Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • The Passing of a Great Musician—and Man

    • Posted on Dec 28, 2008 by Scott Cawelti

    12/28/08

    Charles Matheson, 86, died from complications of a stroke December 18.  He retired in 1982 after 27 years on the UNI music faculty.  He was my voice teacher and mentor from 1961-5 and friend and colleague until his passing. 

    He was a lion of a man, with a mane of hair that never left, though at 96 it was as white and billowy as a snowdrift.  When I first met him, his hair made as much an impression as his outspoken ways.  Back then it was black with a center streak of peppery-white.  Any man would have paid serious money for such a swept-back wave, and it became his natural trademark.

    His outsized personality quickly made more of an impression.  He dominated a crowded room, and fascinated his reticent midwestern musicians.  “Mama Mia!”  He often exclaimed before expounding an opinion. Outspoken, vocal, downright annoying at times, he could infuriate as often as illuminate.  Still, he remained one of the most beloved music professors at UNI.           

    For thousands of UNI students, not to mention church choirs, community chorales, private students, and concertgoers, Matheson taught and created music as the quintessential means of human expression.

    He made music, lived it, breathed it, took solace from it, loved it to the depths of his being.  Few of us ever care for anything so deeply and so passionately, and I always admired his unabashed enthusiasm for well-made music.          

    I remember one particular rehearsal when he revealed the emotional power of music.  His senior choir was attempting to sing a difficult 8-part Russian vocal cantata.   It involved complex harmonies, a soaring soprano line hanging over bass, tenor, and altos each split into two sections.  It was potentially a transcendent musical experience.

    Matheson urged us along for an hour, and then—Mama Mia! —We finally did it.  For the first time, in a burst of energy, all of us sang right and true.  

    The room echoed with our effort.  Our demanding conductor paused, and looked up at us with gratitude.  Then he quietly began weeping.

    We watched, dumbfounded.  He wasn’t the least ashamed.  Through his tears, he spoke up,  “I’m sorry if music doesn’t do this for you.  This is why we make music.” And he walked out, leaving us to ponder his words and that moment. 

    I’ve never forgotten it.  And I’ve certainly never forgotten Charles Matheson’s willingness to show his love of music in the most nakedly vulnerable manner.          

    Fans, admirers, students, and friends of Charles Matheson can’t help but feel a mix of gratitude and awe for his long, memorable presence among us.                        

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  • Russian Director Shakes Up Theater UNI

    • Posted on Nov 20, 2008 by Scott Cawelti

    11-20-08

    Scary.  Amazing.  Annoying. Life-changing.  Those are some of the comments that came from UNI’s student actors and faculty colleagues who just finished an eleven-week experience working with Russian director Alisa Ivanova.

    Ivanova recently returned to her home in St. Petersburg, where she teaches acting at the Academy of Dramatic Arts.  But the powerful effect she had on student actors and audiences for Three Sisters, the production for which she was invited to UNI to direct, will remain.

     Audiences filled the Bertha Martin Theater in mid-November for twelve performances of Anton Chekhov’s dark four-act play about broken dreams and disillusionment in Russia among its culturally decaying upper class citizenry around 1900.   At first glance, rural turn-of-the-twentieth century well-to-do Russians seem a long way from 21st century Americans, particularly Midwesterners.

    Chekhov, however, a true artistic genius, found elements in those characters’ psyches that transcend time and space:  Longing for a future based on a falsely remembered past, frustrations from meaningless relationships, the impossibility of maintaining romantic love, the destructive manipulations of predatory narcissists. These are Chekov’s themes, and he creates characters who embody and reveal them in every scene.  Whether we’re Russians living a century ago or Americans born yesterday, we all struggle with similar issues. 

    Acting in a Chekov play offers challenges enough, but director Ivanova brought an entirely different approach to UNI’s actors and theater faculty.  She calls it “living theater,” and it’s about as far from the usual approach to teaching and learning acting as, say, a car is to a bicycle.  Students and theater faculty alike learned they were dealing with a different vehicle here.  

    In a nutshell, Ivanova teaches students to act from their life experiences rather than “acting,” meaning learning lines, then creating a character to speak them convincingly.   Instead, she insists that actors inhabit characters by having them create their own lines from improvised scenes that grow out of their characters’ lives. The actors do this for weeks by developing  “studies” that teach them to behave, speak, and even think like their characters.  And get this:  They do this for weeks before they learn any actual lines.

    So UNI student actors in Three Sisters worked on their characters using “studies” for over nine weeks.  They didn’t start memorizing their actual lines until two weeks before opening night.  It was nerve wracking, to say the least, an actress who played one of the leads told me.  “But it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, too.  I loved it because I learned so much more about the character and myself than I’ve ever learned in other roles.”   In fact, she hopes to continue working with this approach, and sings Ivanova’s praises for her skill in teaching “living theater.”  

    Eric Lange, head of the Theater Department, mentioned that two of his senior faculty, both of whom act and direct, would now like to study and use this approach.  Lange himself was pleased with the production, and waxed enthusiastic about Ivanova’s powerful contribution to UNI’s actors.  “They made remarkable progress, and it really was ‘living theater,’ because the production was different every night.”  He had seen the play on two separate nights, and because Ivanova avoided traditional staging, the actors felt free to move differently every night, changing positions onstage as their characters developed during performance.   It was a headache for the lighting and sound technicians, but liberating for the actors. 

    Ivanova usually takes at least a year to develop and produce one play, so this eleven-week run was a quick production.  Most UNI plays, however, take only six weeks because actors learn their lines immediately, then proceed to put on the characters like a suit of clothes.  “I hate that kind of acting,” she said, bluntly.

    Ivanova’s one regret:  Not enough time.  “We did need more time to develop the characters, but we didn’t have it, so we did the best we could.”  Ultimately she felt pleased by the production, but struggled at first with how new it felt to both actors and faculty colleagues.  “Everybody struggled with it at first, but they mostly came around.” 

    Ivanova noticed that American students expected to be given constant positive feedback, which she realized was a cultural difference.  Russian actors, it seems, neither expect nor give much hand-holding, and Ivanova had little time for such tactics. “I wanted them to learn to be more sure of themselves without my constantly telling them how good they were.” 

    The actors felt frustrated by Ivanova’s seeming distance, but also learned self-sufficiency.   As one of them said, “I stopped expecting her to offer constant assurances, and that was just what I needed.” 

    Ivanova left UNI feeling genuine affection for her student actors and for UNI, and a sure knowledge that she would love to return to direct—and her actors seconded that. 
    “This production changed my whole approach,” one of them told, me, “And I’ll use what I learned not just in my acting, but in my life.” 

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