More than most thespians-at-heart, Joel Schlader, MA ’07 was destined for a life on stage, a role bolstered by his HNU education.
Not only was he born to two Broadway veterans — his parents met as cast members in the original stage production of The Music Man — but the senior Schladers founded and led the long-running Woodminster Summer Musicals based in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park while raising their young family.
“Whenever my dad needed a kid in a show, he’d point at one of my brothers and sister and say, ‘It’s your turn,’” explains Schlader, whose turn popped up when he was 8 years old.
His debut role: Little Jake in the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Schlader immediately took to performing for a live audience.
“I was a cocky little kid,” he says during a break from his role as art director for Woodminster, which his mother, Harriet, continues to lead (his father, Jim, died in 2010 at 96). “I learned my dialog really well and probably started taking way too many liberties.”
Schlader illustrates the point by recalling one of his first experiences during a curtain call, the round of bows a cast takes while the audience applauds at a performance’s end. Young Joel Schlader enjoyed the adulation so much that one night, after waiting for the other performers to complete their bows, he strutted out to center stage solo to collect cheers on his own, a move considered a theatrical no-no.
Forgivable in a child, perhaps, but Schlader’s father made sure his son understood he had been disrespectful to fellow performers: “My dad took me out back and told me, ‘Don’t ever do that again.” Lesson learned.
Today, from backstage as director, Schlader showers affection and respect on some of theater’s most loved musicals, as well as a handful of newcomers. For Woodminster’s 52nd under-the-stars season, running from July through early September, he’ll direct musical theater standards Oklahoma! and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, plus In the Heights, by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
While he briefly toyed with other professions — Schlader earned an HNU master’s degree in counseling and forensic psychology — theater life soon called him back. In his early professional days, he acted in commercials and short films and even penned a play that he workshopped on Broadway. But he’s found lasting satisfaction as the director whose guidance helps actors find more depth in the individuals they portray — and, sometimes through the process, in themselves.
He credits his HNU psychology training for allowing him to delve deep into the minds of characters. It also facilitates his work with the multitudes of professionals he interacts with for each production, be it the technical director, stage manager, builders and set designers he must negotiate and collaborate with or an actor whose confidence needs boosting.
“You can get a lot of performers who are very insecure,” he says, adding that he tailors his directorial approach to the individual performer. “Some people take criticism as absolutely devastating. Some people take it as, ‘OK, I can work on it.’ How am I going to get the best out of them?”
“The magic happens when someone’s totally unsure of what they’re doing and all of a sudden their eyes light up … And the audience teaches them their part; that’s great to see. Last year, we did Beauty and the Beast. You can’t direct today how you directed 20 years ago, because people’s temperaments are different.”
Today, for instance, female characters often display strengths they wouldn’t have in past decades.
For the climactic battle scene in Beauty and the Beast, Schlader suggested to the leading lady a take-charge script change. After his foe, Gaston, fells the Beast with a sword stab, Schlader urged the actor playing heroine Belle to pluck up the weapon and run Gaston through with it. (Most productions call for Gaston to fall to his death.)
The actor was reluctant. But Schlader persisted: “I told her: Trust me. Try it.” She did, with a reassuring response from the house.
“The audience stood up cheering,” he says. “That’s a feeling of empowerment.”
After earning his HNU degrees (he also has a master’s in English), Schlader briefly joined the faculty as an adjunct professor and led productions on campus, from Neil Simon’s Rumors to 12 Angry Men.
“I loved every one of those teachers I had up there,” he says, listing off several who influenced him, including: Patricia McMahon, Gwenn Silva, Kelley Gin, and Kenneth Kim.
“Sr. Maureen Hester, she was my first counselor, she had so much passion and knowledge about psychology,” he says. “She was very hard about writing and a stickler in English; I Iiked that. She really taught me how to write a good paper.”
The individualized coaching and attention to detail that he valued in his HNU experience are qualities he continues applying to his daily work on stage.
“The thing I loved about Holy Names is you get the small classes,” he says. “They’ll bend over backward for you. And it’s a beautiful setting when you sit up at the chapel and look out over the Bay.”