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Argus Leader: Dr. Julia Bennett Leaves a Legacy

Leaving a Legacy

Jay Kirschenmann, Argus Leader

When Julia Bennett arrived as theater teacher at Augustana College, she wasn't much older than her students. Maybe more like their big sister.

She leaves at the end of this school year after 21 years, about the same age as many of the students' parents.

The 49-year-old teacher and actor's friends and co-workers describe her as dedicated, funny, intense, passionate and a dreamer who won't take "no" for an answer.

She's moving to Boise, Idaho.

Her husband, Tom, is executive director for the Boise Philharmonic. He was executive director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra for the past 14 years.
"I'll take a brief personal sabbatical while we settle into our new community," she says. "Then I plan to pursue acting professionally, and will launch a private studio called JUL."

During a recent rehearsal for the last play she directed as an Augustana theater professor, "Metamorphoses," sophomore and stage manager Matt Cook isn't shy about saying what he thinks in front of her, calling out to Bennett from across the theater:

"Hey, Julia, I think of you as a free thinker, kind of a Pippi Longstocking meets Crazy Cat Lady meets Mrs. Frizzle," he yells.

She grins and some students chuckle. "Who's Mrs. Frizzle?" a voice calls from out of the dark theater.

"That's the teacher from 'Magic School Bus,' " Cook answers as students burst out laughing at the reference to the animated kids' educational show.

As an actress, 'She's a wonderful talent'

Bennett says that part of her new life will involve running her new business, JUL. The name is both a play on her first name and on the "jewel of enlightenment" mentioned in throughout literature.

JUL will specialize in personalized yoga instruction - she's a certified yoga teacher. Bennett also plans to lead workshops offering clients tools for creative expression, effective personal practice and what she calls "optimal wellness."

But she's not giving up on theater. Boise has several theaters that offer her the chance to act or serve as an artist-educator.

She leaves a rich history here.

Bennett has been designer, director and actress in about 75 Sioux Falls plays during the past two decades. Many were at Augustana. Others were with her own company, Ephemeral Productions, and more were a few years back when she worked with the now-defunct Sioux Falls Community Playhouse.

Lary Etten said he's never worked with Bennett but was blown away when he saw her perform in "Wit" a few years ago.

"Her performance was one of the best I've ever seen in the area," said Etten, a director with Sioux Empire Community Theatre, a group that began in the summer of 2003 to fill the gap the Playhouse left when it closed. "As an actress, she was just truly wonderful in that performance. She's a wonderful talent."

It was one of many shows by Ephemeral Productions, a 10-year-old theater company founded by Bennett and her best friend of a dozen years, Kim Bartling, professor of communications studies and theater at the University of Sioux Falls.

"I can't really talk about Julia leaving without bawling," Bartling said.

The last Ephemeral Productions show will be "Doubt," the last weekend in May, although they may collaborate long distance for a future show.

She says some people might underestimate Bennett's acting talent.

"I've been directing theater for 24 years, in New York and with many different people, some who have gone on to win Tony awards," Bartling said. "She's the best actor I know. People have no idea the depth of her ability to act unless they've seen her on stage in shows like 'Wit' or 'Proof.' She's the best actor I've ever worked with."

The two fight like sisters, Bartling says. And while Bennett is the "dreamer," Bartling is the one who pays attention to the details.

"It works really well," Bartling said. "And I love her so much because she never says 'no.' In the arts, that's what we run into - there's no money, there's no time, we don't have the talent, we can't get the space. She's not that way, and I think that's why she's so infectious to be around."

Influential teacher

During the past two decades, she has influenced hundreds of theater students. She created Augustana's Brand Name Improv group, which has sprouted several other improv troupes during the past few years.

And Bennett founded the 8 in 48 New Play Festival, a theatrical production that Augustana hosts every other year. She'll continue to administer the event from out of state.

Sean McCain, a theater graduate from last year, now is working as a stage manager for Resonance Ensemble's Off-Broadway production of "The Master Builder" in New York City.

"During my time at Augie, Julia was my acting professor, and oftentimes, life mentor," McCain says. "I knew I could always go to Julia and talk things through with her and get her complete and honest opinion."

Bennett's departure means the Augie theater staff of 20 years no longer will run the department.

Ivan Fuller began as professor of theater there the same year Bennett did, in the fall of 1989. For the next 19 years, the two were the only full-time theater professors in the department, spending so much time together that their spouses call them the "other husband and wife."

Fuller recently moved into the chairman position of Augustana's Performing and Visual Arts Department, leaving his former role as theater professor.

"We went from a department in a military barracks in what is now the parking lot of the Center for Western Studies to this modern facility," Fuller said. Bennett did did all the costuming, publicity and directed two shows each year, while Fuller did the sets, props, lights and also directed two shows.

"The department will be very different now, because the two people who for 20 years led it and molded it are not there anymore," Fuller says. Dan Workman took over for Fuller in 2008, and Jayna Fitzsimmons has been hired as interim theater teacher for the next school year.

Fuller and Bennett are different in their approaches to teaching, acting and in other ways.

"It's been a beautiful relationship," Fuller says. "We're so different, but that's been great because we compliment each other well. She's very organic in her approach, seeing what can grow from the fertile soil. I like to have more mapped out ahead of time, but I've become more organic, too."

She dreams bigger, he says. Fuller stays practical, asking how they're going to accomplish things.

She's more spontaneous, while Fuller says he's more structured.

"We're such opposites, but it's really worked well as a marriage of opposites who share a common goal," Fuller says.

Local actor and director Darrel Fickbohm says he agrees. He was last on stage with her in "Romeo and Juliet." She played Mercutio, and Fickbohm played Tybalt.

"We had a good time learning all the sword fighting techniques, and I'll always remember her monologues spoken within the walls of the Queen Bee Mill at Falls Park," he says.

"And Julia, as a director, really welcomes you into the creative process, and I'd say that is also a feature of her character as well," he says. "It is lucky that someone with so much to give, in the way of ability and spirit, became a teacher."

Bennett says she'll miss her co-workers, students and colleagues.

"I've grown as a professional, as a teacher and as an artist - Augie has given me the space, time and resources to take my talents and season them," Bennett says.

"Leaving is a close of a chapter, but when you're a part of the Augie family, you never ever leave," she says. "I would say that the embrace is pretty strong. It's a great family to be part of.

"When I leave, I'll still be the artistic director of the Claire Donaldson 8 in 48 Short Play Festival, and we're discussing some other opportunities for me to continue to participate artistically, occasionally," Bennett says. "So there are some possibilities. And my family and friends are here. So, I can't permanently leave Sioux Falls behind."