Mar. 13—Life as a lawyer and perhaps a politician awaited Arthur Feinsod.
After taking a theater course at Harvard University, he was asked to teach in a summer acting and poetry program for inmates at the maximum-security state prison in nearby Walpole, Mass. Feinsod agreed, thinking the experience would bolster his skills as a lawyer someday.
“Life did a wonderful reverse on me,” he recalled. “I just loved teaching the guys theater and acting and poetry.”
Feinsod spent three summers teaching the Walpole prisoners in the early 1970s. At one point, one of his student-inmates discreetly handed Feinsod a small index card. “He said, ‘We want you to be an honorary member of our lifers group,'” Feinsod recalled, choking up at the memory.
He wound up changing career plans, much to his parents’ displeasure. Feinsod decided to pursue teaching theater, playwriting and humanities. Eventually, his parents came around and supported his decision. Now, decades later, as Feinsod prepares to retire as a college professor, the fruits of his choice — at least, a highlight of it — can be found in a newly published two-volume anthology of his students’ playwriting works, “Particular Return.” It features eight plays written by former students, spanning from 1980s to the present.
At age 69, Feinsod remains grateful for that pivotal moment years ago back in Massachusetts.
“Thank the Lord, life changed for the better for me, and put me in the new direction,” he said, sitting in the breezeway of his writing retreat last week in Terre Haute.
“Particular Return” captures a diverse cross-section of budding playwrights and composers guided by Feinsod through his teaching career. It’s a long run on the theatrical stage. He taught 16 years at Trinity College in Connecticut, one semester at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and the past 20 years as professor of theater at Indiana State University. He also served as artistic director of ISU’s Crossroads Repertory Theatre, and co-founder of Terre Haute’s professional Theater 7 company.
The eight plays in “Particular Return” range from musicals based on Robin Hood’s sidekick and a Peter Pan sequel to the true story of the last gay couple hanged for sodomy in England, a comedy about small-town corruption, a harrowing tale of sexual assault and survival, an imaginary adventure of traveling vaudevillians, a one-person show on the redemptive power of love — even within a dysfunctional family, and a spiritual reconnection in the aftermath of suicide.
Each work came from a student playwright to whom Feinsod served as a director, producer, teacher, editor or mentor. Feinsod is publishing the anthology through Chalk & Fire Publishing, a mom-and-pop style company he founded with his son, Simon Peterson. The compilation is “a retirement present to myself,” Feinsod said, with a grin.
The list of playwrights in “Particular Return” includes Stephen Belber, Matthew Glassman and Mitchell Polin from Feinsod’s Trinity College years, and ISU alums Rachelle Martin, Benjamin Fulk, Myles Hesse and Andy Park. Their own backgrounds are as varied as the anthology’s topics. Belber’s resume features memorable stage, film and TV productions such as his Emmy-nominated “The Laramie Project,” Broadway’s “Match,” the Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy “Management,” and the TV series “Law & Order: SVU.”
Belber wrote the preface of “Particular Return,” recalling that he was a freshman in 1985 at Trinity, where he Feinsod who was in his first year as a professor.
“I took playwriting as an elective and was immediately hooked by his unrelenting belief that theater was profound, life-changing, and maybe even a career for those willing to work hard and feed the fire from within,” Belber wrote of his former prof.
Years later, ISU students experienced Feinsod’s passion for the arts, too.
Fulk recalled his freshman year, when he emailed Feinsod an idea for a stage adaptation of English poet John Milton’s classic “Paradise Lost.” The correspondence triggered Fulk’s four-year quest to bring the proposal to life. Today, Fulk’s own works include “Particular Disposition,” which won a playwriting award at the Austin Film Festival in 2018, and is included in Feinsod’s “Particular Return” anthology.
“I’m a writer today because of Arthur,” Fulk said last week. “He was the one who pushed me and challenged me and always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.”
Like Feinsod, Hesse started college intending to become a lawyer. That changed after taking Feinsod’s Theater 101 class at ISU.
“[I] fell in love with theater,” Hesse said. “And then I took Playwriting with Arthur and realized how much I loved writing for the stage. And then I took Arthur’s classes on the ‘Great Works’ [of literature] and started asking the big questions about what I wanted from life. And what I wanted was to be able to make and study the arts, and Arthur helped me discover that.”
Martin, a fellow ISU alum, now works at Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis and serves as artistic director of Indyprov, a comedy group. Her “Leavesakes and the Untold Story of Little John: A Musical Sidekick Sequel to Robin Hood” also graces the pages of the new anthology. She also credits Feinsod’s enthusiasm and theatrical intuitions for her development.
“His love of the arts is contagious,” she said Sunday. “It feels like there is truly nothing else he would rather be doing, and it sets a high bar for everyone around him.”
Indeed, the chance to nuture young writers, while also helping them prepare for a well-rounded life, motivates Feinsod. “Particular Return” exemplifies that goal.
“It’s everything as a teacher,” he said. “That’s the bottom line — how the students do, and what they take with them and run with.”
In retirement, Feinsod plans to focus on his own playwriting, as well as directing. “That’s what I want to focus for the rest of my life,” he said.
Since coming to Terre Haute in 2001, he and his wife, Mary Kramer — the executive director of Wabash Valley Art Spaces Outdoor Sculpture Collection — have been part of an arts growth in the community. “We’ve sure given it our best shot,” he said, “and we’ll continue giving it our best shot.” He’s also active in the InterFaith Council of the Wabash Valley, as its president.
Feinsod’s finale as director of ISU students is ongoing this weekend. The theater department’s Zoom version of “Agnes of God” will be streamed online at 7:30 p.m. tonight and 3 p.m. Sunday. (Tickets are $5 per person, available at 812-237-3337, or indstate.edu/cas/theater.) This play, like the 50-plus others he’s directed, embodies his view of the arts.
“It’s very easy for art to be marginalized and seen as decoration around the edges” Feinsod said, “rather than something fundamental to the human spirit.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected].