Teacher Combines Rock ‘n’ Roll With Theatre
May 15, 2018
Behind each person is a unique story—a story that can be read as a roadmap explaining the paths and stops that allowed a person to become their current version, and the roadmap continues to add new exits, pit stops and interstates each day. Theatre teacher Terry Harbison’s roadmap, like many people, has seen a multitude of stops and direction changes throughout his life, but an overarching theme throughout his life appears to be music, specifically heavy metal and rock ‘n roll.
Looking at his path from college and forward, Harbison originally went to college to be a theology major to continue his work with the church that started in mid-teens. While in college the first time at University of the Cumberlands, Harbison double majored in theology and English, but then went on to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to obtain his masters in Theology.
During his time in college in the ‘90s, Harbison spent a large amount of his time on the music scene. His love of music drove him to be in several bands, ranging from rhythm guitar to heavy metal-still mirroring his taste in music both today and even before college. While none of his bands went big, his main band, Soulpool, did talk to minor labels, created a handful of albums and toured in four states. Though he was in school to better continue the ministry work, that the felt called to do, that did not deter his desire to be on stage and rock out like those whose music shaped his tastes and interests.
“I was the guy who was pulling into church listening to Slayer that Sunday morning before I got in. I love the showmanship of rock ‘n’ roll,” Harbison said. “In the late ‘80s early ‘90s I saw a band called The Cult and their lead singer Ian Astbury and they were singing “Fire Women” and I saw him on stage and I thought that’s what I wanna do, I wanna be in rock’n roll.”
Post college, Harbison worked in and managed restaurants for a living while his devotion and commitment to various ministries held strong. While working with his church his love to teach and guide students fostered. In 2011, Harbison made the change in his career to pursue education like he was urged to do in the ‘90s; going back to college, he obtained a masters degree in education from The University of Alabama at Birmingham. This detour was a natural fit for Harbison and was apparently a long time coming. However, his past life would not just disappear-instead it mashed together to form the theatre teacher that students now learn from every day.
“I had done ministry and restaurant work for a long time, had three kids and really didn’t want to to do full-time restaurant work. I’ve always enjoyed teaching. I’ve always enjoyed working with students and watching them grow develop and learn and so it was a natural fit for me to find ways to continue to work with students, so I went into education,” Harbison said.
To find the inspiration behind Harbison’s unique direction of theatrical productions, like this year’s production, “The Addams Family Musical” look no further than his love and experiences with intense rock ‘n’ roll shows. A recurring theme seen in his productions is the chaos of a multitude of moving parts within dances, set changes, lights and costumes. In most scenes, especially the musical numbers, there is almost always too many things going on for an audience member to see and appreciate every detail. This effect is meant to engross the audience member into the show, and it is a personal favorite of Harbison’s because of its homage to baroque music. This form of classical music is meant to be extremely busy and active and has even influenced the activeness of heavy metal and rock and roll. However, in the same show of hundred moving parts, Harbison sneaks in a handful of simplistic and usually tear-jerking scenes.
“That love of baroque music classical and heavy metal wise is probably why our musicals are so busy because I just love a lot happening all at one time. There are a lot of moving parts, but I also love the soft tender moments,” Harbison said. “I love the contrast. Just a huge bombast with all of the lights and sound and dancing; all the movement and then you take it all away and have those small moments. I like that shock and contrast of go-go-go and then stripping it away, the brakes go on and it forces you to inhale that real, tender moment.”
This set-up for his productions appears to be effective based on the popularity of 2017’s production “Footloose”, and 2018’s production of “The Addams Family Musical”, but the question of where this set-up materialized from is one of interest. The answer yet again lies in Harbison’s life of rock ‘n’ roll. Specifically, in a U2 concert that he attended during their All that you can’t leave behind tour. The show that he experienced is what he contributes his desire to create an atmosphere of chaos and activity, just to strip it all away—emphasizing the important meaningful moments among the loud entertaining aspects of shows. Creating a show that people will not soon forget is a goal that he holds close to his heart; all because of bands, like U2, doing the same for him and influencing his tastes.
“I don’t say this lightly, but [that concert] was a religious experience. When Bono is singing and running around, and this chorus of thousands of people are singing these intimate songs together about searching for answers to these existential questions of why am I here, why do I exist, and what’s my purpose in this huge stadium of folks, and then it was all stripped down to just singing a song with an acoustic guitar. That moment gives me chills just thinking about it,” Harbison said.
His offbeat musical style translates directly to his teaching and directing, a fact that has been an adjustment for his actors used to the more traditional directing they’ve encountered through community theatre. Harbison admitted that his more chaotic and experimental style of directing has caused tension and frustration with some actors from time to time, but he stands by his choice to teach his actors how to understand their character and decide what they would do rather than tell the actors how to portray their character.
“I love chaos and experimentation. If I am cooking or writing music, if I am doing anything, I want to experiment and try new and different things because you never know what will happen until you try it. I want my actors to be able to do the same thing I want to see what they will discover about their characters that I would not have thought of,” Harbison said.
While creating an enjoyable and unique production is at the top of his list of goals each year, it means nothing to him if his students are unable to learn the fundamentals of acting. Dancer Sydney Goggans believes that his way of directing allows for a more creative atmosphere since Harbison does not lay out every step his actors should make when delivering their lines.
“I believe that Mr. Harbison always likes to allow for more creative thinking from all,” Goggans said. “He likes to put in his own input, but he allows his students to take over and place in their own creative ideas. By doing that, it gives more freedom to us, the students, and exercise our ability to grow creatively which is a great teaching method.”
Looking back on his small-scale rock metal career, Harbison thinks of a few meaningful and formative moments that he strives to recreate for his performers. The first being the feeling of having an audience truly react and interact with him over a song that he had created. During one of his band’s mini-tours, they opened for a fairly popular band and the crowd picked up on their chorus during the song and sang his chorus back to him. This memory of an audience appreciating his band’s work and caring enough to give a form of feedback and encouragement is a moment that he wants to give to his actors by teaching them how to ensnare the audience into their convincing performance.
“[I tell my actors to] use the crowd, work the crowd, talk to them. That definitely comes from being a frontman. I may not be the best singer, but I am a great frontman- I can work a crowd.” Harbison said, “So I try to get my actors to really engage the audience so that the audience feels that experience like I did in the audience of U2. [Also,] so my actors can have an experience like I did when I was on stage singing and the crowd [is] responding to you and you know that you’ve given them something that they are going to remember.”
Another fond story from Harbison’s time with his heavy metal band is one, that while at the time was unexpected, really embodies what music, art and performance means to him and what he hopes they mean to all of his performers. While at a significantly small show, with a crowd of about 15 people, the band was rocking out on the stage giving those 15 people a high energy heavy metal show, and while they weren’t singing back, their energy was high and they obviously enjoyed the show. As the final song came to a close the bass player had been caught in a heavy metal trance and as the heavy drumming reached the peak of the ending, John slung his precious Thunderbird bass into the air where it crashed into an amp, Nirvana style. While at the time this caused a panic onstage, because small-time bands with no replacement instruments do not haphazardly through their equipment around, now this story is more of a goal for his performers to reach. Being electrified by and proud enough of your performance to throw caution to the wind, because you’ve done all you can is a feeling Harbison motivates his actors to create for themselves every time they step out on stage—no matter what else is going on in their lives.
“[The bassist] was a very conservative person but then the metal grabbed hold of him and went nuts,” Harbison said. “I want my actors, dancers and performers to feel that same way- that when they perform they known that when they’ve left that stage that they were so in the moment and so in the show that nothing else matters, and for those two hours everything outside of those four walls is irrelevant. That this moment and that experience is all that matters because you’ll never get that moment with that audience ever again.”