In describing Davenport Parks & Recreation's recent choice of Daniel D.P. Sheridan for its performing-arts-coordinator position, the organization's senior recreation manager, Theresa Hauman, says, "We want to become a vital performing-arts center, with the main hub of that being the Junior Theatre program, and with his school training, the experiences that he's had nationwide, and the fact that he is from the community and a product of Junior Theatre ... he really hit it out of the ballpark."
And Professor Corinne Johnson, who taught Sheridan at St. Ambrose University, says,"His work ethic is out of this world. He makes hard-working people look like slugs, because he's so driven and passionate and intelligent, and willing to follow through."
Yet it's doubtful that anyone is more enthusiastic about Sheridan's new position than Sheridan himself, who will not only oversee Davenport Parks & Recreation's creative-arts and dance programs, but will also teach and direct, beginning with Junior Theatre's October staging of the children's book Bunnicula.
A self-described "Junior Theatre kid," the 25-year-old Davenport native (who, it should be noted, has been a friend for years) worked with the organization from ages 12 to 22, made numerous public appearances as clown mascot Showtime Pal, stayed in contact with the group through his graduate-school years, and continues to draw inspiration from this venerable Quad Cities institution.
"The only other children's theatre I've found that's like this - that is, children's theatre for children, by children - is a 60-year-old children's theatre in San Diego," says Sheridan. "We might be the second-oldest children's children's theatre in the country. And if that's true? That's tremendous. How could you ever think of not making certain that this group is supported, and keeps doing what it does?"
"He credits his grounding in Junior Theatre with his success," says Johnson, "and he's been very successful. He has so many options - I'll say in the country but I probably should say in the world - and he's choosing to come back and bring it on home."
A Sense of Hope and Family
Sheridan's initial interest in theatre began around age 11. "I told my parents, 'I really want to take a class I heard about, at Junior Theatre,'" he says. "And they were like, 'No, we're not gonna waste the money. You're too shy. You wouldn't like it.'" At age 12, however, Sheridan won a free Junior Theatre class through a grade-school competition, and it turned out he did like it. In the wake of that first course, Sheridan went on to receive a B.A. in theatre from St. Ambrose, the Kennedy Center's prestigious Irene Ryan Regional Acting Scholarship, and grad-school acceptance at the University of Connecticut.
You can argue that maybe film is as well, but to me, theatre is the ultimate meeting ground for every art. Everybody gets in a room together, and then you have to share. Artists can usually work in isolation. The author can work in isolation; the painter can work in isolation. But the theatre artist doesn't work in isolation. You have to collaborate with people. You need actors, the artists, the visionaries ... . Otherwise, you'll never put up a play. Or you'll put up a play every five years.
I took my first [Junior Theatre] class, then did the summer programming, and then was immediately on the main stage, and then worked there from when I was 14 until I was 18. We did props, set painting, maintenance, mailings, brochures ... . The Junior Staff is what they're called, and they also serve as role models for the younger kids. And to get to be part of that, and kind of already understand how theatres run, and in a more tangible way than just performing ... that was pretty exciting. I just feel like [Junior Theatre] gives you a sense of home and family, and that what you do is worth something. And then you start to realize that worth. And then you must continue.
The [University of Connecticut] program was in association with the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, so every day also included working in the management office. I was the morning-matinée coordinator, coordinating schools, doing contracts ... . Which makes this kind of perfect. To have experience managing a professional theatre, and then to come into the Junior Theatre position.
So work and classes were from 8:30 to 5, and then you'd have 90 minutes for dinner, and then you'd be there from 6:30 to 11. And in the meantime you're supposed to be doing scene work, and movement projects, and all this other stuff, you know ... in your free time. Saturdays there were six-hour rehearsals, and Sunday was the day you cleaned yourself, and then you got ready to do it all again.
In May, Sheridan received his master's in acting, subsequently took on two professional directing assignments - June's Three Viewings for the Quad Cities' Curtainbox Theatre Co., and July's Hamlet for the Antioch Classical Theatre Company in Antioch, California - and met with agents and casting directors for Warner Bros. and the daytime drama Guiding Light. "All the actors in my [grad school] program are all currently working as actors, so that was definitely something I could have chosen to do," he says. "But I was more interested in being part of a community."
I'd been talking about wanting to go back to Iowa for a year-and-a-half, ever since I knew a position might be coming up, but I'd be a little more secretive about it around some people [at the University of Connecticut]. I had a fear of being ostracized by the department, of them not training me as well or casting me as well, because I wasn't intending to be a professional actor. Which I get. Why give me the lead, and not give it to the professional actor who's going to continue to do it?
But I had the support from a lot of the faculty, and all of my fellow students were really supportive. It's interesting how amazingly excited and supportive artists are at something that's an honest endeavor. At making a larger impact - making the foundation that allows my fellow grads to go do what they do.
I have my bit of humor when I write my other grads and tell them, "I just got done doing Hamlet ... now I'm gonna do Bunnicula ... ." But the value of children's theatre is no different. No different. And you have to always think that way. Because if you're a director, and you're like, "Oh my God, I'm doing [this show], and it's terrible and stupid and a waste of everyone's time ... ," you're gonna kind of get that.
I think it's a crime to put things on stage with that kind of attitude, and I think it's just a matter of seeing the greater value of doing theatre well. It's like every time we put on a bad piece of theatre - theatre lacking integrity and heart - we're actively destroying ourselves. No matter who you are or what you're doing.
The Electric Slide
As part of the final interview process for the performing-arts-coordinator position, Sheridan was asked to deliver a five-year outline for the city's performing-arts programs, which he did through a presentation and a 111-page document, detailing their planned progression from 2008 to 2013.
I had to show, year by year, exactly how we'd maneuver our pieces and our resources, and how all the individual programs would weave together under [Davenport Parks & Recreation's] performing-arts program. And I wanted to be realistic but ambitious, because I'd rather do that than not push.
The City of Davenport was really interested in "How do we start serving adults and seniors, as well, through Junior Theatre?" And I saw that as a fundamental contradiction. When your mission is theatre for children, by children, that's what you do. That's what your focus is. So that's why we founded the Creative Arts program, which is going to start in January, and which will serve adults and seniors with much the same structure as Junior Theatre. We have these beginning-acting structure classes, and we'll be also offering "Acting for the Experienced Actor," which is for local professionals, or local veterans of the theatre, who want to come and take an acting class.
But then we also have social classes, in breaking the ice. Like, how do you socialize? Public speaking is people's number-one fear. It's even greater than death. I mean, I think if most people had to choose "You can either give this public speech or die," they'd give the public speech. But they're more afraid of that than death.
And one of the things I want to do in the Creative Arts program - and this is years down the road - is have a class called "The Wedding Reception," where you have a mock wedding reception. I mean, for me? Honestly? I still don't know how to do the Electric Slide. I never learned. So when it comes on, I go sit down. But it wouldn't be just for the dancing elements. You know, it would be a class where the only reason people sign up is because they get nervous in social situations. So you're already in the exact group you want to be learning with, because they're all just as nervous as you are.
Along with fellow "Junior Theatre kids" Kimberly Furness, Megan Fennelly, and Cindy Smysor, Sheridan will also be teaching Junior Theatre courses, and intends to continue honoring the organization's past while also ensuring its future. (And yes, that means there'll finally be a Junior Theatre Web site. "The brochure's great," says Sheridan, "but we have to go beyond it.")
There's a long tradition of acting [classes] that have kind of been the focus of the program. Which is good. We need to keep that up. But come the third and the fourth year, we're also gonna start a technical main-stage course, for students who maybe don't want to act but want to learn about lighting design and scenic design.
Sometimes you have the kid who does the acting classes, gets in the main-stage class, does a show, and then disappears, 'cause they kind of want to do the other thing, and the high schools already offer that. But I don't want to compete with high schools. One thing I want to do is sit down with high-school teachers in the area and ask them, "How can this serve you? How can we work together?" We should never be working in opposition.
The major challenge, I think, is connecting with our community, and with people, so that they know why we're here, and they know what our mission is, and that they're reminded. I remember the last time I clowned - it was downtown in the daytime - and I was walking to my car, and two people yelled out their window, "Hi, Showtime Pal!" So you recognize this clown walking around downtown from the back. He's been around since the beginning - for 57 years he's been around.
So the trick is going to be continuing to train our kids, and educate all involved in Junior Theatre about our history. Because then there's a greater sense of pride in this organization that you get to be a part of. I don't think the focus will ever be on making great actors, making great designers, making great directors. But that will happen, because we're investing in good people. Investing in the development of good people.
Junior Theatre will host a season-preview party at the Annie Wittenmyer complex (2800 Eastern Avenue) on Wednesday, September 3, from 6 to 8 p.m., and the organization is currently accepting registration for its fall semester. For more information on Junior Theatre and other Davenport Parks & Recreation performing-arts programs, call (563) 326-7812.