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Lights, Camera, Action: UM professor lives a theatrical life in Oxford

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Gracie Snyder
HottyToddy.com
jgsnyder@go.olemiss.edu

Growing up in the heart of Atlanta, Rory Ledbetter knew from a young age he wanted to pursue acting and theater.

“In elementary school, I was in a school play, and I was the lead,” he said. “This was fourth grade, and the principal pulled me aside after the production one day and looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to be an actor,’ and that just stuck. She probably has no idea exactly the impact she made on me that day, but that’s really where the spark started bubbling.”

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Professor Ledbetter (right) gives directorial guidance to the students participating in Ole Miss Theatre’s production of “Clybourne Park.” “Clybourne Park” premiered on Sept. 23, 2016 and will continue until Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

Next Feb. 15-19, the University of Mississippi associate professor of voice, speech and acting in the Theatre Arts Department, will make his screenplay writing debut at the Oxford Film Festival with the community film “Firemax.”

Attending North Atlanta High School, a performing arts high school where Ledbetter pursued the drama track, he followed his passion to Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. Everything seemed to fall into place, but after a year at Florida State, Ledbetter admits to having an existential crisis.

“Not knowing what I really wanted to do anymore,” he said, “I came back to Atlanta, lived with my parents for a semester, and then ended up getting a full ride to Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.”

From that moment on, Ledbetter’s educational and career endeavors/ambitions have never slowed down. When he returned to college at Brenau University, he returned to his love of theater, eventually getting involved in the film industry in Atlanta.

This involvement ultimately led him to Los Angeles, California, where he worked as a production assistant for a couple of months. From there, he returned to Florida State, earning an master of fine arts degree in theater directing.

Continuing on his acting and directorial course, he directed a theater show in Georgia and, subsequently, moved to L.A. for two years. There, he pursued acting work, film and television, and improvisation with various improv schools there, including Groundlings and iO West.

During this time, Ledbetter was also performing stand-up comedy, and from the outside looking in, it appeared that he had it all. He had earned multiple college degrees, was chasing his theatrical dreams and visiting places all over the country. However, from his perspective, one main element was missing from his life.

“While I was in L.A., and I was doing stand-up, I realized that what was missing from my life was teaching, in a huge way,” Ledbetter said. “I really wanted to be teaching at the college level while I was pursuing acting and directing and film and theater.”

Through a series of domino effects, Ledbetter’s yearning to teach was realized as he journeyed from getting an adjunct instructor position at the University of North Georgia to a visiting professorship at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa that ultimately led him to obtain a tenure-track position at Ole Miss.

Thinking about his various teaching journeys, Ledbetter said, “I used to joke that I was moving back to L.A. one state at a time, but Mississippi is now home.”

He has lived in Mississippi for nine years, and he was promoted to associate professor recently. Since living in Oxford, he has been heavily involved in the Oxford Film Festival, mostly serving as a question-answer coordinator.

In this role, Ledbetter acted as the liaison between the filmmakers and the audience to ask questions and interview them about the process. However, this year, he changed his film festival job description when he approached the executive director of the Oxford Film Festival, Melanie Addington, about being the director for the upcoming community film.

“This has been something that I’ve been wanting to do,” he said,”and I’ve just kind of been waiting. So finally, I was like – not waiting anymore.”

Having long known Ledbetter to be a great actor, teacher, and director, Addington and her staff were thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him.

“When the occasion arose for him to write and direct this year’s community film, we were so excited to have him on board,” Addington said.

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UM professor Rory Ledbetter (middle) helps students participating in the  Ole Miss Theatre’s production, “Clybourne Park,” act out one scene from the play. “Clybourne Park” premiered on Sept. 23, 2016 and will continue until Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

Beginning the story process, Ledbetter and Addington reached out to the community, asking for personal stories about Oxford. However, they never received any responses.

“I think people were just busy, or maybe people were feeling that their story wasn’t good enough for a film, or maybe they were protective of their story,” he said.

With story ideas at a standstill, Ledbetter and Addington found the unlikely answer to their story stalemate while out celebrating a birthday with friends. The answer came in that of Max McDonaldson, who walked in, and who had just been hired on an independent film as a fire-breather.

Realizing that McDonaldson was a real-life fire-breather, the wheels began to turn, and soon, Ledbetter and Addington had the premise for the community film – McDonaldson would play a fire-breathing superhero who lives in Oxford.

“Because superhero movies are so huge right now, we really wanted to kind of capitalize on the whole superhero movie craze,” Ledbetter said.

From this moment on, the story ideas kept spinning, and more superheros, like Ajax and Roundabout, were created, giving homage to unique places in Oxford.

Throughout the whole process, Ledbetter’s goal was to provide the community with vast ways to get involved.

“Everything just kept escalating,” he said, “and to provide more opportunities for people to audition and for community members to get them involved – give some of them more acting experience and give some of them first-time acting experience, we created this whole world of supervillains.”

With this film, Ledbetter has truly come full circle in realizing the opportunities he has been given in the theater community, and he wants to give those same possibilities to others.

“We wanted to provide as many opportunities as possible to really develop the community acting and production in Oxford and the surrounding area,” he said.

The film will debut the opening night of the Oxford Film Festival on Feb. 15, 2017 and premiere again throughout the five days of the festival. Ledbetter and Addington are excited about exhibiting their work that captures the love and support they felt in the community throughout making the film.

“I’m ecstatic,” Ledbetter said. “We have just felt so supported. There is something really special about the LOU community.”

Addington said she was excited that the film showcases so much of Oxford’s talent and great locations.

“It was very fun shooting this film around town and on the Square,” she said. “I can’t wait for people to see it.”

Not only is Ledbetter heavily involved in the Oxford community, he is also intensively involved and passionate about his career as a teacher and supporter of the arts on campus.

As a member of Ole Miss Theater and head of recruiting for the Ole Miss Theater Department, he is also one of the faculty sponsors for the student-run and student-produced theater organization, Ghostlight Repertory Theater. Ledbetter’s investment in the campus theater community reflects his love for being a teacher.

The teaching-side of what he has learned throughout the years allows him to learn from the students and apply those lessons to his life.

It’s amazing,” he said. “It makes me a better actor. It makes me a better director, and then that makes me a better teacher. The students teach me a lot, and the students help me learn where I’m falling short on teaching them.”

Finding time throughout his active schedule, Ledbetter continues to act, performing in various Fringe Festivals across Canada and the U.S. by starring in two one-man shows that he developed titled, “A Mind Full of Dopamine” and “The Road to Santiago.”

Throughout his career, Ledbetter has learned teamwork produces the best solutions, and collaboration is the key to success.

“When I’m committed to something, I’m driven to make it as excellent as I can,” he said, “and I know I can’t do it alone.”

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UM professor Rory Ledbetter watches and directs the students participating in Ole Miss Theatre’s production of “Clybourne Park.” “Clybourne Park” premiered Sept. 23, 2016 and will continue until Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

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