledgling director found a new neighborhood in which to apply her dramatic gifts.
?I was very involved in voluntary work with kids in neighborhoods, and that ended up to be a lot of backyard, homespun stuff,? she said.
Harder?s journey in theater took a more intentional turn in the months following the unexpected death of the Harders? 13-year-old son, Timothy, in summer 1986.
?After Tim died, someone said to me, ?Pursue something that would just feed your soul, something you would love to do,?? she recalled.
She went back to school in theater at Wichita State University and earned a master?s in communication?which in that day included theater.
Tabor hired Harder to direct theater productions as an adjunct professor in 1987; by 1989 she was on board full time.
?Then we just began a grand adventure of learning by doing,? she said with a smile.
Plays and places
Harder?s first production for Tabor was a small-scale Christmas production called ?The Gift of Song.? In fall 1987 she directed ?Fiddler on the Roof??her first full-stage production. It was performed in the high school auditorium.
Through the years, finding a space to host productions has been a key part of the ?adventure.?
?We had the old stage (in the chapel), then the room got renovated so we put (stages) in different angles in here,? Harder said.
?We used the fair barn once. The Methodist church was very generous for letting us do ?Amahl and the Night Visitors? there. We used the Historic Church a couple of times, too.?
In 1996, Tabor staffers Wes Seibel and Marvin Funk developed a small staging area in the basement of the Lohrenz Building for lab theater.
Harder said the creativity required for putting on a theater production at Tabor was challenging, but it also gave them an endearing quality.
?There?s a faculty member here?who will go unnamed?who lovingly calls us a ?quality Ma and Pa theater program,? a little bit like a Ma and Pa grocery store,? Harder said. ?It?s a very good grocery store, but (has a personal quality about it).?
Through the years Harder has led local summer drama camps for Hillsboro youth, and has developed a reputation for involving alumni and local residents in her college productions.
?I?m intrigued with finding good ways to engage children at an early age in appreciating the artistic dimensions of performance and other fine arts,? she said.
?I?m not sure how that works sometimes because everyone wants to be Cinder?ella?especially the stage moms and dads,? she added with a chuckle.
Looking for balance
Choosing a suitable production for a private Christian college means finding a balance of pushing the envelope while staying within constituent bounds.
?I do spend some time looking at what other colleges of our size and comparable vision are doing,? she said. ?That gives me good leads sometimes for quality (projects).?
Harder said she doesn?t shy away from comedies, but also searches for ?some stretching, thought-provoking? productions, citing ?The Diviners? and ?The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail? as examples.
?There have been occasional questions about our choices and how we proces?sed them,? Harder said. ?But I?ve felt there has been good dialogue and interaction?at least with the people who came forward on those.?
So, does Harder have a favorite production?
?I?ve been asked that plenty,? she said. ?I really don?t want to have favorites. Just going through the picture albums, I can?t believe the array of memories and significant moments. I really cannot pick a favorite.?
With her relaxed and thoughtful directing style, Harder and her team seem to pull off quality productions effortlessly. But the reality is different for the director herself.
?I become singleminded and consumed?and I often wish there had been another way to be more balanced in relationships, family commitments and other commitments,? she said. ?But I simply didn?t find a way.
?Even (this fall), I don?t have as many other commitments?and it ends up consuming more. Whatever time?s available, it just takes it.?
While the curtain will fall on her Tabor College directing career at the end of Sun?day?s finale, Harder has an eye toward the future.
?This is a season with Tabor,? she said. ?This doesn?t mean I?m done with theater by any means.?
The endeavor still feeds her soul.
?Sometimes people talk about these magic moments in theater,? Harder said. ?You can?t make them happen, but you can create conditions for them.
?Then the gift of them is like nothing on earth?when an audience community and a cast and crew recognize a moment of truth, and there?s just an ?aha, that?s it,?? she said.
?And we?re all together in the same place, and we?ll remem??ber it. It?s united?and it?s just true.?