A day at the office for Missy and Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson is a bit of a balancing act.
Recently, Missy could be found trading off answering student e-mails from her office at the University of Illinois Springfield and offering homework assistance to her daughter, who was off school for a holiday.Down the hall, husband Eric concentrated on grading student papers in his own office before packing up and breezing by his wife and daughter on the way to his next class.
This is the norm for these two UIS professors of theater: passing in the halls; discussions and preparation for their theater courses; and, finally, leaving behind work to rejoin each other around the kitchen table. The Thibodeaux-Thompsons carry on their act each day, one of balance between family, their own work and each other.
Eric hails from Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor's degree in theater from the University of Minnesota. He then attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for a master's degree. In his third year, he met first-year student Missy. The two later married.
"We had goals early on," Eric said. "We wanted to live in New York, because work there would mean something to future employers. So we lived in New York City for three years in the '90s."
The couple spent time acting and teaching in North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia before Eric received a call in 2002 from the University of Illinois Springfield to "resurrect" its theater program. Eric spent four years as the sole theater professor at UIS while Missy worked as an adjunct lecturer for several central Illinois colleges and raised the couple's baby daughter, Emma.
Though Missy was a little nervous about Eric taking on such a big commitment at UIS, especially when they had a new baby, she saw that he was "very excited about that challenge to create a program and develop it on his own."
In 2006, UIS wanted to add to the theater faculty. When Missy expressed interest, Eric recused himself from the search committee. At the end of the search process, Missy came away with a new role opposite her husband.
Partners at work
"When I was brought in, they gave me the choice of two offices - a small one next to Eric's and a larger one down the hall. I chose the bigger one down the hall," Missy said with a smile. "Even before we worked together here, we always have had such a great partnership in our marriage, so bringing that into the workplace was easy."
Missy said she always wanted to be a teacher, and it was in high school, when she was in a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" with a part in the chorus, that she felt she found "my tribe, my people.""My mother, of course, thought I should major in business, but I decided to go to the University of Texas-Austin into the drama ed program and get my teaching certificate," she said. "I didn't look at teaching as a fallback, but as something I wanted to do."
The question of their hyphenated last name usually comes up during the first day of class each semester, particularly for Eric. As it turns out, Missy decided that as one of four girls in her family, she'd like to keep her maiden name in addition to taking Eric's last name. The discussion evolved to them using both names.
"He came to me a few months later and said that he'd be fine with using both names and told me, 'When we're married, I'll always carry a part of you with me anyway,' " she said.
Eric's favorite courses to teach at UIS include Playing Shakespeare and Topics in Dramatic Literature, while Missy favors the core course Principles of Acting. The pair adds just one or two new courses each year so as to not grow faster than the student population and to still offer core courses and keep material fresh.
In fall 2010, UIS Theatre began offering a theater minor; there are 10 students in the minor program.
And in a few years, the Thibodeaux-Thompsons, who currently are the only theater professors at UIS, hope to expand to offer a theater major as well. Before that can happen, though, the theater program needs to add to its faculty, which now includes adjunct instructor Kate Goodman, who teaches Principles of Theatre Design.
"We're hoping that will materialize in the not-so-distant future," Missy said. "We'll be able to enhance our course offerings and really be able to operate in a more appropriate fashion."
"We've certainly been growing, and we appreciate that the administration has been very supportive," Eric said. "The students are excited; the community is friendly and enjoys our productions. We hear from a lot of people that while they enjoy the Muni and the Hoogland Center and the Theatre Centre productions, they are glad to have UIS Theatre as another option - a place to see plays - so that's good."
Eric and Missy laugh that they are the "play-selection committee." All productions - usually two or three each year - are decided a year in advance, Eric said.
"There are a lot of things we look at - what we directed recently, what have we not done in a while, what complements the other plays we've done, what our current pool of actors does well and what do our audiences want to see and need to see," he said.
"What also might distinguish us is that because we're in an educational setting, we don't live and die by the box-office money; we can take greater risk," he added. "We might have failures, but we also have home runs, and people come back for that."
Students who audition for UIS Theatre productions are able to participate as part of their theater practicum hours if they choose, earning course credit for taking on a role onstage or backstage. The productions also welcome UIS employees and community members to audition or participate.
Recent plays have included "The Shape of Things" by Neil LaBute, "The Runner Stumbles" by Milan Stitt and Shakespeare's "As You Like It." This semester's schedule saw Eric direct Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning into Butter," which examines the issues of race and diversity.
"Our plays give the audience the opportunity to think about the world around them. Ultimately this is what theater should do - make you think, affect you," Missy said.
Now in their fifth year of working together, "we still pinch each other," Missy said. "We're not only gainfully employed doing what we love to do, but we're down the hall from each other."
But that doesn't mean the couple is following a similar schedule.
"Even though our offices are 20 feet away, we don't necessarily see each other a lot," Eric pointed out. "We teach different classes, go to different meetings and before we know it, the day is over. Whatever person is directing (a production during the semester) gets home later, and then we'll have a glass of wine and talk about the day. We talk shop when we need to, and we're pretty creative about tag-teaming; one is usually more swamped, and the other tries to lead the way.
"In the summers, when school is out, the Thibodeaux-Thompsons go back to their roots: acting and directing. The pair has been in several local productions and sometimes travel to take on roles. This summer, they will be acting in the same production as a husband and wife at the Shawnee Summer Theatre in Indiana.
"My greatest passion is to act; that's what I'm professionally trained to do, that's what I love to do," Eric said. "But I also love teaching, and I think that's part of what makes it a better experience when I do both. The students want someone who is still in the field and gets hired professionally, so I think they complement one another."
Missy agreed. "Acting feeds my creative soul in a way that teaching doesn't, but what I like about teaching is that it's reciprocal; it's a two-way street. I love being in academia, and I love when I get to act."How they pull off the balancing act between educator, mom/dad and actor is a mystery to even them sometimes, but it's a life they don't plan to give up any time soon.
"On campus, he really is my colleague, not my husband," Missy said. "We don't see eye-to-eye on everything, but we have the same vision for the program. It is doable, and it's a luxury we truly recognize. We try not to take it for granted. We're lucky that we do have our other life outside of the office. It's kind of nuts, but it's just what I do; it's my norm."
Story published Friday, May 6, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 3 )