It was back in the early '70s when Ken Erickson got his first taste of theater work. It was in the theater at the Neel Performing Arts Center at Manatee Junior College. It wasn't much more than a whim that brought him there.
That was 45 years ago. Erickson, 63, has worked in that same theater ever since, minus a couple of detours way back during the Carter administration.
At the end June, Erickson will end his theater career. He's retiring from State College of Florida -- the current name of the former Manatee Junior College -- after a long tenure as theater program director and the manager of the Neel Performing Arts Center.
"I've done 168 shows here," Erickson said. "I've designed and costumed 160 of them. I've directed 50 shows, too."
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He does it all
He's built a legion of admirers among his students and area theater pros.
"Ken Erickson is probably the most creative person I've ever met in my life," said Phil Hall, a professional playwright who has had his works produced everywhere from New York City to the Neel Performing Arts Center. "His set designs and set executions are always Broadway-quality."
Craig Smith, who's worked with Erickson for 10 years as a production instructor and technical director, speaks in awe-struck tones when Erickson's name comes up. "What I can tell you about the guy is how patient he is, and how talented," Smith said. "I've learned immense amounts about technique from him. You can walk through Home Depot with him and he can take anything and use it to make something beautiful. He'll take a piece of tubing or whatever and make it part of a dress and it will work." Smith will be taking Erickson's place starting in July. "Very big shoes to fill," Smith said. "But I've learned so much from him that I'm not nervous about it. I know he'll still be around. I know I'll be talking to him, maybe twice a week, asking him 'What do you think of this?' and 'Do you think this will work'" As for Erickson's students: There was a time, early in his career, when he was only supposed to teach at SFC for only a year. The previous teacher had been in a bad motorcycle wreck, and Erickson was only supposed to fill in while the previous guy recovered.
"The students, unbeknownst to me, got together and went to the board of trustees and asked that I be allowed to stay on," Erickson said.
Change of direction
He grew up in Chicago, and came to SCF in 1970 to study art and his grandparents lived in Bradenton.
He came to study art, but he started dating a theater student and one day he went into the theater to help her work on sets.
From that day on, he was hooked on theater. He never gave much more thought to a career in art.
"There are things you like and things you love," he said. "I found out that theater was something I loved."
Theater, he said, gave him a chance to create art, but in a collaborative setting. It suited him better than the isolated work of a studio painter and sculptor.
He finished his two-year degree at SCF, and went to the University of South Florida in Tampa as a theater student. He tried to get a job teaching at SCF but he couldn't because he only had a bachelor's degree. A year later, that teacher who got the job had that motorcycle wreck and Erickson stepped in.
He had to step aside when the former teacher came back, but he got the job for good a year later.
He never gave any thought to moving on to a career at a larger university, he said. He likes the kind of students that SCF attracts.
"Students come here for all sorts of reasons," he said. "Maybe they have family obligations that keep them from going away to college. Maybe they were in the military and their education was interrupted. Some of them may have been
in plays all through high school. Some of them may have never been in plays because their high schools didn't have anything."
Some of those students discover a long-dorment passion for theater at SCF, just as he did.
One thing he likes about SCF, he says, is that he can give his theater students more hands-on work in shows than they would get as lower-level students at a four-year university.
Erickson doesn't plan an idle retirement. In fact, he said, he prefers to think of it as a "redirection."
He's far from finished with SCF. He'll probably teach as an adjunct professor, maybe some theater appreciation classes, he says. He may stay involved with the summer program he started decades ago that offers fun educational experiences for children. And he's already planning the next costume art exhibit for the Neel lobby.
His series of costume exhibits began five or six years ago with displays of consumes from the Asolo Repertory Theatre. The idea was to present costumes as art on their own, so they wouldn't be seen from a distance as ancillary elements of a theater production.
He followed that two years ago with an exhibit of costumes created out of recycled materials by costume designers from theaters around the Bradenton area. This academic year he curated an exhibit of wedding outfits from different eras of history and from different social classes, collected from various sources around town.
All the exhibitions proved popular and edifying, so he's continuing the series.
Next up is an exhibit about women in uniform. That doesn't necessarily mean military uniforms, but any kind of work uniform worn by women -- waitresses, hotel maids, nurses, meter readers.
"Everything," he said, "from nuns to Playboy bunnies."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.