In the theater, there will always be another person to play a role.
Rex Harrison was not the last person to play Professor Henry Higgins. Many actors have performed the likes of Hamlet and King Lear since Shakespeare’s pal Richard Burbage trod the boards.
And the theater program at Somerset Community College must go on without Steve Cleberg — and it will, with Julia Chereson.
Come the fall semester, Chereson will be taking over as Fine Arts Coordinator at SCC, and though this will be her first time in Somerset, the Nova, Ohio native can’t wait to take the stage in the local arts community.
“(It’s) a dream job for a theater artist like me,” she said. “When I saw the posting, I almost thought it was too good to be true, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from applying.
“There were several rounds of interviews, and after each one I felt more and more confident that SCC and I would be a fantastic fit for each other,” she added. “I’m beyond excited to start this role in August. I’ll be kicking things off with Intro to Theatre courses and looking forward to advancing with Acting and Directing courses for interested students.”
Chereson got her undergraduate degree in Theater from the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, before moving to Chicago, where she performed in unique venues like storefront fringe theater and burlesque. She would go on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in Theatre at Penn State, and moved to New York City, where she’s been residing most recently. Like many working actors, however, she has played many different roles in the professional sphere.
“While living the theatre/artist life I had several day-jobs – I was a nanny, I worked in IT consulting, marketing research, and most recently for a non-profit that supports after-school education in NYC,” she said.
She started directing while in Chicago, and it was in graduate school that she got the opportunity to teach acting as a graduate assistant and found herself asking for more such opportunities. “I thought I loved acting more than anything else until I started teaching,” she said. “Now I couldn’t tell you which one I love more.”
The acting bug bit her first, at least. Chereson first got into theater around age 10, when her parents took her to see a community theater production of “Hello, Dolly!” starring a friend of the family.
“A few years before that, they had taken me and my sister to Toronto to see ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ and though I was enthralled, it didn’t occur to me that theatre was something I could actively participate in until I saw someone I personally knew transform into a character,” said Chereson. “Where I grew up, there were not many (if any) opportunities to act, so it wasn’t until undergraduate that I finally got myself onstage, and lucky for me, no one has asked me to leave it yet.”
Perhaps her favorite role has been of Marianne in “Constellations” by Nick Payne, which Chereson called “one of the most meaningful theater experiences” she’s had so far.
“After the show, I texted my best friend about how it felt and she told me to save the texts, so I did,” said Chereson. “One says, ‘It was so much muscle and it was so challenging, but it felt like winning a really hard race.’ I try to remember that feeling whenever I start to doubt myself as an artist. And I look forward to seeing students at SCC win some really hard races too.”
At SCC, Chereson will be filling the shoes left behind by Cleberg, who retired in 2019 after spending more than three decades at the helm of the theater program. South Dakota native Cleberg arrived in 1986 and directed both SCC students and members of the community in countless classic plays as well as some of his own original works — the popular “Radio Suspense Theater” series, which has been performed by other groups and schools around the country, and the 2014 musical “Tin Pan Alley Tavern.”
Make no mistake, Chereson knows the situation she’s walking into, with Cleberg having made such a huge imprint not only on the school but the local arts community itself. But with the 2019-20 school year having been such an unusual one due to COVID-19 and there not being any solid theater opportunities anyway, there’s a little bit of distance there now that may allow Chereson to make an even smoother transition and start fresh.
“I have heard such wonderful things about SCC and Steve Cleberg that taking this role comes with a bit of nervousness,” she said. “Steve is leaving behind some very big shoes for me to fill. I’ve recently been reviewing the list of productions Steve has led since 1986 and I am humbled with respect for his work and the legacy he has built in Somerset. I would warmly welcome the opportunity to work with Steve on some of the productions that I plan on bringing to the (Stoner) Little Theatre stage.”
Chereson has a very modern outlook when it comes to performance material that speaks to her. Some of the plays that have Chereson “really excited about right now” include “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe, “The Thanksgiving Play” by Larissa FastHorse, and “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen.
“I am deeply inspired by the contemporary works of women, BIPOC authors, and other historically marginalized voices,” said Chereson. “I would like to bring some contemporary new plays and adaptations to the Little Theatre stage.”
And as with Cleberg, Chereson said that community members who are not enrolled at SCC but are lovers of the theater will be welcomed and encouraged to join in and help bring new works to the stage.
“If anyone reading this would like to get involved, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me,” she said. “Design, set building, costuming, music, lighting, dance — these are all important parts in making a theatre production happen and I cannot wait to get to know the community members who will shine in these roles.”
For Chereson, her style of directing is determined by the artists she’s working with, starting with creating a space where actors can feel comfortable and free to make mistakes.
“We hear stories all the time and we picture them in our mind. Directing gives me the opportunity to see that story come to life in front of my eyes,” she said. “And bringing a story to life comes with many challenges, but they are exciting challenges. Each obstacle is an opportunity for a creative solution.
“I ask students and performers to risk looking and feeling foolish in the pursuit of discovery,” she added. “That is what is most exciting about directing – the things we will discover together that bring the story to life for an audience.”