40 years later, alum returns to Doudna stage


Justin Brown

Gary Ambler, right, rehearses his lines for the play “Seminar” in the Black Box Theatre in the Donna Fine Arts Center.

Liz Stephens, City Reporter

An Eastern alumnus has come to campus for the first time since graduating to participate in the modern play “Seminar.”

Gary Ambler is now a resident of Urbana area and commutes to Charleston for the rehearsals of “Seminar.” It will debut March 1 through March 5 at the Black Box Theatre in the Doudna Fine Arts Center.

Eastern has provided him an apartment in university housing in case he needs to stay overnight after rehearsals and performances of the play.

Ambler has been acting and directing plays for a theatre in Urbana for about 40 years.

Ambler said he met his wife at Eastern while doing theatre and they have done some shows together.

“I’ve directed her a number of times,” he said.

Ambler said he does some theatre coaching and audition coaching.

He said he has enjoyed reacquainting himself with campus, as this is his first time back on campus since graduating in 1975.

Ambler was a theatre major during his time at Eastern and said he landed his first lead role his sophomore year.

“My first lead role was in a play called ‘Adaptation,’ a ‘life is a game show’ kind of play,” he said.

“At that time the theatre department was very interesting, it was a very interesting time of the theatre and we were doing a lot of experimenting,” he said.

Ambler said when he was in school the theatre department had what was called “experimental 5 o’clock theatre” where students could apply for slots, and through that they could put on their own shows.

Ambler said the director, Kevin Doolen, asked him to play the role of Leonard about a year ago.

“It just all worked out,” Ambler said.

Doolen asked Ambler to be a part of the audition process to use his experience and role in the play to push the students auditioning to be more competitive.

Doolen said the goal was to see how the students fit the characters by how hard they would fight for their role.

Ambler said it was fun to play power games in the auditions.

Ambler will be playing the intimidating character of Leonard, who is the character that the students in the play seek help from with their writing.

Ambler said these upcoming writers are “making a go for it” in their careers and want his character to critique their work.

Alan Rickman originated the character Leonard and was the original Broadway performer for the character.

“I have a feeling it was written with him in mind,” Ambler said.

“It’s a very interesting role and he has – like all good roles – he has trouble in his life. Even though he is aggressive, cruel and very offensive at times, you also get to see some of the cause of that,” he said.

Ambler said the play is fascinating because the play tends to be self-directed as “art about art” and has a slightly hopeful message.

“I am really interested in hearing what people have to think about the play,” Ambler said.

“This is a woman playwright, but she’s taking some risks I think in the way she is portraying women in this play, and I’m interested to hear the arguments about this.”

He said that the play is controversial in terms of its “sexual politics.”

“It is definitely a male-oriented play or male-oriented world to the playwright’s belief,” he said.

He said that some of the literary references mentioned in the play include Robert Penn Warren, Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff.

Ambler said that the play is in a pretty good place, but they are currently struggling to “keep it in their brains.”

He said Sunday, Feb. 12 was their full second run, and the cast still has a couple weeks until tech week.

“I must say I am really impressed with the students that I’ve met so far,” he said.

Ambler said being back in Charleston brings back many memories, and he has seen some familiar faces while being here.


Liz Stephens can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].