Studio Visit is a Q&A with an artist. Here, Melissa Merli chats with John Tilford, drama director at Unity High School and actor.
Q: Hey, this is a nice theater (at Unity High School in Tolono). How many seats?
A: Yes, I really like it. Around 450.
Q: How long have you been drama director at Unity high and junior high schools?
A: This is my 24th year.
Q: How and when did you get into theater?
A: It was in high school, Mattoon High School. A friend of mine was going to audition for "My Fair Lady," and he said, "Come with me." I said, "No, I don't do that kind of thing. I don't audition. I'm too shy."
So I went with him anyway, and every boy sang, "On the Street Where You Live." They coerced me into singing it. So I sang it, and they all applauded. I had never had that kind of response. I got in the chorus and played a small speaking role.
Then during my junior and senior years, our drama director, Donna Witmer, really encouraged me and nurtured me, and she is the one who really got me into drama and teaching. I had never up to that point been encouraged to pursue anything.
I'm truly not the same person I was in junior high and high school.
Q: How did theater change you?
A: I became more self-confident. I became more honest, I think, with my feelings and dealings with others. It was a huge self-confidence booster. It really helped me in a lot of aspects.
Q: Did you go on to major in theater?
A: I was a theater major at Eastern Illinois University, and I'm certified to teach English, theater and speech.
Q: When did you first become involved in community theater?
A: The year we moved here, 1983. I did my first show at the Station Theatre in Urbana. In fact, it was a production of "My Fair Lady." I actually played Karpathy, the same role I did in high school.
I'm also active in the Parkland Theatre, Champaign Urbana Theatre Company and Rantoul Theatre Group. I just did the "Sound of Music" with the Actor's Rural Theatre Co. in Tuscola. I've also worked with Danville Light Opera, the Beef House and Bright Lights Theatre Company, which is no longer around.
Q: I've noticed you seem to land a lot of comedic roles. Do you ever feel typecast?
A: Yes, but not in a negative way. I don't have hard feelings about it. I think I'm well-suited for those. I have occasionally been cast as a romantic lead. It was certainly more challenging than straight comedy, though I think comedy is much harder to do as far as timing and trying to get laughs and not overdo it.
Q: Which characters have you played that you feel are most like you? Most different?
A: I think Sancho in "Man of La Mancha" is most like me because of his optimism and his dedication to his friends. I think I'm extremely optimistic.
I did "Tracers" at the Station; it's a great Vietnam war play. I think that was the hardest because I had not had those experiences. It was hard for me to find any similarity between me and the character. I really had to do a lot more research on the time period and the feelings and the whole war thing.
Q: What do you enjoy best about theater?
A: Teaching students the joy and frustrations and everything else about theater. I love to share with them my knowledge, and I love to see how they apply that.
Q: I've noticed you tend to have your students do challenging plays.
A: The first really challenging thing I did was "Crimes of the Heart." Some of the subject matter was a little dicey, but I didn't make a big deal of it.
There's a number of one-act plays suitable for high school students that are not challenging, and they're horribly written, and I swore I would never do one of them, that I would always challenge my kids. I think they rise to the challenge.
Editor's note: The Unity High drama department will present Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21-23 in the high school theater in Tolono. Tickets, which are $7, can be purchased by calling 485-6230 or at http://www.seatyourself.biz (search for "unityrockets").