Scholarship donors Mack and Paulette Miller have been volunteer leaders in the arts at Mason for the past two decades. / Photo by Christopher Bobo
When Paulette Miller and her husband Mack talk about theater, the arts, and George Mason, their enthusiasm is unmistakable. The couple have been loyal audience members, charitable supporters, advisory board members, and dedicated volunteers here for years.
The source of their enthusiasm? It’s Mason’s students. “They’re special, they really are,” says Mack, a retired Marine Corps officer and federal contractor. “Just being around them is fun.”
Paulette and Mack discovered Mason and began attending performances here shortly after moving to Burke, Virginia from California in the late 1980s. Soon they joined the Friends of the Center for the Arts, where they found a community of fellow theater-lovers. Paulette, a natural sparkplug, eventually became president of the group’s board of directors. For years Mack served as volunteer coordinator, often staffing the information table in the theater lobby before performances, amiably persuading patrons to join the Friends of the Center for the Arts.
That covers just part of their volunteer service, though. When Mack expressed curiosity about how School of Theater productions were developed, he was quickly invited to have a peek behind the curtain: first to witness table reads (which are early run-throughs of the script), then to see the set design shop.
“That was like a huge door opening to the School of Theater for us,” says Paulette, who worked for 26 years as a librarian with Fairfax County Public Schools. Both she and Mack joined the board of Friends of Theater as well. Paulette is currently president of that group, a role that Mack previously held. Board members focus on raising funds for the school, audience-building, and supporting students. On Giving Day 2019, board members offered successful matching gift challenges.
Friends of Theater members help Mason students in many ways. Twice a year, during rehearsals for big productions, the Friends feed hungry cast members and stage crews at “chili chowdowns” held in the black box space at the Center for the Arts. The chowdowns do more than feed seemingly always-hungry college students; they build camaraderie among cast, crew, and audience.
Mason’s theater program, now rated #1 in Virginia, keeps growing. Students not only perform, they learn everything about the theater business, from costumes and lighting to building sets and running productions. They are taught by world-class instructors, many of whom work professionally with Washington, D.C.-area companies such as Arena Stage, Signature Theatre, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
One of Paulette’s favorite theater memories is the 2012 student production of Into the Woods, the challenging Stephen Sondheim musical. “It was spectacularly good, a magical experience,” she recalls. A more recent favorite was last year’s production of Wolves, an intense drama about a girls soccer team.
To prepare for demanding performances like those, Mack notes, students may rehearse four hours a night for six weeks straight—all in addition to their regular classes, part-time jobs, and the like. “To be a student, then to have that kind of extracurricular requirement, takes a special kind of person,” Mack says. “Not only do you have to love it, but you have to be so self-motivated to do that. How does anyone have time to go to class? I don’t know how they do it!”
That kind of student is well worth supporting, the Millers feel. That’s why, in 2018, the couple established an endowed scholarship fund. The fund will provide financial support each year to a theater student who shows not only academic merit and financial need, but a commitment to serving the School of Theater community. The scholarship was awarded for the first time this fall to a theater major in her junior year. “If we expect the theater to continue, we have to nurture it,” Paulette says.
Mack emphasizes another reason for the Millers’ love of Mason: the opportunity to feel part of a community of theater fans. “At other theaters, you are expected to be a ‘butt in the seat’—just sit there and silence your cell phone,” he notes wryly. “At Mason, theater is the ultimate team sport. They draw you in. You get to see the scene shop, go to the table readings, see the classrooms, meet the students, talk to them,” he explains. “Here you are part of the family. They make you feel like you belong.”
December 4, 2019 / Rob Riordan