St. Olaf College yearbook “Viking” 1956

This was one of my college Theatre mentor’s favorite sayings. Ralph Haugen, an incredible teacher and human being, about whom Uta Hagen said to me years later (never having met Ralph): “You must have had a really good Theatre teacher in college.” “Why?” “Because you came to me with all the seeds—all I have to do is water them.” Part of the excellent, hard-work, and fun training with my two primary mentors in Theatre Arts was their emphasis on ensemble work — not only among the cast, but among cast, crew, staff, audience!

Ralph, to every new group of Theatre students at St. Olaf College: “Your degree will read “Speech Major” but we will know it means “Theatre Major” — and if you want your Theatre Degree, you’re going to have to do every single job in Theatre at least once before you graduate.” And being a four-year college of 700 students in the late 1950s, we all did every job more than once!

So I got basic experience as an actor, stage manager, set designer (and set builder, and tech director), costume designer (and costume construction, and wardrobe master), stage director, playwright, composer, lyricist, and added for my senior year — dancer and co-choreographer!

Because of his ensemble approach, four of us in the “Theatre Department” asked if we could do a program of religious dance. Ralph responded “That’s a great idea, but I would get fired if I approved such an event.” (1950s Lutheran College — no dancing except folk) “However, I’ll be at a convention in a few weeks, and … ” he turned to me, “Bill, as Maintenance Person for the Theater, you have keys and I trust anything you might do in the Theater in my absence.” We put on the unsuccessfully-secret show in our small theater to an “invited” SRO audience. Today, at St. Olaf, you can get a B.A. Degree in Theatre or a B.A. Degree in Dance!

A few favorite memories:

  • 1955, Kaj Munk’s ORDET (THE WORD), a beautiful Danish play! Question after a run-thru: “It’s so moving near the end when the wife comes back to life. Why does the playwright immediately have two laugh lines from the Atheist Doctor and the self-righteous Clergyman?” Ralph’s answer: “Because a good playwright knows audience members, especially men, have trouble expressing vulnerable emotions, so he lets them release their emotional tension in a publicly acceptable fashion — justifiable laughter!”
  •  Every summer, Ralph and his wonderful wife Marilyn, would apprentice with a professional Regional Theatre company, and then share what they learned with us the following year. In 1958, end of my Junior Year, Ralph and Marilyn happily announced they’d been accepted to apprentice with a summer theater practicing the new “method acting” (though looking back, Ralph taught the same healthy natural styles I later found with Miss Hagen). Next fall when we eagerly came back, Ralph announced: “We moved on to another company after the first show — it was OTHELLO, and opening night, after Othello “killed” Desdemona, he was so grief-stricken he collapsed sobbing on her body and they had to bring down the curtain — so we will not be learning this type of “method acting!”
  • Following my misdirection of a Shaw one-act play in Directing Class (1956): “Mr. Koch! If you want to write a religious play, write one! If you want to direct Shaw, find out what Shaw wanted to say!” So I did. Many years later, when I was in Professional Theatre, a phone call: “Hi Bill, it’s Ralph! Marilyn and I are coming to New York City for a vacation and wondered if you might be doing a show we could catch?” So Ralph & Marilyn attended the premiere performance of CANTATA FOR GOOD FRIDAY (BK composer & librettist) performed by The Village Light Opera Group. When they congratulated me after the performance, I said “Professor Haugen, remember that Shaw critique you gave me many years ago — I took it to heart!”
  • One of Ralph’s promising students was not allowed to graduate because he was one credit short. Years later, in his profession as a writer, his agent advised him to officially complete his graduation, so he called Ralph and said “Could you give me a project to earn one credit?” Ralph’s answer (I’m sure smiling): “Why don’t you write a paper on how it feels to win an Academy Award Oscar for Best screenplay.” The student was Barry Morrow; his film was “Rain Man.”