UM theatre professor seeks new ways to bring diverse voices to program

Photo of the stage at the Hazel production. Submitted photo. The stage features a living room scene.
Photo of the stage at the Hazel production. Submitted photo.

Aliza Warner
Oxford Stories

A University of Mississippi theatre professor hopes to secure a grant that will bring diverse voices to the program, providing enriching student learning opportunities.

Peter Wood, Ph.D., was drawn to the theatre world’s sense of community. When Wood later embarked on an academic career, Wood fell in love with theatre again, but in a different way. 

Wood, who uses the pronoun they, describes a winding path through academia. Although they started college right out of high school, Wood didn’t finish undergraduate studies for several years. At age 27, Wood began earning degrees again, culminating in a master’s degree in theatre history and performance studies and a doctorate in theatre and performance studies.

“I think I was in my early 30s when I finished my master’s, and so I didn’t get my Ph.D. until later in life as well,” said Wood, who fell in love with theatre the more they learned about its history, interworkings and power.

Today, Wood is an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, teaching several courses that include theatre appreciation, directing, script analysis, and two gender studies courses Wood developed.

As a Department of Theatre & Film faculty member, Wood served as a director for the production of “Hazel,” the first full-length show Wood has done at UM, though not the first of their career. 

The first UM production of 2022, “Hazel,” was written by Anne Marie Cammarato, the inaugural recipient of an Emerging Women’s Playwriting Fellowship. The play is described as a “contemporary take on the classic family drama that explores how members of a small family navigate personal crises in the midst of an ongoing disaster that is quite literally tearing apart their home.”

Peter Wood, Ph.D

Before “Hazel,” Wood worked as a director at other universities and communities. After arriving on campus, Wood staged a few readings on the plays William Faulkner wrote as a student.

Wood has also been involved in the women’s playwright residency, a program that brings women playwrights to Mississippi and provides a space for their creative work. 

The director is the ultimate decision-maker and someone who oversees all aspects of the production, Wood said. Given all the responsibilities a director may face, collaboration is important.

“Now,  [the director] they’re not going to necessarily design the costumes themselves, but they’re going to be responsible for saying ‘yes’ to a costume design or suggesting that something needs to be changed,” Wood said. “They’re going to work collaboratively with their designers, whether that’s a set designer, costumes, lighting designers.”

Wood’s job as director is to help all actors understand the characters they are portraying and make sure it comes off authentically realistic to the audience.

Claire Justice Porter, a UM student and one of the stars of “Hazel,” believes the director is crucial for any production because they mediate different ideas or visions.

“If the director didn’t exist, the show would be a mess of different concepts and separate ideas that each individual part of the process has not connected to each other,” said Porter. “Especially with a new show like ‘Hazel,’ it was really important to have a director lead the cast in what direction we should take each unanswered element of the show.”

Wood said a director should understand all aspects of theatre and the role each member plays. They can combine different production elements and turn them into a cohesive story. Wood loves seeing students grow into artists even if it doesn’t launch them into superstardom. 

Porter said Wood’s creativity and confidence helped build the show. 

It was super exciting to create a completely new piece of theatre like this show,” Porter said, “and having someone as sure of their concept as Peter really helped make the show what it is now.”

Wood’s next project will be working to secure a grant for a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) guest artist to direct a show at UM with students. With this grant, Wood hopes to help increase diversity in the theatre world and provide students with opportunities to network with knowledgeable professionals. 

Wood believes storytelling is a way to understand and reflect on what is happening in the world. Theatre can help bring a community together, offering shared connections.

“… As I get older, I become more and more aware and focused on what storytelling means and how important it is for our basic understanding of who we are, and what we’re doing in the world, and what the world’s doing to us, and … (what) we want the world to look like.”

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