After a summer directing in New York City, John Michael Sefel prepares for a great year with HFC Theatre

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John Sefel smiling in front of a brick background.

After a busy first year at the College that included many long hours, HFC Director of Theatre Dr. John Michael Sefel decided to take the summer off from teaching. He signed up for HFC's online Elementary Arabic class, and was really looking forward to some much needed R&R.

“I really looked forward to taking it easy,” said Sefel. “I had visions of sitting on a Michigan lakeside beach, sipping a drink, watching my kids play, and starting to learn a new language online.”

Life presented other opportunities

Sefel got a surprise call from a playwright friend named William Ivers whose latest play, The World Was Yours, had been chosen for a New York City producer showcase (similar to a TV pilot). Ivers asked Sefel to direct it.

“So I waved goodbye to a summer off and got back to work,” said Sefel.

The play's plot occurs in the waiting room of a museum's administrative offices. Three finalists for a major commission are present for their interviews and to find out who will be awarded the money. Over the tortuous wait, the three – an art history professor in his 60s, a "Banksy"-style street artist in her 40s, and a politically active college student in her 20s – argue about their different values, worldviews, privileges, hardships, and understanding of the meaning of art.

“It's been several years since I worked in New York, and he's a great friend, so I jumped on board,” said Sefel. “The show went up in an Off-Off-Broadway theatre just south of Times Square and received extremely positive feedback. Whether it will translate to a full run Off-Broadway, we'll have to wait and see. Either way, it was nice to be working on a New York project again, but even better to be done and back in Michigan, getting ready for a new season of HFC Theatre!"

Getting published by his dream publisher

Sefel, who penned the 2021 book, At the Intersection of Disability and Drama, also spent his summer vacation contributing a chapter to the book, Out of Time? Temporality in Disability Performance, edited by Elena Backhausen, Benjamin Wihstutz, and Noa Winter, which is part of Routledge's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Theatre and Performance series.

“This was a dream publication for me,” said Sefel. “Although I've been writing on this topic for more than a decade, Routledge is the international standard in high-quality academic discourse. I've always viewed them as my dream publisher. Even better, the table of contents lists several writers who have been my own personal scholarly heroes throughout my academic career. It's really an honor to be part of the project, published in England, compiled by editors in Germany, with scholars from around the world all contributing to Routledge's important and highly-respected series.”

Sefel’s articles and research have centered around disability theory, Jewish history, and horror. His work has appeared in numerous journals and several small press publishers.

"I am also co-editing a critical anthology of 19th and early 20th century horror plays, and writing a wonderfully silly Halloween abecedarium for kids with an illustrator friend," he said.

Bringing HFC Theatre back to life

Sefel called his first year at HFC “a year of positive growth.”

“My first year was about trying to claw our way back after COVID – warming up the engine, so to speak,” he said. “After the difficulties posed by the COVID years, we've built our play production back up to a full season, gotten back to offering a full slate of courses, established a student-led theatre club, and began work on several major projects – including a reassessment and restructuring of the theatre degree to make it as useful and efficient as possible in today's educational and career climate.”

Sefel continued: “I'm very proud of our work this past year and can confidently point to a stack of successes, none of which would have been possible without the support of our technical director, Christopher Bremer, and a host of colleagues throughout campus. The support of colleagues and students has been heartwarming and encouraging. There's still a lot of work to do, but I definitely feel supported in our efforts to get it done. Theatre really is a group effort, and I've been so thrilled by how many people in our community have been eager to step up and help bring HFC Theatre back to life.”

HFC Chairperson for the Department of Communication and Media Susan McGraw has enjoyed working with Sefel.

“John Michael has it going on!” she said. “He's been a proactive, engaged, and collaborative colleague from day one here at HFC. His endeavors this summer have contributed to his experience and professional growth that he, no doubt, is turning right back around and funneling into our Theatre Program. Our College and our students are lucky to have someone so willing to commit so fully to his craft and to our collective success.”

“I can't wait to share this year's projects with our community”

Sefel is looking forward to his second year at HFC.

“Last year, we were just warming up,” he said. “I can't wait to share this coming year's projects with our community! In November, we are partnering with Dearborn's own Arab-American National Museum to produce a brilliant new children's musical called Leo's Big Day Out by Aaron Coleman. It's the story of a young boy living with his immigrant aunt in a new city, and his desire to get out, explore, and make music in this new city, despite his aunt's fear of the unknown and wanting him to stay home. It's fun, relatable, features English, Arabic, and Spanish, features great songs, and even features a puppet cat! It's geared toward elementary school-aged children, but I think people of any age will find something to love about these characters and their very relatable story.”

In the Winter 2024 semester, students will collaborate with several partners across campus and the community to create a new docudrama about the Birwood Wall, also called the Detroit Wall. Located along the alleyway between Birwood Avenue and Mendota Street from 8 Mile to Pembroke Avenue, the Birwood Wall was a separation wall constructed in 1941 to physically separate residences on the basis of race. Community activists and Detroit residents collaborated in 2006 to turn a section of the Birwood Wall between Chippewa Avenue and Norfolk Street into a mural.

“This sort of community-based, ensemble-driven theatre is, I believe, theatre at its best,” said Sefel. “I'm so excited to have this opportunity with the students.”

In addition to the two mainstage shows, Theatre will perform an A.I.-written play at the upcoming symposium on Artificial Intelligence at HFC on Friday, September 15; staging a 24-hour theatre-fest in September; bringing students to compete at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C. in January; and hosting an evening of student-directed and designed one-act plays in April. There will also be several theatre club activities and events.

“John Michael has been a pleasure to work with. It is obvious the students enjoy working with him,” said HFC Faculty Chair of Fine and Performing Arts Steve Glazer. “He has brought a fresh look and voice to the Theatre program, has brought a fresh voice to Fine and Performing Arts meetings, and has brought a lot of exciting ideas to HFC.”

“I really feel like I’m in the right job”

For Sefel, the biggest challenge of his job is undoing contemporary society’s assumption that theatre is “boring,” “old-fashioned,” and “not about us.”

“Theatre is constantly being reinvented and is as new as the people making it," he said. "Last year, we premiered four brand new plays by Detroit-area playwrights. This year, we're producing even more brand new works. From August to April, we've got a very full year ahead of us! Now it's time to get things moving! We have big plans for how we can make this program benefit students of all majors, represent our community, and ensure that theatre is an integral part of the HFC experience.”

Some of Sefel’s favorite teaching opportunities are the classes that aren't necessarily designed just for theatre majors, such as Theatre Appreciation and Fundamentals of Speaking.

“I think so many people assume ‘theatre’ is just ‘going to see a play,’” explained Sefel. “I love helping students recognize how theatre skills overlap with every major, and how theatre as an art form belongs to absolutely everybody. When I see nursing or business students excitedly connect how they can apply theatre skills to their other interests, I really feel like I'm in the right job.”

Bremer agreed.

“Dr. John Michael Sefel is a true professional who has an amazing energy,” said Bremer. “His devotion and care for our students and their success make him a pleasure to work with. What he teaches will last a lifetime, no matter what your field.”

Dreamers and hard workers, problem-solvers and entrepreneurs

Sefel is an alumnus of a community college himself. He graduated magna cum laude from Northern Essex Community College in Havervill, MA, earning his associate degree in liberal arts and theatre. Throughout his 16 years in higher education, he has taught at many types of colleges and universities throughout the United States, including:

  • R1 research universities, such as Ohio State University
  • Small, private liberal arts colleges
  • Religious institutions in the south
  • Secular institutions in the north
  • Community colleges

Of all the options, Sefel prefers teaching at a community college.

“It's been teaching at a community college where I've consistently found the most passion, curiosity, and commitment from students, faculty, staff, and administration,” he said. "Generally, when you talk to a community college student, they know what they want and they're eager to work toward getting it. Community colleges are incubators for dreamers and hard workers, for problem-solvers and entrepreneurs. In short, it's a place where students inspire me every bit as much as I attempt to inspire them.”