By Sarah Carlson, Copy Editor
Gary Varner sits in an old chair backstage of the Abilene Civic Center, patting his foot and checking his cell phone for the time every few minutes. He takes his baseball cap off every now and then to scratch his head and smooth down his short, graying hair.
Pausing for a moment from working on the lighting for Kiss Me Kate, this year’s Homecoming Musical, he tries to explain his actual job description.
“I wear several hats,” Gary said, to explain the many roles he has in ACU’s Theatre Department. “I wear the hat of TD, which is technical director, which means that I am responsible to help arrange all the technical aspects of the show, except for costumes. I’ll make sure that the lighting’s there, that the sound is there, that the set is designed. All those things I put together, I may not do them, but I have to supervise it.”
Other hats Gary, associate professor of theatre, has trained himself to wear are that of director and professor, working with improvisation, storytelling and stage combat in most productions, areas in which he specializes.
In his ninth year at ACU, his problem isn’t only that he wears too many hats and works too many jobs; it’s that he doesn’t know how to stop.
“I think I’ve trained myself to take on all those jobs, and I don’t know how to stop it, so that’s something that’s been hard,” Gary said.
Production of the Homecoming Musical begins as early as the spring semester, and the closer opening night gets, the busier he gets. He works 70 to 80 hours a week in the home stretch before the first curtain is raised Homecoming weekend, seeing his family for about an hour a day. Luckily, he said, Travis Eason was hired as a full-time technical assistant to help with the workload.
Because he doesn’t know how to step back and not put all his efforts into his job, transitioning from one show to another can be difficult.
“It’s funny,” Gary said, “opening night, if I’m real involved in the show, is a real exciting time, and then closing time is hard because I’m getting geared up for strike. Then usually, the week after a show closes, I go through a very down time where I just feel kind of depressed, and it’s because I’ve expelled so much energy and then suddenly there’s nothing to put it on.
“You’ve been so geared toward work you don’t know what to do. But then life starts catching up with you.”
The production of Kiss Me, Kate has been atypical for Gary in that the set was rented from a company in New York, and a friend of his from Tulane University was hired to help design and install lighting, said Eric Harrell, associate professor of theatre and director of Kiss Me, Kate. But normally, he said, Gary has plenty of work to do.
“We couldn’t do what we do without all of Gary’s continuous work,” Harrell said. “We’re thrilled we’ve hired a full-time position to help Gary. He finally got that help he has so desperately needed.”
Gary has directed five shows at ACU, including two children’s shows, The Two Gentlemen of Verona for the annual Summer Shakespeare Festival in 2000, and two Dinner Theatres, most recently The Nerd in fall 2003 and Barefoot in the Park in August and September of this year.
What helps keep him motivated, he said, are his students.
“I just really like their personalities,” he said, “and theatre people are fun to be around when they’re really good students, and they enjoy what they do, and that creative burst that they get-that’s just fun to be around.”
Gary and his wife, Ann Varner, financial aid adviser, moved from Durant, Okla., with their four children to Abilene in 1996 for Gary to start his career in the Theatre Department. Gary said the Christian environment at ACU is what first attracted him to his job, as well as his passion for theatre and belief that before people enter the business, they must be grounded in something greater than themselves and their profession.
“Theatre is a hard business,” Gary said. “To be able to come and work here in a place that has a very strong moral worldview was just very important to me, and I knew some of my children would want to follow in my footsteps, and I just felt like this was the kind of environment I would want them to learn about theatre.
“I always tell [my students] that one of the things I think we teach at ACU is that theatre’s our job, but our faith and church is our life, and I think we try and make that a distinction.”
Harrell agrees and emphasized the importance for theatre students to be grounded in their faith before entering the business, which is not always receptive or supportive to people with Christian lifestyles.
“Our role is to prepare students for a variety of options in theatre … and helping students use their gifts to God’s glory,” he said.
Gary’s daughter Cari, second eldest of four children, is a freshman theatre major. Even though some days go by where father and daughter don’t see each other, he said he is proud of Cari and her decision to attend ACU. His oldest, Courtney, is a junior English major, and one of Gary’s greatest joys is watching his children grow while attending ACU.
“For most of my life, I’ve been fortunate to watch people come to college, and I get to watch the change that happens to them in college,” he said, “and I’m just so excited that my girls are on campus because I get to watch it with them, and I would really hate it if they were on another campus and I didn’t get to see that.”
Courtney Varner said she has enjoyed growing up having Gary as a father. Because her dad has taught for so many years, college students were always in and out of the Varner household, and she said people always knew him before they knew her, Gary being the outgoing type of person who even says hi to strangers in the grocery store.
“I was always known as Gary Varner’s daughter,” she said. “When I was younger I thought it was annoying, but now I’m proud and thankful that I’m associated with him.”
Gary said he would love for his two youngest, Jeremy, 16, and Matt, 13, to come at ACU as well, especially if they want to be involved in theatre.
“I believe in our department enough that if they wanted to continue in theatre, then I want them to go to school here because I really want them to have a solid base to go out into this business,” he said.
All of the Varner children have been involved in an ACU theatre production, whether they performed in it or worked backstage. Most recently, Matt had a role in The Nerd last year and Jeremy performed in and Courtney was the stage manager for Taming of the Shrew.
“It’s kind of the family business,” Courtney said. “It’s just an easy and natural transition.”
Courtney was involved in theatre at Abilene High School but chose not to audition for ACU’s Theatre Department, adding she felt a slight amount of pressure to follow her father into the profession.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to major in theatre,” she said. “I wanted to do something on my own completely. I can only do two things-theatre and writing. So I chose writing.”
Nevertheless, Courtney said she has learned a lot about life watching her father and growing up in the theatre and enjoys her family’s dynamic.
Finding a balance between his work and his life helped him deal with the pressures of his profession.
Gary still always has something to do. His day is filled with interruptions and questions, and he always has a project to work on. As he grows older, he finds he is less willing to give the amount of time his jobs require, he said, so he gets tired easier than he used to.
But that isn’t stopping him.
“We just work until we can’t work anymore,” he said, “and then we let the actors come in and start their job.”