HFC welcomes Dr. John Michael Sefel, Director of Theatre

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As a child, Dr. John Michael Sefel – HFC’s new Director of Theatre – assumed that he would hate theater.

“I thought theater was only those big musicals like Annie and The Sound of Music, which I'll admit now that I actually work in the field, they've grown on me. But when I was young, I thought were just silly,” recalled Sefel, who recently moved to the Metro Detroit area from Ohio with his wife, Mariah, and their two children.

How did Sefel decide he not only liked theatre, but wanted to make it his life's work?

"A teacher introduced me to Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," said Sefel. "I was shocked that theater could be about things like that! And my high school was holding auditions for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Again, I was so surprised that theater was allowed to be serious and strange and – importantly – not only involve singing and dancing! After I learned about these options, I just started experimenting.”

Reaching people who think they don't like theatre

For about 10 years, Sefel was making what he calls “strange guerilla theater” around New England with the theme of "theater for people who think they hate theater."

“I just tried it all!” he said. "From staging zombie plays to doing street performances! Eventually, I started to fall in love with more traditional works, too, which brought me back to college to study all I could. Today, I'm an avid theater historian. I love theater styles from all over the world, and it continues to be my goal to convince people who think they don't like theater that they're wrongly judging an entire art form based on limited genres. If you decided you didn't like any music because you once heard a Justin Bieber song that you didn't like, that would be silly, right? Yet that's what so many people seem to do with theater! I'm hoping we can change some minds!”

First-generation American from a military family

A first-generation American who grew up in a military family, Sefel was born at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH. His father served in the United States Air Force, so his family moved around a lot. He remembers living in New Jersey and Hawaii.

“My father remained in the military until his retirement as an E-9 Chief Master Sergeant,” said Sefel. “Growing up with a dad who was both a darker-skinned, formerly-stateless refugee and in a position of authority on an Air Force base was actually quite an educational experience, even though it wasn't always easy. It taught me a lot about stereotypes and code-switching… about how people may treat you entirely differently based on which set of clothes you happen to be wearing. It also, however, meant growing up with a guy who had pretty much zero tolerance for whining.”

A graduate of Salem High School in Salem, NH – where he learned not to hate theater – Sefel began his education at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, MA. He graduated from NECC magna cum laude, earning his associate degree in liberal arts and theatre.

Transferring to Granite State College, part of the University of New Hampshire system, Sefel graduated summa cum laude, earning his bachelor’s degree in individualized studies – dramatic literature and theory. He earned his MFA in theatre with a focus on directing from Baylor University in Waco, TX. He also earned a certificate in Yiddish Studies from Vilnius University in Lithuania.

A staunch advocate for the disabled -- with personal experience

Sefel went on to earn his Ph.D. in theatre with a focus on performance, history, and theory from Ohio State University. He added a graduate interdisciplinary specialization in disability studies from OSU. His dissertation focused on theatrical portrayals of disability, ethnicity, and marginalization in Yiddish immigrant theater.

“I was born with internal malformations leading to disabilities, which have proven to be lifelong. The thing is, while some people have disabilities that are very obvious to everyone around them, others have ‘invisible’ disabilities, which others can't see but can be just as disruptive. I've been all over the map,” he explained. “For most of my childhood, things were pretty obvious. I was often in the hospital. In my adult life, it really depends on when you happen to come across me. On some days you may not notice anything at all; on others, I may be using a cane and needing to use my disability placard. The thing is, I'm always the same person and I'm always pretty productive and busy. But it's fascinating how differently I find strangers treat me depending on whether I've got my cane or not. This is the way disability is received by the ‘audience’ of the public.”

Sefel sees analogies in how people are treated based on other kinds of difference. “People with marked differences – disability, race, versions of perceived beauty, ethnic clothing, even pregnant women – it is so interesting how much the public loves to stare and comment. It all becomes theatrical, even if the ‘performer’ didn't sign up for the experience. These were the ideas that led me back for my Ph.D. and one of several things that got me very interested in how disabled people, as well as anyone perceived as different, can reclaim control over their ‘performance’ through theater.”

Sefel has done a lot of writing on the topic. He is the co-editor of At the Intersection of Disability and Drama, the author of several published articles, and a contributor to the recent Disability Experiences: Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Other Personal Narratives. He will also contribute a chapter on the topic of disability and performance to a new textbook coming out in 2023.

Three Hours in West Virginia

Sefel has done some work in TV and film. He’s also done some voiceover credits. But theater remains his first love.

“I've been a theatre guy forever,” he said. “I love watching film, but I don't love making it anywhere near as much as I love making theater. The rehearsal process is, for me, the heart of what I do, and that just doesn't happen in film. I've been called in to help with casting on a number of projects primarily because I know actors from theater, and admittedly doing things like casting or location scouting or doing some voiceover work can be a ton of fun now and then, but I've never felt my place has been either in front of or behind a camera. I know too many brilliant people who are great at that – I'll happily keep my stage and live audience.”

As a theater director, Sefel has helmed 50 productions all over the nation. This includes the debut of Void at the Boston Playwrights Theatre and La Serva Padrona for the Central Texas Opera Festival. His original plays have been staged in Boston, Texas, Kansas, New Hampshire, California, Ohio, and New York City. Sefel’s interest in playwriting began during his aforementioned strange guerilla theater phase in New England.

“I read about in the late 1800s how French playwright Oscar Méténier would snatch stories out of the daily newspaper and quickly create short plays – basically the first ‘true crime entertainment,’” said Sefel. “It inspired me to do something similar. I would take a story from the news, then picture how the event affected someone that you wouldn't read about, how it affected ‘the little guy’ or someone caught up in the crossfire, and then build a short play around that. I wrote several plays in that style about everything from fraud to a mining accident to a police corruption scandal. In the end, a couple of them ended up getting positive reviews and, eventually, performances at bigger places. Over the years I've continued to write – occasionally something completely original, but more often, I work on translating or adapting works for the stage.”

Sefel is particularly proud of his play Three Hours in West Virginia.

“It’s a one-man show about the Sago Mine disaster that killed several miners back in 2006, and the three hours between the time when the families were told the miners had survived and when they found out they had perished in the explosion,” he said. “The play focuses on Ben Hatfield, the owner of the mine, who knew about the mistaken information, but sat on it for three hours. He was paralyzed with uncertainty about what to do as the families prayed gratefully at a local church. It's a tough play to sit through, but I think it’s powerful and important. It's been done at a few places around the country and received a short run in a little theater just off Times Square in New York City in 2015. It’s one that’s dear to my heart.”

“I absolutely fell in love with teaching”

Originally, Sefel did not consider a career in teaching.

“I was actually recruited!” said Sefel. “I never thought of myself as a teacher, but some people from Chester College of New England in New Hampshire had seen my work and asked me to consider teaching a single course – ‘Theatre of the Absurd.’ I loved the idea of it, but it was only supposed to be a one-time thing. I absolutely fell in love with teaching. The conversations we have in the classroom, the way the students and I figure out new ways of seeing old material and creating new material together – it's honestly the thing I love the most in my professional life! I can't imagine doing anything else.”

Besides Chester College, Sefel has taught at OSU, Baylor, and Cowley County Community College in Arkansas City, KS.

“Teaching is the single thing I love most in my professional career,” said Sefel. “If I had to give up all the other aspects to just teach, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Honestly, playwriting is what I do when I want to tell a story and find out that, unfortunately, no one else has written it yet. I write it down because someone has to. I'm just as happy working on other people's scripts as my own. After this current script, maybe I've still got another 20 scripts in me, or maybe this is the last I'll ever write. Who knows? Doesn't really faze me either way. But if you told me I couldn't teach anymore? Now that would be depressing!”

Big plans for HFC

This fall, Sefel joins the faculty at HFC after a national search for a new director of the theatre program. Sefel spoke about his goals for the College. He also spoke about writing The Factory (which is a translation and adaptation of H. Leivick’s 1920s play called Der Shoppe), which he’d like to direct at HFC during the 2023-24 academic year.

“It's an amazing set-up with a perfect cast and story for Dearborn. It deals with immigration, struggles over whether to assimilate and how much, about fighting over unions, about former friends falling out over political and ideological differences, about mental illness and depression, about youth, vitality, and excitement, and – ultimately – about the dangers of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons,” explained Sefel. “My favorite thing about it is how Leivick captures the true nature of a community of immigrants. So often, stories portray the world as if there are the ‘locals’ and then there are the ‘immigrants,’ as if everyone falls into one of these two buckets. Of course, we all know it's not like that. In a single household, you can have a huge range of assimilation, of viewpoints, of accents, of ‘new’ vs. ‘old,’ etc., let alone throughout a community. This play captures it so perfectly, and I'm so excited to be adapting it for our exact time and place. I am so excited to share this play with the community!”

The first thing he plans to do is develop a new student leadership body to ensure that HFC students have a legitimate say in how business in the theatre department is conducted.

“Second, assuming they agree, I'm planning to establish a rule that every school year must feature at least one play written by a person of color or someone who identifies as Arab or Arab-American,” said Sefel. “Also, assuming they agree, I'm planning to establish a rule that every school year must feature at least one play written within the past 10 years. These may sound like simple things, but it's surprising how many theaters around the country still plan their seasons as if it's 1985.”

Sefel is excited about his first year at HFC and which plays will be performed at the Adray Auditorium. But he can’t announce the plays just yet.

“Please believe me when I tell you that people should be excited,” he said. “And, of course, the season follows the rules I just laid out!”

Interim Dean of the HFC School of Liberal Arts Robert Yahrmatter will be Sefel's immediate supervisor. Yahrmatter is looking forward to working with Sefel.

“Dr. Sefel is a great addition to HFC,” said Yahrmatter. “He has barely set foot on campus yet has big plans for the entire year. I love his ideas and where he wants to take our theatre program.”

Perfect timing for a perfect situation

HFC Faculty Chair of Fine and Performing Arts Steve Glazer is also looking forward to working with Sefel. Glazer said he found Sefel to be very thoughtful and very thorough.

“One thing that impressed me was when he spoke of putting community college theatre students in summer internships that usually went to senior level students at other schools,” said Glazer. “Additionally, while one would expect candidates to do some research on both the school and its community, very few did. A couple had spent time in Detroit but didn't seem to really know HFC or Dearborn. Dr. Sefel had researched both HFC and Dearborn!”

For Sefel, HFC is the perfect situation.

“On one hand, as ‘the new guy’ you don't want to walk into a disaster, but if you walk into something that's going great, then it can feel like there's no need for you. In this case, it was perfect timing: The HFC Theatre Department has been in absolutely great hands for years,” he explained. “The school and community really owe a great debt to Dr. George Popovich, Christopher Bremer, and all who have done so much. I'm so very glad that George and Chris are still here as part of the program. But between retirement, short-term staffing limitations, and the coronavirus pandemic, the theatre program had come to a sort of halt. It was time for someone to step in to this wonderful program and hit the gas again. It was absolutely perfect timing. I'm here to promote the great work that's been done and keep it going even further!”

The cultural lifeblood of the HFC campus

Sefel has a vision for his time at HFC.

“I really want the entire campus – the entire community, if possible – to see us as a source of pride, as an entertainment and artistic feather in HFC’s cap. This includes really trying to drum up excitement for participation and attendance from all corners of campus and beyond,” said Sefel. “Although I need to be cautious about speaking too specifically about some of the relationships and programs I'm trying to develop, I want to emphasize that one of my main goals is to substantially increase the presence of Arab-American theatre on campus. If any campus in the United States should be leading in this area, it should be us. This includes ensuring that theatre classes are recognizing Arab theater history of various cultures and nations, staging shows by Arab-Americans, and more.”

He continued: “It also means finding ways to encourage the campus community to not only attend in droves, but to make it part of their standard college life experience. I have several planned efforts that, I hope, will help keep our seats filling up show after show. Most important of all, however, I'm hoping this isn't a success for theatre alone, but for all of our Fine and Performing Arts programs. The arts are a vital part of any community, and I'm already doing my best to find ways to cross-promote and engage in collaborations as all of HFC's Fine and Performing Arts programs grow and show ourselves as the cultural lifeblood of our campus.”