Their final bow

  • Robin Ellis (left) and David Montee (right) in Harvey Theatre.

  • David Montee (left) and Robin Ellis (right) in Richard III at Arts Encounter in 1980.

  • Robin Ellis (left) and David Montee (right) with former Design and Production instructor Steve Rinder (right) in Grunow Theatre in 1989.

  • David Montee (left) in Interlochen Arts Academy's production of Moliere's The Miser.

  • David Montee and Robin Ellis at the "housewarming" of Phoenix Theatre in 1993.

  • Robin Ellis (left) and David Montee (right) pose with Beth Bartley (IAA 93-96, IAC 93) and Rod Hill (IAA 94-96, IAC 94-95) at the 1996 Arts Academy commencement.

On a June day in 1988, David Montee and Robin Ellis sat in the office of the University of Oklahoma looking through a book of job openings at other schools.

"Would you ever consider going back to Michigan temporarily and teaching high school?” Ellis asked Montee. “Because there's this job opening that sounds just like you."

Just weeks later, Montee accepted the position as Instructor of Theatre at Interlochen Arts Academy. “Two or three years and we’ll move back to the university circuit,” he told Ellis.

“Two or three years” stretched to five, then ten, then 20. This May, after nearly 30 years of service, David Montee and Robin Ellis will retire from the Interlochen Arts Academy Theatre Division. As they prepare for the next chapter of their lives, we look back on their contributions to the Interlochen community.

Finding their way here

Ellis and Montee fell in love while rehearsing a scene from William Shakespeare’s Richard III for the Arts Encounter Theatre Troupe in Lansing, Michigan, and married shortly after. They spent the early years of their marriage acting together professionally in Michigan, New York City and Boston, until Montee decided to return to graduate studies at the University of Kansas, and subsequently accepted a visiting professorship at the University of Oklahoma.

Montee, a newly-minted Ph.D, was on track to become a university professor. As Montee’s visiting professorship at the University of Oklahoma concluded, Montee and Ellis began looking for suitable positions for the next year. As the duo flipped through the University’s job books, Ellis found the posting for an Instructor of Theatre at Interlochen Arts Academy.

Neither Montee nor Ellis were strangers to Interlochen: both had heard the name while working in Michigan, although neither had attended or visited. Ellis, who had lived in Michigan longer, was more familiar. “When I was in junior high and high school, a lot of the kids I went to school with were going to the Interlochen Arts Camp,” she said. “I didn’t know they had a high school.”

Montee applied, and was invited for an interview over the Fourth of July weekend. “We were impressed, even though the campus was a little rustic,” Montee said. “The interview process was very friendly, and everyone was very warm and welcoming.” Montee was offered and accepted the job, and the couple moved into the small home on Osterlin Mall that now serves as the Admissions Building.

The first years

Montee and Ellis arrived at the Academy to find a theatre program that looked very different than today’s division. The program had a modest enrollment of around 30 students and only two full-time faculty. Two sections of acting classes were offered each semester—too few for the number of students enrolled in the program—and the students not placed in acting classes were encouraged to pursue the technical aspects of theatre instead. The program’s primary facility was Grunow Theatre, which contained one basement classroom, two basement offices, and a small performance hall. The program’s design space was located across campus in an old maintenance garage (which has now, after a radical renovation, become the Mallory-Towsley Center for Arts Leadership). “They would have to transport the sets, in pieces, down to Grunow, often in the snow,” Montee recalled. “They would unload the set pieces through the two front doors and then re-build them on the stage.”

Montee’s addition brought the department’s full-time faculty to three members. He was assigned to teach two sections of acting classes, a movement and improvisation class, and a Shakespeare class. In the fall of 1988, Montee made his directorial debut at Interlochen with the Pulitzer-prize winning play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

Montee quickly became a trusted mentor to the young actors. Karina Krepp (IAA 88-89), whose single year at Interlochen Arts Academy was Montee’s first year on faculty, vividly remembers his impact. “During David's first year on faculty, there was an off-hours knock at his door. There I stood on their threshold, sobbing and snotting,” she said. “The door was opened wider, my teenage self was allowed access, and was given a place to face my failings and a cup of tea. I learned the importance of having a door to knock on and a sanctuary for stupidity. School is for sparking curiosity and managing the task of community living, and Mr. Montee helped me with both.”

In the spring of 1990, Montee announced his intention to interview at other institutions. To his surprise, Interlochen made a counter offer: the directorship of the Theatre Division. Montee accepted, and began his 21-year run as the division’s director in the fall of 1990.

Montee’s leadership

Montee quickly began making changes in the theatre department, some by choice, some by necessity. In addition to directing the theatre performance program, Montee was also put in charge of the formerly-independent theatre design and production program and its faculty. Shortly after he became director, three of his five faculty announced their intent to leave the institution, necessitating the hiring of two new instructors and a costume designer.

Montee also made significant changes to the curriculum. Recognizing the educational value of different perspectives, he assigned each of the three sections of Acting class to a different faculty member. He also added history and literature classes to the curriculum to create a more rigorous conservatory-style program.

Meanwhile, Ellis had spent her first two years at Interlochen serving in a series of temporary fill-in positions. “I hopped around wherever I was needed, all over campus, and that was really interesting,” she said. “I got to know a lot of people.”

Despite her enjoyment of these positions, Ellis’s heart and talents remained in theatre. “I sat down with [Academy Director] Ray Rideout and said, ‘Ray, I consider myself a valuable resource, and I'm basically doing nothing related to my experience and career goals and interests. Would you give me a chance to prove myself?” Rideout agreed, and in 1990, he gave Ellis a part-time contract to teach one acting class and direct one production.

Ellis’ first acting class was comprised mostly of underclassmen theatre majors; however, with a few open seats in the class, non-majors were invited to audition for a place in the class. One of the non-major students who received a place was vocal major Jewel Kilcher, now known as pop star Jewel. “I still have a handwritten letter from her,” Ellis said. “I'll never give that up.”

With his curriculum and faculty in place, Montee could focus on the repertoire performed at the Academy. While previous administrators had asked the theatre division to be conservative in their selection of plays, Interlochen’s new fourth president, Dean Boal, recognized the educational value of more progressive plays. With Boal’s support, Montee began to incorporate such plays into the curriculum as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, The Children’s Hour, Top Girls and The Heidi Chronicles with great success. Montee also included more Shakespearean works into the performance schedule: the presentation of a work by Shakespeare has been a nearly-annual event since Montee’s arrival.

A golden age for theatre

Under Montee’s leadership, the Theatre Division continued to grow and flourish throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Enrollment rose and nearly doubled, and applications to the program increased fivefold. The division also received two much-needed facilities: the Phoenix and Harvey Theatres.

The completion of Phoenix Theatre in 1994 ushered in a golden age for the Academy theatre program. Arts Academy performances soon began attracting attention beyond Interlochen’s campus. “Traverse Magazine did a blurb about the fact that one of the best-kept secrets of northern Michigan was the Theatre Department at Interlochen Arts Academy,” Montee said. “People were coming from Grand Rapids, Detroit and Lansing to see our shows. We filled the house every night. In fact, we would have to turn people away.”

Bolstered by the new facility, increased enrollment and heightened interest, the program continued to grow. Its growth was temporarily threatened when, in 1997, Grunow Theatre was closed to rehearsals due to its advanced age. Grunow was quickly replaced by the Harvey Theatre, which debuted in 1998 with a performance of Moliere’s The Miser that featured Montee in the role of Harpagon.

With Harvey Theatre in place, the program’s growth could continue. Although Academy musical theatre productions had begun to be staged in 1996 in Phoenix Theatre, musical theatre was officially added to the Academy curriculum in 1999. The revised program’s premiere performance, Cabaret, was directed by Montee.

1999 was also a significant year, professionally, for both Ellis and Montee. Ellis, who had gradually taken on more responsibility in the theatre division, was promoted to full-time status effective for the 1999-2000 school year. Montee was appointed the first-ever year-round Director of Theatre at Interlochen Center for the Arts, placing both Camp and Academy theatre programs under his leadership.

Although neither taught at the Camp, Montee and Ellis earned the respect of their Camp colleagues through wise leadership of the unified department. “Robin and David provided excellent theatre education and experience to Interlochen Arts Camp students for many years,” said former Camp faculty member Arno Selco. “Their talent, dedication and support benefited scores of students. They took the Interlochen Arts Camp theatre program to an unprecedented level.”

In 2001, five theatre students were selected as finalists in the YoungArts competition. Two of these, Michael Arden (IAC 99, IAA 99-01) and Alexandra Silber (IAC 95-99, IAA 99-01), were nominated for the designation of Presidential Scholar in the Arts, naming Montee and Ellis their designated teachers, respectively. Arden was selected as a Presidential Scholar, the first theatre student selected as a Presidential Scholar during Montee’s tenure.

A transitional decade

The ten years following 2001 brought a great deal of change, both to Interlochen as a whole and to the Theatre Division.

In fall 2003, Montee was awarded a semester-long sabbatical, during which Ellis served as acting chair. During Montee’s absence, Jeffrey Kimpton was inaugurated as the seventh president of Interlochen Center for the Arts.

A full schedule welcomed Montee back to campus in January of 2004. In addition to preparing a production of Sunday in the Park with George, he travelled to Miami to accept a Coca-Cola Distinguished Teacher in the Arts award. He also set to work on a full overhaul of Camp programs.

In summer 2005, the division celebrated the completion of an extension to the Harvey Theatre that included a large rehearsal hall, scene shop, faculty offices and a large, unfinished basement space. In 2007, the basement space was finished and outfitted with a conference room, design and production studio and state-of-the-art costume shop.

One of the most notable accomplishments of this decade was the founding of a new tradition: the Corson musical. In 2008, the Theatre Division, along with an ensemble of music students under the direction of Bill Sears, presented Thoroughly Modern Millie on the Corson stage, directed by Ellis. “It was great: beautiful set, beautiful acting,” Montee said. The huge success of Millie paved the way for future Corson musicals. “We said, ‘maybe we’ll do this every other year, maybe every three years,’” Montee said. “Now every year there's a Corson musical.”

In 2011, William Church succeeded Montee as Director of Theatre at Interlochen. Montee was granted a year’s sabbatical during the transition, and spent his year acting in New York City and Nantucket, traveling to London, and writing a book for young actors, “Translating Shakespeare.” Both Montee and Ellis continued in their roles on faculty after the change in leadership.

A personal legacy

Despite their considerable impact on the Theatre Division as a whole, Ellis and Montee’s greatest legacy is perhaps the lessons and memories they shared with each individual student. They are still in contact with many of their former pupils.

“Following the careers and lives of our former students is absolutely thrilling, and you never know what the future will hold for them,” Ellis said. “Some of them have gotten out of theatre, and some of them have stayed in theatre and become great successes. From my point of view, it’s the most rewarding aspect of my career.”

Ellis and Montee’s students can now be found on stages and screens across the United States and around the world. Some, such as Michael Arden, Al Silber and Lora Lee Gayer (IAC 02-03, IAA 03-06), have made names for themselves on Broadway. Others, such as Michael McMillian (IAA 95-98), Toni Trucks (IAA 98-99), Jackson Rathbone (IAA 01-03) and Mary Holland (IAA 01-03), are screen actors. Yet others, including Nick Westrate (IAC 00, IAA 00-02), Monica Huarte (IAA 92-93) and Ben Walker (IAA 98-99) have careers in both areas. In fact, Montee and Ellis can hardly turn on their television without seeing a former student. “I was watching the Today Show just this morning, and Mary Holland turned up on a Snickers commercial,” Montee said.

Holland, whose resume now includes television shows including Blunt Talk and Veep, received her first formal training in Ellis’ acting class. “I remember doing a scene from Crimes of the Heart, and when I rehearsed with my scene partner, I was like "I'm gonna knock an apple off the table when I say 'So hateful,’” Holland said. “I did it when we performed the scene in the class, and I felt the entire room cringe. It was very very bad acting. Robin was gracious with me, and helped me understand how unmotivated that move was. I had never even considered motivation or objective or any kind of interior life in a character before.”

Montee, too, had an effect on Holland. “Playing Paulina in A Winter's Tale was one of the most formative experiences in my life,” she said. “I remember that [Montee] told me to try delivering one of her monologues with a quiet, low intensity. It completely unlocked her for me. I learned what I was capable of, and with his direction and encouragement, reached places in my heart and in my performance that I never would have dreamed possible.”

Montee and Ellis have also seen many of their students return to campus, both as master class instructors and as performers in Interlochen’s Shakespeare Festival. Montee, a regular performer at the Festival, often has the opportunity to perform alongside his former students. “It's really special when an alumnus or alumna comes back after five, six or seven years and they've started their own career,” he said. “It's great, especially because it's Shakespeare, and I love to do Shakespeare.”

The next act

With their careers at Interlochen Arts Academy drawing to a close, Montee and Ellis have begun planning for retirement.

Ellis, a self-described “nature nut,” hopes to spend a good portion of her time exploring nature both in and out-of-doors. “I'm really looking forward to reading a stack of nature magazines and nature books that I have waiting for me,” she said. “I also have a secret dream of becoming an Audubon camera operator for their live nest cameras. I'm just looking forward to relaxing and not having an agenda or a schedule.”

Montee, like Ellis, is looking forward to relaxation. “I enjoy reading, and I enjoy watching films. I could just sit and watch films and be lazy all day,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being able to watch the snow pile up outside and know that I don’t have to go shovel it or go anywhere. I may write a little more. I might actually write a book of essays about various aspects of teaching theatre, perhaps focusing on such subjects as the psychology of young actors.”

Montee and Ellis also hope to travel together, both in the United States and abroad. At the top of their list are England, Alaska and Italy. While the duo have already visited England and Alaska, their first tour of Italy will fulfill one of Ellis’ longtime dreams. “I fell in love with the thought of going to Italy when I was taking an art history class, and I've never turned loose of that dream,” Ellis said.

When he’s not traveling with Ellis, Montee hopes to remain active on stage. “I hope to do a little more acting occasionally, as long as my memory holds out,” Montee said. “I still have to pay the union dues, so hopefully I can actually use the Equity card every once in a while.”

Curtain call

After 30 years, six presidents, dozens of changes and hundreds of students, Montee and Ellis feel the time is right to take their final bow at Interlochen.

“We'll miss the teaching, the directing and the acting opportunities that we've had here, but as far as I’m concerned, I feel I'm ready,” said Ellis.

“You have to stop sometime,” Montee said. “I don't want to be one of those teachers about whom everyone says, ‘When are they going to retire?’ It's nice to feel like we can retire when we're still kind of at a good high point in our abilities to teach.”

But for both Montee and Ellis, retirement isn’t a farewell to Interlochen. “I hope that the link to Interlochen won't be entirely broken,” Montee said. “I'd be a cheap guest artist, because they don't have to fly me in or house me or anything. I also hope to keep acting with the Shakespeare Festival, if they want me.”

Ellis, too, has plans to remain involved at Interlochen through work she is exploring with the Comparative Arts Division.

“I feel so fortunate to have been a teacher here, to have been a director here,” Ellis said. “We loved these students, and they know how much we care about them. We'll miss them.”

“A lot,” Montee added.

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