November 07, 2019

After victoriously fighting a life-threatening stroke, Professor Shirley Kagan directs Hampden-Sydney Theatre’s performance of the Tony-award-winning play One Man, Two Guvnors.

By Henry Giattina ’21

Shirley Kagan, professor, in silhouette sitting in an audienceNavigating the long stairways and tall stage of Johns Auditorium is no small feat when doing so in a wheelchair, unless you’re Barger Barclay Professor of Theatre Shirley Kagan, who has fought arduously to overcome this and other recent physical challenges. Moving into her 22 nd year at Hampden-Sydney, Kagan recently suffered a life-threatening stroke, one that kills 70 percent of its victims and leaves many of the remaining either deaf or blind. Kagan defied these statistics, however; she not only survived the stroke, but has successfully managed—in a wheelchair—to reconstruct one of England’s newest hit comedies, One Man, Two Guvnors, on the Hampden-Sydney stage.

“Even with the challenges I am facing, I get the gift, daily, to go in and make a difference,” says the director, whose road to triumph has been rooted, in part, in Hampden-Sydney’s student body. “Teamwork,” she explains, “is the secret sauce to becoming a true Hampden-Sydney gentleman.” Teamwork seems a fitting description for the way her students have supported Kagan through this challenge, as our student body has given what she considers “a purpose to come to work every morning that is sustaining and gratifying on the deepest level.”

You’re going to encounter challenges in life. You will become ill, injured, fatigued, but if you feel like your life has a purpose, then it becomes a meaningful one.

Shirley Kagan, Barger Barclay Professor of Theatre

But this group effort is also due in large part to the way she puts the College’s mission of “forming good men and good citizens” into practice with her students. “We train our actors to work together, to help one another, because that’s half of what makes acting work,” she says. “The other half is teaching them how to approach people in any situation.” Kagan’s style of teaching has paid off greatly this semester, as she has managed to cast one of the funniest plays Hampden-Sydney Theatre has yet to offer.

Three students on stage acting like they're arguingOne Man, Two Guvnors, written by Richard Bean in 2011, will open its run in Johns Auditorium on November 7. A slapstick farce about a man facing the difficulties of having two bosses, the former West End and Broadway hit features mistaken identity, physical comedy, and even music. Says senior theater major Robert Morris ’20, who serves as a supporting actor, light and set designer, and technical staff member of the production, “I couldn’t ask for a better play to be my last performance on the main stage; it’s a ton of fun and perfectly silly at times.”

With help from her students and family, Kagan currently sits in a healthy state—both physically and mentally—and it’s safe to say she won’t give up her efforts to continue doing what she loves anytime soon. “You’re going to encounter challenges in life,” she explains. “You will become ill, injured, fatigued, but if you feel like your life has a purpose, then it becomes a meaningful one.”

One Man, Two Guvnors will play in Johns Auditorium at 8 pm Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, November 7, 8, and 9, as well as Thursday and Friday, November 14 and 15. All performances are free and open to the public.

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