Sam Houston State University alumnus Keith Pitts exhibited a lot of artistic talent as child, but was never quite sure what to do with it.
Growing up in the small Texas town of Bishop didn’t provide him with a lot of options. While he was able to submerge himself in art classes in junior high, they were non-existent in high school, leaving him to explore his interests on his own.
Like Pitts, SHSU graduate Greg Graham grew up knowing he could move, loving to sing and dance to Elvis concerts on TV. The Missouri City native tried to excel at everything he did, but Graham never really considered making singing and dancing a career.
But when the two came to SHSU in the late 1990s, that all changed.
Since graduating in 1999, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in musical theatre, with a dance emphasis, Graham has found success in musical theatre, most recently finishing as resident choreographer for “Billy Elliot.”
Likewise, Pitts, a 1998 graduate with a degree in design and a minor in art, has found himself working a lot as a scenic designer.
Together, the two have returned to their alma mater to share their talents with theatre students for the upcoming theatre and musical theatre department’s rendition of the Tony Award-winning “Spring Awakening.”
The alternative rock musical about the complications and confusions of coming of age will be presented Nov. 28 through Dec. 1 in theUniversity Theatre Center’s Erica Starr Theatre.
For their parts in the production, Graham will direct the play and Pitts will design the costumes.
“They’re two successful alumni who are very well respected in the theatre community,” said theatre and musical theatre department chair Penny Hasekoester. “They are working with the students, showing them what they’ve accomplished and sharing the real world issues that happen in the business. That made them ideal guest artists.”
Though the drama is set in the late 19th century, Graham said he feels “Spring Awakening” is filled with a lot of ideas everyone can identify with. Adapted from the controversial 1891 drama by German playwright Frank Wedekind the play follows a group of angst-ridden teenagers and their peers as they struggle to understand the meaning of sexuality andviolence in an oppressive, repressed society where adults refuse to answer any hard questions.
“Although ‘Spring Awakening’ was written at the turn of the century, with the way our world is changing so fast, I think the story is really relevant to us today as well,” Graham said.
Considered provocative when it was first written and consequently banned from the stage, it is still provocative today with its frank portrayals of abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide.
“There’s some subject matter that will shock many,” Graham cautions.
Largely considered an experiment because it melds alternative rock music with a turn of the century play, the juxtaposition instead illustrates the need to bridge the generation gap between the older generation and the one that’s coming up.
“Music is a voice for our younger generation. It’s how they’re able to cope with issues that they have growing up, how they tell their story,” said Graham.
“For that younger generation to convey that message to us, to me, to our parents, grandparents, it’s really important. I think that’s why ‘Spring Awakening’ the musical was created, to marry the generations.”
Pitts said he hopes to bring this point home through the costume design.
“The adults’ costumes will be more true to the Victorian silhouette with the idea that they are asking these young adults to conform to the world that they want them to,” he said.
The play also reveals the important role adults and knowledge play in guiding youth as they grow up, said Graham.
“It’s important to educate our youth in all ways, not just with textbooks and math problems. They need an education in life,” Graham said. “I think that’s why this show exists. It is certainly a deep piece, but it’s important. It’s real life.”
Both Graham and Pitts hope to accomplish this with SHSU’s students by drawing on their experiences for both the play and their work with the students.
Staging their Futures
For the past 12 years, Graham has worked on and off-Broadway as an actor, singer, dancer and choreographer.
After graduating from SHSU, he attended a three-week intensive with industry professionals and used that opportunity to network,letting people know he was moving to New York and would love to audition for them. Not long after arriving in New York, he got a call to audition for the musical revue “Fosse.” He was given a part not long after.
“Luckily I was in the right place at the right time, prepared and ready to go,” Graham said. “When that happens, it’s like your career starts.
“What was great about SHSU’s musical theatre program was the exposure,” said Graham. “I was able to perform in a lot of different shows, whether it was on the main stage, in Huntsville or in Houston, I just got a lot of exposure in the art form. Nothing prepares you for the stage more than being on the stage, in front of people. That was probably the biggest thing I got out of Sam Houston.”
He and his wife recently opened “The Broadway Artist Studio” in West Palm, Fla.
Pitts currently works for Lawrence University in Wisconsin, where he teaches scenic and lighting design. While he’s working on “Spring Awakening,” he’s also designing scenery for two shows in Chicago and a show at Lawrence University.
At SHSU, Pitts pursued scenic design and when he ran out of classes, he took classes in costume design. After graduating in 1998, he went on to graduate school at Northwestern to pursue costume design but still kept up his scenic design skills.
SHSU’s production of “Spring Awakening” stars Victoria Villareal as Wendla Bergmann, Brandon Whitley as Moritz Stiefel, and Gustavo Gomez as Melchior Gabor. Rounding out the cast are Taylor Beyer, Seth Cunningham, Shanae’a Moore, Joseph Redd, Daniel Rosales, Danielle Turner, Caleb White, and Audrey Wilson.
Show times for the play, written by Steven Sater with music by Grammy Award-nominated singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik, are at 8 p.m. each day, with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee on Dec. 1.
Tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for students, and the group rate is $10. For more information, call (936) 294-1339.