Lewis-Clark State College theatre professor Nancy Lee-Painter knows that people have a strong attraction to storytelling. To her, however, there is much more than just verbalizing such a story.
“To be someone who makes the story happen live on stage, well it’s about the most exciting thing that I can think of to do,” she says. “I have always loved telling stories and making stories.”
Lee-Painter helps make those stories come alive at LCSC. She has worked at the college since 2003 when she was hired as a part-time adjunct to teach core classes and oversee theatre productions. She is now a full-time professor and the program also has an adjunct professor, Jef Petersen, who also helps with student plays and productions.
“I think it’s really important for students to imagine what it’s like to be another person and I think they get that opportunity when they are reading literature and writing about literature,” Lee-Painter says. “They are certainly thinking about other people living in different time periods.
“In theatre they are really stepping into the shoes of that person and being a real advocate for someone who might be quite different than they are.”
That is a key reason why Lee-Painter loves teaching theatre at LCSC. She sees students change their perspective on different issues and how performing is so much more than just memorizing lines.
“I love pulling and relying on students to help make these plays come alive,” she says of the advantages of having a small theatre program. “There’s more opportunities for students here to get their feet wet right away. Whether they are in a production, the prop master for the production, helping to build the set, or even being the director, the opportunities are there.”
“I realize that you can get entertainment pretty easily through technology, but it is very isolating,” she says. “When you are doing theatre, you can’t do it by yourself. Even if you are doing a one-person show, you need someone who can give you feedback on how it is looking, you need someone who can make costumes and for lighting. There is a huge collaborative piece, and you have to figure out how to communicate in a way that is going to keep everyone on the same page. So there is pretty amazing communication skills that come out of doing theatre in particular.”
Isolation actually led Lee-Painter to the theatre. Growing up in Star, Idaho, near Boise, she developed a love for performing in fourth grade when she recited a poem on stage. By the time she graduated from high school, she had performed in plays and felt quite at home in the theatre.
Still, she decided to attend Boise State and major in piano performance. However, she found herself practicing the piano alone for 3-4 hours a day in the basement of the theatre. One day, a friend stopped by and told her they were holding auditions for the play “My Spirit” upstairs and that she should try out.
“I jumped at it and it wasn’t very hard for me to move over to theatre after that,” she says.
Lee-Painter also met her husband David through theatre, who was performing in the play. Theatre, obviously, is in their blood as David teaches directing and acting at the University of Idaho.
After the couple was married and had two daughters, Nancy decided to attend graduate school. She earned her graduate degree at UI, and then was invited to perform with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Company. So she ventured out to Ashland, Ore., while the family remained behind in Moscow.
She took part in a few plays, but found herself becoming more involved with the education component of the company. She says many school groups would come to the performances and there were workshops and discussions before and after the performances. She says the performers would run the workshops and give the talks.
Nancy was also part of the Junior Seminar lead team. The Junior Seminar brought in about 75-80 high school juniors from across the country for two weeks to Ashland where the students participated in workshops during the day and then watched the performances during the evening.
“It was the kind of teaching where we were really creating theatre from the ground up,” she says. “So we might be working with a Shakespeare play, but we were imagining it in a completely different setting. With the students, we would create that whole world, that whole environment, and I loved that. I hung out more with educational people at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival than I did with the acting company, so that gave me a little clue about what I should be doing.”
She returned to Moscow and wrote, directed and produced a couple of plays for the Moscow Charter School. The following year, in 2003, the adjunct position opened at LCSC.
Every year, she takes students to the regional Kennedy Center Theatre Festival in Eugene, Ore. This year, it was an entirely different experience for Lee-Painter. She was honored with the Kennedy Center Gold Medallion for Region VII, which is the highest award bestowed at the festival and considered a great honor in theatre production. The award is given to individuals who have made “extraordinary contributions to the teaching and producing of theatre.”
Region VII covers Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, northern Colorado, and northern Nevada.
“It feels amazing,” Lee-Painter said of the award. “I’m just doing the thing I love to do and what I believe in, and to be recognized for it is just icing on the cake. It’s a very special thing and it’s very humbling.”
Lee-Painter said the award means a lot to her. She said the honor serves as reaffirmation with the work she is doing at LCSC and with students.
“And honestly, I just lost it,” Lee-Painter said of accepting the award. “I was so overcome. Just the surprise. And the kindness of it. It’s the kind of the award where they read a little something about you so everyone knows why you are nominated. There were letters of support from former students and colleagues within the organization, so it was very humbling.”