Matt Holl: Drama Teacher and Director – Theatre People
By Mitch Stark
Hello again all! Just before the worldwide pandemic hit, I traveled to Mississippi to teach at their state thespian conference, and met a creative gentleman named Matt Holl.
Matt is incredibly generous, funny, and a real mover and shaker in the world of theatre. As a drama teacher and director, Matt is one of those people who does it all—with humility and a passion to share the art form with people of all ages. He thinks deeply about the impact of theatre, and also has the technical and design chops to bring a fresh vision to the stage. Matt’s interview is both real and insightful. Hope you enjoy!
Matt Holl, school theatre director and teacher in Mississippi
What’s a show that inspires you? (explain away!)
There is no single show that inspires me, but I would say Shakespeare’s plays are some of my favorite to direct and design. The universality of themes in Shakespeare’s work lends itself to countless settings and timeframes without undermining the story. Having so much creative license in how a production is realized is an artistic dream and it allows me to help make Shakespeare more accessible to younger audiences by being able to help them form connections to their own world.
What’s one of your happiest moments in theatre?
Oof. This is a hard question. As a technician, there have been many standout moments in my career, but they all have to do with seeing a complicated set piece work perfectly in production or seeing a complicated series of cues executed flawlessly. As a designer, I’ve been lucky to work with many directors who’ve given me nearly carte blanche creative license to build truly complicated, beautiful, ridiculous sets. And as a teacher and director, I have been fortunate to work with some amazing young actors and they have provided me with countless moments during which I can’t tear my eyes away from the stage, I can barely breathe, I feel a small chill run down my neck – all due to the power and emotion they’ve put into their character. Those are the moments that really keep me going.
What’s the biggest ‘fail’ or goof you’ve seen on stage? (do tell the story)
Early in my teaching career, I began working as the technical director for my first school’s drama club, an extra-curricular activity that performed a couple of shows each year. There were several students that formed the core of the club, but there were a lot of students who would work on just one or two shows throughout their high school career, so there is always a fair amount of “on-the-job training” for the technicians.
On one particular show, we had a moderately large set for a small stage and during one scene change, a set piece had snagged on the upstage black traveler during a blackout and had manually opened half of the curtain, exposing the ugly cinder block wall behind. I was in the back of the house with the light and sound board operators when the lights came up and revealed what had happened during the scene change. My young technicians overreacted, both turning to me with panicked faces and gesturing wildly, so I hopped on headset and spoke with one of the technicians on the deck crew. I just let him know that half of the curtain had opened and that someone should pull it closed during the next blackout (I should note that the actual pulley system on this curtain was non-functional). The technician said, “I’m on it” and then I could hear him set his headset down and my heart sank – sure enough, about five seconds later, he appeared onstage. He proceeded center, looked up at the traveler, looked directly at me in the back of the house, and then started tugging on the curtain that had opened up. And it didn’t budge. He looked back at me with mild panic in his eyes and I tried to gesture him offstage…which he took as encouragement and continued pulling on the curtain.
At this point, the audience, who had been politely ignoring the black-clad young man wrestling a curtain behind the scene, began to chuckle and even the actors were beginning to falter. Finally, he gave it one massive tug and a very visible three-foot rip appeared (quite audibly) at the top, silencing everyone in the room. He looked up, looked to the back again, then dropped his shoulders and exited. The show continued, but I don’t think anyone remembers much about that night beyond…The Curtain.
Why do you love theatre?
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts….” – though Jaques is talking about life in this metaphor, on face value it sums up my love of theatre. Throughout my career in theatre (the vast majority of it unpaid), I’ve been very lucky to “play many parts” within a production: acting, design, fly crew, carpentry, lighting, sound, directing, projections, costuming, properties…it’s one of the most incredible things about theatre—there is always something new if you’re willing to learn.
Theatre is for…
There is something for everyone in theatre – the spectacle of watching live theatre enthralls young and old alike; the mental challenge of learning lines and blocking and choreography keeps performers sharp; the adrenaline of performing live in front of a live audience, feeding off each other’s energy, is a rush unlike anything else; and the amazing feeling you get from giving everything you’ve got to a production and knowing that every single person in your cast and crew is giving that same effort and has your back…whew. Everyone should feel that supported. Everyone should feel that free. Once it happens, it’s hard to give it up.
More About Matt
Matthew Holl is a 30-year veteran of the non-professional theatre scene, with extensive experience in high school theatre programs and community theatre as an actor, technician, designer, and director. His formative theatrical years were spent as a technician, absorbing as much as possible about lighting, sound, sets and rigging, before stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight as a senior in high school.
Through college and into his teaching career, Holl continued to be a jack-of-all-trades, adding directing to his repertoire while working in community theatre as well as advising high school drama clubs and teaching French and Spanish. Upon moving to Mississippi, Holl worked as the Technical Director at Millsaps College for three years and also found his way to his current home at Power Academic Performing Arts Complex, an arts magnet program in Jackson Public Schools; as a theatre teacher, Holl has the chance to work with incredible theatre students from grades 4-12.
Holl’s favorite aspect of his work in theatre is the challenge of designing for difficult scripts (and directors), as he truly enjoys creative problem-solving – both on his own and with his students. He also delights in finding ways of adapting Shakespeare’s plays to more relatable, modern settings to help share his love and understanding of the Bard with his students. When not in the theatre or the classroom, Holl can often be found cooking and relaxing at home with his wife, Kristen, and their dogs, Jack and Shady. He is also an avid reader, a music lover and vinyl collector, and loves to spend time puttering around the house and woodworking. He spends most summers traveling abroad, with frequent stops in Paris for the food and ambiance, as well as London for its vibrant theatre scene!