by Lorie Lewis Ham
The Valley has been blessed by the talented presence of Mark Norwood within its theatre community for many years and it seemed past time to do a local actor/director profile on a man who has influenced many of the actors we see on our local stages today.
Mark was born in Fresno, but moving to Clovis when he was 12 likely changed the direction of his life. While attending Clovis High School he was required to take a speech class and was put in a drama class taught by Dan Pessano, Managing Director of Good Company Players. “I was a severe stutterer as a child and well into adulthood for that matter,” said Mark. “I discovered that when I acted, I didn’t stutter. I was hooked.”
After Clovis High, Mark went on to attend Fresno State and the University of Wisconsin at Superior. Along the way, Mark said he has had every job in a restaurant from bus boy to bouncer to general manager. “I love to eat and never wanted to be a starving actor so I always worked in restaurants. The schedules allowed me to pursue acting and I never was far away from food. I’ve tended bar and managed bars to work my way through school.”
Dan Pessano continued to have a hand in Mark’s career through the years. Mark worked for Good Company Players in various capacities in the 70s and 80s and was on staff from 1984 to 1994. Besides tending and managing the bar, he acted, directed, and wrote original works for them.
Dan feels that having Mark as a student has been as beneficial to him as it was to Mark. “Sometime you get credit for being a good teacher when you’re just a lucky teacher,” shared Dan. “I was lucky enough to have a student like Mark who made me look good. The proof is that as we have worked together over the years, either performing together or directing each other, the result has been that I always look better because of Mark’s work. I am one of many.”
As an actor Mark has gone on to play many roles with GCP and other local companies, including his own company Reedley River City, and has toured in The Man of La Mancha and other shows in the Mid-West. Some of his favorite roles that he has played over the years have been Salieri in Amadeus, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, and Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond.
It was while tending bar at Roger Rocka’s that Mark began developing a critical eye, which would lead to the beginning of the directing part of his career. “I would, literally watch every show, every night. I began to see things from the directorial perspective. I began by directing the GCP School Tour Shows, which I also wrote. I then asked Dan Pessano if I could direct Of Mice And Men at the 2nd Space Theatre. I love the play and had a distinct vision of how I would love to see it staged. From there I was given directing assignments in both the Music Hall and 2nd Space for GCP.”
Another big part of Mark’s life in theatre began when he moved to Reedley with his wife, Denise, in 1993. Kings Canyon Unified School District contacted him and asked if he would be interested in teaching theatre under an emergency credential. “I spent the next year in the class room and directing the high school productions. The classroom experience left me very frustrated and the drama classes were used as a depository for students with discipline issues and any student serious about learning was drowned out. I resigned after that first year.”
KCUSD asked Mark what it would take for him to stay. His answer was to let him attempt to build an extra curricular program for students who really wanted to learn about and experience theatre. “The position of Theatre Arts Coordinator was born and to my knowledge was the prototype for many school districts to follow. With Martha Willems as Musical Director and Denise Norwood as Choreographer and Costumer, along with incredible students, we built a wonderful theatre arts program that included students from the third through twelfth grades.”
While still working at KCUSD, the minority owners of the Reedley Opera House approached Mark and Denise about doing theatre in that building. “[They] told us they wanted to ‘Give us the Opera House’”, said Mark. “They asked us to produce a summer theatre series in the building in 2000 to ‘prove’ that theatre could be done in the building. They kept all the profits and in return they were to include us in a donation scenario when they unloaded the building on the City of Reedley. When the building was donated the minority owners reneged on their pledge.”
Three years later Mark began to hear strong rumblings that the theatre program at the school may be cut due to budget concerns, and at the same time was approached by the City and Merchants to expand the Opera House theatre offerings to year round. “As difficult as the decision was, Denise and I decided to try and make a go of theatre in the Opera House.”
For the past several years now Mark has been the Artistic Director of Reedley’s River City Theatre Company at the Reedley Opera House. At the Opera House, he has become a jack-of-all-trades–directing, acting and writing, as well as bussing tables and handling the box office along with a team who all pitch in and do whatever is necessary to keep the doors open. They are now starting their ninth season of presenting top quality community theatre that brings people to Reedley from all over the country. Though Mark considers his greatest challenge in his work to be when he acts in and directs a show he’s also written it’s also his joy is to write originals and see them come to life, which has gotten to do often at River City.
Mark’s work with KCUSD has carried over to his work at the Opera House, with many of his former students becoming regular actors, crewmembers, staff and volunteers with River City. One of those is Michael Angel, who began working with Mark in fifth grade in KC Showcase and continued throughout high school. “He always strives for the best in everything he does and in every aspect of theatre,” said Michael. “He knows the work ethic it takes to produce quality shows and he’s able to get that type of work out of the actors, crew and anyone else involved in the production. He has a great talent for getting the best out of an actor/actress. He challenges you but doesn’t scare you off or belittle you in the process of getting your best, because once an actor has achieved that he knows the show will really benefit his or her talents.”
Another former student that Mark continues to work with at the Opera House is Erik Valencia. Mark believes that a teacher should strive for the day when his students surpass him. Forever Plaid, which was recently on stage at the Opera House, was directed by Erik and the three other cast members are former students as well. “They are an amazing testimony to the Kings Canyon Fine Arts teachers. Randy Lepp, Gary Willems, Burl Walter Jr., to name but a few, have left an impressive legacy of talented students in their collective wake.”
Ever by Mark’s side for 30 years is his wife and partner in theatre Denise. “Working with Mark is truly an honor and always has been. He is that rare combination of supremely gifted and exceedingly kind. We have worked and lived together for 30 years and I have learned so much, developed my skills, and been afforded the opportunity to share what I have to offer. Here’s to at least thirty more years!”
Recently Mark returned to his position at KCUSD and is now teaching a whole new group of students. In the spring of 2010, he was asked to step in and direct the Reedley High spring musical when the show’s director needed to step down for health reasons. “I agreed and had a wonderful time reconnecting with the students. I was offered my old job back and, after careful consideration, I felt that, with the strong staff at River City Theatre that is in place, I could handle both the Opera House and KCUSD Challenges.”
Several of that new group of students have also gone on to perform in River City Theatre shows. One of those is Reedley College freshman Jessica Ham. “Mr. Norwood is my hero. He has taught me so much about performing and about life. He never gives up and because of his influence, neither will I.”
What Mark likes best about working with the students is watching the discovery in students’ eyes when they get that first inner glimpse that they could be really good at something. “A lot of actors think there is something wrong with them and others often label them as weird. When they learn that there is an entire discipline that celebrates their unique creativity, it is life changing. I hope that certain leaders in our community will continue to see the incredible value that an arts education is to a child. An appreciation of music, theatre and art lasts a life time and is acquired without concussions or broken bones (usually). Too many leaders want to channel kids’ energies into aggressive and competitive activities that tend to produce aggressive and competitive adults. Unfortunately, that can become an educational model. I love the fact that Kings Canyon Unified strives for balance and stands up for the arts. My goal is to live up to their faith and commitment.”
Anyone who knows Mark would say he’s always on the move, but that’s the way he likes it. Even his favorite hobby keeps him moving, as he loves to drive. “It is extremely challenging to balance everything, but it is a true team effort. Denise is truly my better half and works right along side me. Steve Jones, Managing Director of RCTC, [and another of Mark’s former students], is so multi-faceted and talented and takes tremendous pressure off of me through his dedication to our theatre. There are so many volunteers that give so much; it is truly a team effort.”
For those considering a career in theatre Mark says do it only for the love of theatre. “You will not get rich, you will not be famous, but you will be rewarded with a life filled with beauty and imagination. Take your ego out of the equation and give your talent to the audience.”
As to future goals and dreams, Mark stated that he takes things a day at a time, hour at a time, project at a time. “I would love to see the day that the theatre is prized one one-hundredth as much as sports and that the arts were not such a hard sell.”
His heroes are his students. “I have learned more through teaching and from my students than anything else. Trying to put into words and deeds what my experiences have taught me helps me to be a better director/performer/person.”
Learn how Mark created the Fanny shows–popular shows he writes, acts & directs every spring at River City–in the KRL article.