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From Broadway to Bay Area, theater is a way of life for Northeastern professor

Victor Talmadge, professor of the practice and director of theater studies. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif.—Victor Talmadge has been an actor, director and playwright for over 40 years. He’s been there, done that and seen it all.

He performed on Broadway in the world premiere of David Mamet’s, “November,” played Scar in “The Lion King,” and toured the country as the King in the Tony Award-winning production of “The King and I.”

His original play, “The Gate Of Heaven,” was awarded The Nakashima Peace Prize and was the first live theater piece to be produced at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial. He lists a recurring role in the TV series, “Manhattan,” among his many movie and television credits.

These days, Talmadge splits his time between the stage and classroom, serving as director of theater studies at Mills College at Northeastern University. 

In addition to teaching two courses this fall—a senior thesis class for theater majors and beginning acting for first-year students—Talmadge is starring in Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” at the San Francisco Playhouse. The play previewed last week, opens Wednesday and runs through Nov. 5. Talmadge plays Sholem Asch, a playwright struggling to write a Yiddish play with universal appeal.

Head shot of Victor Talmadge.
Victor Talmadge. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Working and teaching at the same time isn’t only Talmadge’s job title—professor of the practice—it’s what first attracted him to Mills in 2014. 

“You really need a professional as your teacher if you’re in the arts,” he says. “It was time for me to be that mentor. I actually view my students, those who are serious about the art form, as apprentices.”

After working for a decade in New York, Talmadge moved from New York to Northern California where he became a regular at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Conservatory Theatre and Magic Theatre in San Francisco. He’s also directed at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

Talmadge’s academic resume includes teaching playwriting at Johns Hopkins University, English at the City University of New York and performing arts at the former Santa Fe University of Art and Design in New Mexico. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1977 and his master’s in fine arts from the California Institute of the Arts in 1980.

“Mills offered me the best of both worlds,” Talmadge says. “I find the energy of young people very rejuvenating.”

Mills had a theater program until 2004 when it was disbanded. A decade later, Talmadge was asked to revive it and he jumped at the opportunity. Since then, he’s settled into a routine of teaching during the day and performing at night and on weekends. He limits himself to two productions a year, usually in the Bay Area. 

Talmadge doesn’t miss working in New York. Broadway is the world’s biggest stage, he says, but tends to cater to a very commercial audience. Meanwhile, theaters in smaller cities like Boston and San Francisco often allow more artistic freedom. He prefers documentary pieces based on real-life events.

Students in Talmadge’s thesis course are required to produce and star in their own productions. They don’t have to be original plays, but last semester students wrote several autobiographical pieces. One was about growing up as an Asian American in the Bay Area, while another was about living in California gold mining country.

“They have to produce it themselves,” Talmadge says, “which means they have to cast it. They have to find a director. They have to get all the props.”

In the spring, he will teach a documentary theater class, a new offering at Northeastern.

When Talmadge isn’t mentoring aspiring actors, actresses and playwrights, he’s teaching beginning acting to first-year, non-theater majors. His first class always includes a lecture on 25 skills that translate from his profession to any career.

The top three, Talmadge says, are working in groups, performing under pressure and meeting deadlines. A close fourth is communication skills, followed by active listening.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in business or in a laboratory,” he says. “Theater skills are essential skills.”

Talmadge is a teacher, but, like Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun, says he’ll always be a student. He spent two years touring with the “The King and I” and another two with “The Lion King,” but he approached every show like it was his first. Perfection is a myth, he says.

“If you can’t appreciate this art form as a process, you will stagnate and die,” Talmade says.

Some actors and actresses tend to solidify their performances almost immediately, and then do the same thing night after night, he says. Talmadge is not that guy.

“Up until closing night, I’m still discovering new things about the characters I portray,” he says. “We are bringing to life human beings and human beings change night to night.”

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