Instructor of Theater /
Director, Emery Community Arts Center
M.A., University of Maine
C.S., Certified Specialist, Appalachian State University
B.A., University of Maine at Farmington
“The stage was my first love. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing or involved in theater,” said UMF Theatre Instructor Jayne Decker, who grew up in the artistic community of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.
Decker is an award winning playwright who has directed numerous productions at the UMF Alumni Theater and the Emery Community Arts Center. Most recently, she directed productions of Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
She has written Stars Falling, winner of the 2002 Maine Playwriting Award, and Songbird, a touring play about the Iraq War. She has also directed productions of her original works, Jelly Moonshine and Good Medicine, and presented workshop productions of her scripts, including her latest, Bridge, based on the 1984 hate crime that resulted in the murder of a young gay man in Bangor, Maine.
“Teaching is a huge part of my life and one of the reasons I stay here at UMF,” Decker said. “I’ve had the good luck to being able to work with other directors in other areas, but it’s this community — this place — where I can write. I develop an affinity for places, and I can write here. There are wonderful opportunities to teach and to work in a theater space I love.”
Teaching Inspires Her
For instance, in her course on social and political theater, Decker recently featured Coyote on a Fence, Bruce Graham’s award-winning drama about capital punishment. She and her students were then moved to stage the powerful play that portrays the relationship between two death row convicts. “I love finding those plays that make us, the actors and audience, pause,” Decker said. “It’s really about finding those scripts — and they are there — that take the audience on a roller coaster of emotion and feel deeply.”
“I think when an actor has the silence of the audience — those moments on stage when the theater goes quiet — it’s an incredibly powerful experience. I have been fortunate to have had that as an actor, and I look for those same types of experiences for my students,” she said.
Decker also finds inspiration in Alumni Theater, the ‘black box’ space that can be configured uniquely for production. Collaborating with fellow Theater faculty members Stan Spilecki and Elizabeth Dorr, they turned the theater inside out for Coyote on a Fence, placing the audience on the stage and building the prison set on the tiered seating and balcony. Theater-goers felt as if they were seated in the middle of a penitentiary, patrolled with prison guards and punctuated by the screams and taunts of prisoners.
“I love bringing the audience into the experience of the play,” Decker said. “I love Alumni Theater because of the flexibility of the space and the intimacy between actors and audience. Our recent production of Coyote on a Fence is a good example of what Alumni Theater can be.”
Learn by Doing
Theatre UMF, the student production group, typically presents 4-5 productions each year. Auditions are open to all University of Maine at Farmington students. UMF is also the home of the Sandy River Players, a community theater group, which holds open auditions and stages 3-4 productions annually. Having both groups ensures many acting and technical opportunities for students.
“One of the wonderful things about theater at UMF is the opportunities that students have here. We try to give them experiences that speak to their interests. If they are interested in design, they have the opportunity to design, whether it is set, costume, lighting or sound design. And I think our students get those opportunities earlier and more often then they might at a larger program. And whether it is acting, design, tech or play-writing, we try to focus on what the student wants to get from this experience,” Decker explained.
With performance space available in both Alumni Theater and the newly opened Emery Community Arts Center, students can and do develop their own projects. One senior received a Michael D. Wilson Scholarship to stage and direct his original play, Loose Dirt. “Our students learn by doing, and not just on one production. Here they can take a course about one act plays and their final project is to direct a one-act play. The design experience is absolutely invaluable, and we’ve seen our student s go one professionally to use what they have learned,” Decker said.
Working in Theater
The leadership opportunities and hands-on experiences that UMF Theatre students can gain in both campus and community theater productions have a real value after graduation. “We have students who work in professional theater after they graduate. We have had students go on to the Portland Stage Company, Maine State Music Theater, and work in New York theater,” Decker said.
Other graduates combine their love of theater with their teaching degree and go on direct high school theater programs. In fact, noted Decker, her recent freshman class included students who had been trained in theater by one of her former graduates, now a teacher at Maine’s Messalonskee High School. One UMF Theatre grad even parlayed his degree into a place at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, by explaining how his training could help him interrogate suspects and calm upset civilians.
“Some students continue to perform and do keep theater in their lives. I love it when they come back and find me again. There have been many, many students over the years who have remained in contact,” Decker said.
It’s All in the Details
Decker’s newest script, Bridge, depicts the true story of Charlie Howard, an openly gay man who was tormented, chased and caught by a group of teens who then threw Howard over a bridge to his death. She said that while writing the play she could hear the words of Charlie voiced by a specific actor. She described how exciting it was to hear him bring the character alive in the recent workshop production.
“It’s very special. It’s the first time you are literally breathing life into the script with the actors. There’s a real synchronicity between playwright and actor, and I love to find that between director and actor too,” Decker added.
Known for her meticulous direction, Decker admits to watching every rehearsal and every performance of all her productions. If she has a mantra, it is this: details matter. “Every detail matters. Sometimes it can come down to a single word. While I was with an actor who was portraying Charlie’s grieving mother in Bridge, we considered whether a line should be either ‘put it anywhere’ or ‘put it somewhere’,” Decker said.
May Term: Zombie Films & Stage Combat
Decker recently taught a three-week class in Stage Fighting and Combat. Stage Combat is just one of the special interest courses faculty offer during May Term. She also teamed up with UMF Accociate Professor of Art Dawn Nye to teach a Zombie Film class, which resulted in three short student-produced films.
“That’s what’s great about May Term. We have the chance to respond to student interest,” Decker said. “We did the Zombie Film class over May Term, and the students were really excited about it. So, when the students in my Commedia dell’Arte course were really interested in stage fighting, we developed a course.”
“Stage fighting is choreography. It’s like staging a dance. It’s a real workout that focuses on not just combat, but movement. It’s extremely physical — we go for three and a half hours each day, four days a week,” explained Decker. In small classes, with as few as eight people, students step up to the mats to learn basic tumbling and falling. Next, it’s unarmed combat, and an introduction to the use of stage weapons. Then, Decker and her students study scripts with dramatic and comedic fight scenes and figure out how to work the fight on stage. Finally, students stage comedic fight scenes.
“By the end of the first week, everybody was feeling a little sore and tired, but it’s been wonderful. This group of students all had a background in performance, so we could really take it further,” Decker said.
Sandy River Players
Decker also serves as the Creative Director for the Sandy River Players. Most recently, she directed her original adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream that featured an original score by UMF Professor of Music Philip Carlsen.
“One of the things I love about Sandy River Players is that it includes people of all ages. I often have students, faculty and people from the community together on one stage,” Decker said.
“In theater, you create a community — a living space — when you produce a play. You work intensely with the actors and with the designers. Then the play runs, and then it’s gone. It’s very fleeting and I think that’s part of the beauty of theater. You can come back to a script again, but if one element changes, it’s a different play,” she added.
The Sandy River Players also sponsor a Broadway Junior summer theater camp that offers UMF students the chance to mentor local children and add to their technical and design experience.
The Emery Community Arts Center
Decker is also the director of the Emery Community Arts Center, A state-of-the-art facility which houses multimedia art, such as experimental theater, electronic music, and poetry readings combining light sculptures using the latest sound and lighting technology. “Emery is exciting for its technical advantages. There’s lighting we can do here that we can’t do anywhere else on campus. It’s a fluid space that we’ve filled with art, music and theater,” Decker said.
Since its opening in 2011, the Emery’s flexible performance and gallery space has hosted an opera, a coffeehouse-style café, plays, multimedia exhibits, dance performances, and concerts. One of its annual exhibitions, Celebrate Our Youth, features artists aged 15-19 from a nearby high school. The event is a popular success, drawing hundreds to the art show every spring.
“This high school show was on of my favorites. I told the high school art teachers your students are our artists and they need to feel like artists when they are here. We held an opening reception for them. Seeing all the people who came through the exhibition and saw the work of these young people was really exciting,” Decker said.
Emery also boasts a 100-seat multipurpose performance space, complete with barn doors that open onto an outdoor amphitheater. Recent events include Maine Jazz Camp, a storyteller’s festival and a Great Gatsby party.
Favorite Place on Campus
“My favorite place at UMF is in Alumni Theater at the top of the stairs next to the lighting booth. I watch every rehearsal, every performance there. I have sat there holding my breath during my shows. I can remember holding my breath during the bottle dance in Fiddler on the Roof, watching the actors balance those bottles on their heads, hoping they didn’t fall,” Decker reminisced.