John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men

September 11 - 20
Buskirk-Chumley Theater

David Higgins

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Higgins still making a scene, now with Cardinal Stage

IU’s C. David Higgins stays active in retirement

When C. David Higgins retired from Indiana University as chair of the opera studies department and principal designer for IU Opera Theater, he was ready for a change.

david“I certainly planned on retiring from design work on the scale that I was doing, because the Musical Arts Center productions that I was designing there were quite large and time consuming,” Higgins said.

But his wife was on the board for Cardinal Theater Company, so it didn’t take long before he was pulled back into what he’d done for more than 40 years.

It wasn’t a surprise, as Higgins figured he’d be doing some freelance work, “but on the other hand, having done it all my life, it was not something that you give up easily.”

Cardinal’s productions offered a different challenge. There’s not a large budget, a designated space or unlimited time. Instead, what he found was a different kind of community that had to find ways to work around its challenges.

Higgins has found the work rewarding as he collaborates with dedicated theater staff including Michael Fields, a company’s master carpenter who also retired after 30 years of working in New York at television networks doing technical direction and production manager work.

“He’s got a pretty big pedigree, too,” Higgins said.

Not that IU opera didn’t present its own challenges. Cardinal is just different. Community thought must go into the design. If something isn’t working, Higgins must work with others to fix it, including artistic director Randy White.

“Randy, I would have to say, is easy to work with and very accommodating. I find him to be very pragmatic,” Higgins said.

David 2In its short tenure, Cardinal has elevated itself to Equity status.

“It’s an indication of prestige for the company of its viability and its impact on the community to be recognized as an equity company. That is very impressive to me the fact that Randy has been able to accomplish what he’s been able to accomplish,” Higgins said.

Plus there is a certain energy to being with people who love theater.

“It’s also exciting, from my standpoint, to be dealing with a group of people who have different perspectives and different levels of experience,” Higgins said.

With “Of Mice and Men,” Higgins said there is a profound story to be told. And with this being the first production of the year, that presents its own challenges. People are just coming off summer vacation. School is back in session.

“And we’re always saying we never start soon enough, but I don’t know if we start any sooner if we’d have any more accomplished,” he said.

So many elements go into set design. Along with taking into consideration the performance space, there has to be thought about what the director’s vision is. For “Of Mice and Men,” Higgins said the set is “minimally realistic.” The set even includes a tree.

“Many productions of ‘Of Mice and Men’ do have trees. As I did the research, there are lots of productions that have trees,” Higgins said.

As the scenes change, Higgins said the tree will remain. For him, it’s more symbolic as the show begins and ends in the same locale.

“Hopefully it creates a kind of visual bookend to the design for the show,” he said.

Will the audience notice such a touch?

“I’ve done this for 40 years, and I can tell you definitely they don’t,” he said. But that’s not the point. What Higgins is doing is creating an experience for the audience.

“I hope that’s what we’re able to do. To me, that’s the power of live theater,” he said.

Live theater has an energy. Even if it is videotaped, the physical experience isn’t the same when the performance is rewatched. No show is the same, and being in the audience allows for catharsis — audience members experiencing the effects of the drama.

“It’s a living, breathing organism while it’s happening. That to me is extremely exciting,” Higgins said.

Higgins does have other interests. He started out as a fine artist and still hasn’t finished a series of paintings based on biblical and Greek morality tales. He started one painting based on the four horsemen of the apocalypse four or five years ago, but he’s not yet been compelled to finish it. He’s not driven to draw and paint things from his own imagination and own creation.

“But the wonderful thing about theater is that it’s collaborative, and there is an interaction with other people which I’ve always cherished,” he said.

With Cardinal’s production, Higgins hopes audience members will not only be transformed by the story but by the details that make the story come to life.

“To me, that’s what theater is all about. It’s meant to be a transformative experience in our lives,” he said.

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