Fritzler makes cantankerous fun

Jim Fritzler ’76 is a minimalist.

His office at Scott Studio Theatre belies the fact that he’s been teaching in the Hastings College Theatre Department for 17 years, with the last four as department chair. There are no massive piles of papers, no haphazard stacks of books, no totes stuffed with costumes and props.

Photo for Jim Fritzler in the Hastings College Theatre.
Jim Fritzler, chair of the Hastings College Theatre Department, has taught 17 years worth of students at HC.

What there are, however, are pictures: framed portraits of college students standing on stage, the casts of so many musicals and plays, lining the walls of his office and trailing down the hallway.

During an interview, Fritzler studied the portraits, remembering students of years gone by — some in faraway places on famous stages, others close to home in roles as teachers or writers or pastors. He remembers them all. He knows where they started and where they’ve landed.

He keeps an eye on them, just like he did when they were young college students looking for direction — both on stage and in life

“Jim is not the typical professor. One of the things that I admire about his teaching style is that although he may not come across that way, he cares,” said assistant theatre professor Annette Vargas, who is in her fifth year of teaching alongside Fritzler. “He worries about them at night.”

This is a fact Fritzler’s students are never told but eventually absorb. Caring doesn’t have to involve nice words.

“He can be really caustic and very sarcastic,” said Bryce Wiebe ’05. “You would be scared to get a compliment from Jim. That just wouldn’t feel right.”

Wiebe, however, knew his professor was silently rooting for him and the others. He remembers one opening night when Fritzler came to the green room five minutes before actors were to go on stage. With keys and bag in hand, he said he was going home to do laundry.

“He trusted us and trusted our work, or at least that’s how we chose to take it,” Wiebe said. “He didn’t need or probably want the applause and the handshakes. The work was enough. He left us with his trademark encouragement—‘Don’t screw it up!’—but in more colorful language. And then we started the show.”

Wiebe was a business administration major at Hastings College, but his interest in theatre meant many hours on stage under Fritzler’s direction. After graduating in 2011 from Yale Divinity School, Wiebe now is director of special offerings for the Presbyterian Church USA in Louisville, Kentucky.

He continues to act, performing every year in local theatre and using the tools Fritzler gave him. But he also digs into the Fritzler toolbox for his job with the Presbyterian Church. It goes back to working hard and getting it right. Period.

“Jim is focused on the work—on it being its absolute best. I learned a lot about artistic process from Jim, but about process for work in general: Go to work. Hit your mark. Give the line,” Wiebe said.

Packing Resumes

Becca Holloway ’14, a theatre major who is now a stage manager at Oil Lamp Theater in Chicago, describes Fritzler’s teaching style as direct and to the point.

“Theatre is a tough business. He was very clear about that,” she said. “There was a phrase: If you can see yourself doing something besides theatre, do that. Once he could see you had that passion, he took you under his wing.”

Photo of light booth
Fritzler’s students are trained in every aspect of a theatre production, including the technical operations for lighting and audio elements.

After Holloway declared her devotion to theatre, Fritzler gave her chances to learn all aspects of the business, even the ones she didn’t care about.

“He gave me incredible opportunities as an actor, as a stage manager and as a director,” she said. “The biggest thing I took from Hastings was how incredibly rounded I am.”

She surprised everyone at the Oil Lamp Theater when she could adeptly run a light board, something for which she directly credits Fritzler. In two years’ time in Chicago, Holloway has been stage manager for over a dozen plays, and she made her professional directorial debut this fall with “44 Plays for 44 Presidents.”

Vargas said that’s precisely the way Fritzler has designed the program.

“We have 30 to 40 kids at a time, and those 30 to 40 kids get to do everything. Their resumes are packed,” she said. “They basically run the gamut. I make my actors do tech work. I make my technicians go on stage, even though they may not like it.”

Photo of Jim Fritzler as Linus with Lucy, played by Cindy Shepard Jordan
Fritzler as Linus with Lucy, played by Cindy Shepard Jordan ’75, in a 1974 production.

That proved fortuitous for David Sharp ’04, a stand-up comedian living in Los Angeles. In a state that boasts 10,000 stand-up comedians, Sharp supplements his act with six or seven other gigs: acting in an improv-style dinner theatre; writing general internet content, both serious and funny; hosting a podcast called “Midnight Breakfast;” doing ticket and box office work at a comedy club; and taking freelance jobs that come along.

“All the stuff that I’m doing now, Jim was one of the people who gave me access to everything I’m doing,” said Sharp, who earned a master’s degree in performance studies from Southern Illinois University. “It’s not until afterwards that you really get that perspective.”

Sharp had mixed feelings about pursuing theatre professionally until Fritzler, a veteran of both theatre and film, joined the staff in 1999 after teaching at Southwestern University in Georgetown,

Texas, and St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. That was Sharp’s sophomore year, and Fritzler cast him in the role of Dr. Gibbs in “Our Town.” The young actor had never been so emotionally affected by a performance.

“He did all these really crazy outside-of-the-box things that somehow got deeper to the heart of the play,” Sharp said. “That was one of those shows that showed me clearer in my head what the perfect show was. When I went to grad school for performance studies, it was to study the stuff that Jim started me thinking about.”

Life Lessons

To this day, Sharp counts Fritzler’s lessons as some of the most life-altering. Wiebe agrees.

“My friends and I involved in theatre would quote Jim, and to this day quote Jim,” Wiebe said. Personal favorites are “This ain’t math, it’s feeling,” and “Show up on time — you’re no star!”

Photo of Fritzler teaching an acting class
Fritzler teaches an acting fundamentals class at Hastings College, where he introduces beginning actors to performing on stage.

And that distinctive voice, Sharp recalled: “Texas is in there, Colorado is in there, and years of smoking cigarettes and screaming at idiot actors.” Sharp added, “He makes cantankerous fun and likable.”

Fritzler said there is nothing special about his department, save for one thing: “I don’t B.S. students.” He doesn’t tell them they’re great and take their money, he said, like some schools do. “We’re pragmatic.”

But the theatre graduates say there is indeed something very special about the Hastings College Theatre Department: Jim Fritzler.

“Jim is a true gem of the college,” Wiebe said. “He’s low-key brilliant. He’s talented. He will chide you mercilessly if you ever tell him so.”

Story by Amy (McGraw) Palser ’99

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