Allen Community College’s 2019-20 theatrical season was cut short, like countless other school events and activities, because of COVID-19.
The lost spring play — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — carries special significance, on top of being one of Shakespeare’s most beloved stories.
It also was slated to be the final play directed by Tony Piazza, who along with wife Terri is retiring from Allen at the conclusion of the spring semester.
“I was looking for a big closing show,” he said. “We had a great cast, and I’d never done ‘Midsummer’ before.”
As an added touch, Iola illustrator Stephen Gilpin was to prepare slide projections and the Piazza’s daughter, Emma, was to provide the music.
Alas, the cast was a week into rehearsals when spring break arrived, and with it the coronavirus.
“It’s sad,” Piazza said.
Piazza tempers his disappointment with a healthy perspective.
“When you look at all students who can’t go to graduation,” he said, “our problems, like in ‘Casablanca,’ don’t amount to a hill of beans.”
The Piazzas long ago had targeted this spring as their respective swan songs.
“I don’t know that we have a good answer for why now,” Terri said. “But this is it.”
They have plans to travel at some point.
“I can drive and visit my sister in New York, and not have to do it around the holidays,” Tony said. “We’re looking forward to a more relaxed schedule.”
“We’ll just see what the next chapter means,” Terri added. “We’re very chapter oriented.”
THE EARLY chapters for both followed similar plots.
Both were raised in the Midwest; Tony in Nebraska, Terri in Arkansas.
Both developed an early affinity for acting, to the point they decided to pursue drama after high school.
Tony continued acting while earning a degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara before moving to New York. Terri did the same while studying at Southwest Missouri State University. After college, she dabbled in theater in St. Louis, before moving to the Empire State.
Fate brought them together at the Kings County Shakespeare Company in Brooklyn, where they were cast in an original production, “Dinner At The Evergreens,” which had been written by a friend.
“It was off-off-off Broadway,” Terri recalled. “We did a little bit of everything. We both did work for the same companies. We did a lot of Shakespeare.”
“Mostly outdoor theater,” Tony noted.
“Shakespeare in the park,” Terri chuckled.
As the economy turned south and jobs became harder to find, the Piazzas agreed they needed a more suitable means of income.
Tony returned to school to earn his master’s at San Diego State University, intent on becoming a teacher, preferably closer to home. They considered metropolitan schools in St. Louis, Tulsa and Oklahoma City before settling on Kansas City.
There, Tony found several adjunct teaching positions for metro community colleges, Mid-America Nazarene University, Baker University and finally teaching adult education courses at Johnson County Community College.
Then came the summer of 1999, when he heard about an opening in Iola.
For several years, former Allen instructor Kevin Alexander had developed a drama program for the college, before relinquishing his directorial duties to focus solely on teaching speech classes.
“We struggled for quite a while to find someone,” recalled ACC President John Masterson, to the point the drama program essentially dissolved. “Then, we were fortunate enough to find Tony.”
“I felt like I had reached a point in my life where I had something to offer,” Tony said. “It was a good intersection of doing theater, doing art, and sharing what I had learned with others, and also having a steady job.”
TONY arrived to find what could charitably be described as spartan facilities.
“I remember they showed me what’s now the music room,” he recalled. (It was Tony who coined the name “The Black Box” for the venue.)
“There were some light poles and old lights and old dimmers,” he said.
His eyes brimmed with excitement.
“Oh, you mean I get to start a whole theater program?” he asked.
Why such enthusiasm?
“Really, I had nowhere to go but up, and I admit, I enjoyed being in charge,” he said. “Here, I was able to pick the whole season and be the chief cook and bottle washer. I enjoyed the freedom.”
He had some powerful supporters in his corner.
Masteron’s support was more than gratifying, Tony noted. “John has been here to see virtually everything we’ve done. He’s been our biggest supporter.”
And Alexander was still on staff to guide Tony through his early years.
“He was very helpful as a mentor. He answered questions, knew where everything was.”
And, as Tony is quick to point out, Allen County is blessed with a seemingly endless supply of talented young performers to fill out his roster each year.
“Iola’s very in tune with theater,” Tony said. “We have a very strong community theater. People come from afar to the Bowlus to see its productions. Across the state, there are a lot of strong theater programs. Is that the same for every state? Maybe. But definitely here, people support the arts.”
The drama program soon grew from a handful to students to as many as 30 in a single year. He’s averaged 15 to 20 students the past few years.
The growth coincided with the college’s decision shortly after the Piazzas’ arrival to revamp its Technology Building.
Under Tony’s urging, administrators agreed to carve out a space for the drama department, which led to construction of the Allen College Theatre.
Tony, whose sketches led to the theater complex, complete with nearby workshop and changing room, credited the college’s administrators for making it happen.
“John Masterson and all of the boards that we’ve had since we’ve come, have been very supportive, and open and agreeable to not only the theater program, but I’ve made changes in the communications program,” Tony said. “They’ve added classes, created more of a journalism perspective. We’ve been encouraged and supported at every step. That would not have happened if the people we worked with weren’t supportive to new ideas.”
“I’ve done a lot of jobs, a lot of different careers,” he continued. “Teaching is really the most fulfilling. It checks all the boxes I’ve enjoyed: working with kids, working with students, doing something creative.”
Even better, “we’ve made lifelong friends here,” he said. “It’s been really fun to see.”
BUT TO talk about Tony’s impact on the drama program 20 years hence is only telling half the story.
While he was getting his feet in the classroom door, Terri also was going back to school to earn her master’s degree at Pittsburg State University.
“As soon as she got her degree, we snatched her up, too,” Masterson noted.
Terri joined Allen in the spring of 2000, first as an adjunct instructor, then full time in 2003 when she was hired on as a speech instructor and as assistant theater director. She and Tony would alternate directing gigs for various ACC productions. Terri also spearheaded a student improv group.
Her responsibilities steadily grew at the college, and in 2008, Terri agreed to serve as the division chair for the communications and fine arts divisions at ACC.
“I knew I couldn’t do that and theater at the same time,” Terri said. “As much as I loved theater, I was interested in growing as an academic professional.”
She relinquished her assistant director’s duties, and instead focused on adding to the school’s communications curriculum.
She has since added a number of courses, and led an effort to launch the Allen Flame, the college’s online newspaper.
“The whole transition was very fulfilling,” she said. “It allowed me to grow.”
BEFORE he formally hangs up his director’s cap, one last bit of unfinished business remains for Tony.
The summer theater program will return, but as with most other activities, be done remotely.
He and assistants Jordan Garcia and Adrienne Fleming, ACC’s choir director, will develop instructional videos, as well as a series of exercises, dealing with improvisation, scene and character building and monologues.
Students will be encouraged to film themselves and share their work with instructors and other “castmates.”
The instructors then will work one-on-one with the students, via Zoom or other online meeting resources, for intense instruction.
At the conclusion of the three-week program, which wraps up June 20, final videos will be recorded and shared online for the public.
“At first, I thought well, we can’t do the summer show, but then I realized all these students are probably going to be here in the summer looking for something to do. And, without the constraints of having to corral a group of teenagers (ages 13 to 21) at one place at one time, the online exercises may have an even larger acting troupe.
“With streaming, it’s still possible to do some kind of theater,” Tony said. “We may not be live and in the present, but we can keep the art alive.”
THE PIAZZAS have two grown children.
Alex has been choir director at El Dorado middle and high schools. He will relinquish that post at the end of the school year to focus on earning a master’s degree in choral conducting at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Daughter Emma is a recent University of Kansas graduate. She works at KU as an administrative assistant. Like the rest of her family, Emma also is heavily immersed in the performing arts, particularly music. She has recently launched a “Women In Music Podcast,” or “WIMP.” The podcast is available via Spotify, Apple and other online platforms.