Matt Campbell is a third-year Masters of Fine Arts candidate in the directing program at Illinois State University.
Since arriving at ISU, Campbell has directed some of this program’s most innovative and memorable shows — such as A&W and J.B. — which combined unique attention to human emotion in dire situations with spectacles involving dance and magical acts.
This semester, he is directing “Spring Awakening,” which opens Friday. I was lucky to spend some time with him and learn a little bit more about his method as well as the road that led him to ISU.
Tell me about your background in theatre. You used to be an actor, what caused you to change your focus?
I had been living in New York for 10 years as an actor and a fight director, I had had some experience directing, and I felt it was time for a change. I like being able to look at the whole picture, to hone my aesthetic. For me, it has always been about being able to create a world.
Many of your shows here have featured magic tricks. What about magic attracts you and why do you like to include it in your work?
Growing up, I was the baby of the family with middle child syndrome. When I was nine my parents went to Las Vegas and — this is so embarrassing — they signed me up for the David Copperfield fan club, and he sends you little tricks in the mail. I was always fascinated to find out how they worked, but it was always a little disappointing as well to ruin the surprise. I include it in some of my shows because magic is also nostalgic. Watching magic as a kid, I would become enthralled. I want to see how an audience reclaims something they have lost.
“Spring Awakening” is your thesis show. How did you choose it?
I recently revisited the show and realized how universal it is. All of us have gone through self-discovery. I’m still going through it in my 30s. It was also an appealing choice because I was going to get to choreograph it. Of course when I listened to it again, I just remembered how killer the music is. It’s not the type of musical that ISU is used to doing. When I direct a show, I like to explore people who are able to find hope in the bleakest of situations. That was certainly the case with Glory of Living and J.B., and it’s certainly true in this show.
Tell me about the specific experience you have had directing “Spring Awakening.”
This show is going really well. With any show, rehearsals are up and down, but this is a cast that really wants to do this show. No one acts like it’s a labor. It’s an interesting challenge because of the show’s aesthetic, which is always on the verge of being too much … but I feel at home in this world. It is easy for me to step out of it, focus, and look at it objectively. I connect with the genre and I connect with musical theatre so I can look back, and I can see what works and what doesn’t.
Why did you choose to complete your graduate degree at ISU?
Well, first I had to finish my undergrad. I had my first professional job at 17, and then I went to college for about a year and a half before I found out that college was not what I wanted to do. I was terrified to tell my dad, who was a college professor, so I took him out to Cracker Barrel. I wanted to make sure it was someplace public. I dropped out and I went on a national tour of Buffalo Soldiers … but back to ISU. I got an interview here, but I also got one at Missouri State. I almost took that offer, but when I got this call, I decided to come here because I liked that it’s two hours from Chicago — but, guess how many times I’ve even had time to go to the city since I have been here: four times — and because I got to direct right off the bat. That’s all I really want to do. Work and teach.
You teach a musical theatre class in the theatre department. Tell me about your particular interest in this area.
Music impacts people in an incredible way. People viscerally respond to music. Musical theatre puts my two favorite things together: music and a play. Whether you buy into musical theatre or not, you cannot say you’re not affected when a character comes out and sings because they have no other way to say something. As a kid, music made me feel like an individual, made me special, because my brother was a football player and my sister had cheerleading. I played football too, but this was something that made me different from them. I like musicals because they challenge people.
I’ve heard from other students here that you love fountains. Elaborate on that.
Well, most kids imagine being doctors or something else prolific when they grow up. I wanted to be a fountain designer. Most of mine were more like ponds at first, and when my brother would get in trouble, my dad would make him come outside and build a fountain with me as punishment. I just liked digging holes and building things, creating different things. I also went through a tree house phase. I buried a lot of time capsules. There are probably 25 buried in my dad’s backyard. I wanted to be a stunt man, too. I used to tie myself to the top bar of my swing set and jump off, or put a mattress at the bottom of a landing and throw myself down the stairs. I would build obstacle courses, too, and my brother would do those with me. It’s always about the imagination and, like I said, creating my own world.