Exit Stage Right: Paul Hustoles retires

In mid-March, Dr. Paul J. Hustoles and his wife, Mary Jo, were walking along Broadway in New York when he received a text from a student.

“Broadway is closed,” the text read.

Looking up at the theater marquees showcasing musicals such as “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away,” it wasn’t clear yet that COVID-19 had extended its menacing reach to one of Hustoles’ favorite places – a place he had taken groups of students and community members every spring break for decades.

Longtime Theatre Director and Department Chair Paul Hustoles is retiring.

On this, his 30th Spring Break trip to New York, it was becoming clear that the virus would require some abrupt changes, and not just with Broadway ticket refunds and early flights home. Hustoles, who has led the Department of Theatre & Dance over the course of 35 years and 600 productions, was set to retire at the end of July. And all who know him wouldn’t be surprised that his choreographed exit was to include directing 75 percent of the now-canceled Highland Summer Theatre 2020 season, as well as a great big party.

“My final show was going to be ’Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’ It was going to be so much fun,” Hustoles said. But – in true “the show must go on” fashion – Hustoles has a new retirement send-off plan coinciding with the theatre’s spring musical in April 2021.

Ushering in Changes

“Workaholic” and “overachiever” are words often used to describe Hustoles, who pre-pandemic could be found in the Earley Center for Performing Arts at all hours of the day and night. Outside rehearsals, he had assignments to grade and notes to prep for a full course load. He had the endless checklist that accompanies chairing the department (which he did for 32 years). He had patron emails to return, advisees to guide, ticket orders to fill, donor letters to write, playbills to proof, and university committee meetings to attend.

“I think of myself as a manic depressive,” the 68-year-old said, “but I’m never depressed.”

Hustoles arrived at the University in 1985 to teach, direct and produce, as well as chair the department. Thanks to the late professor Ted Paul, productions at the University had a solid audience from 1950 to 1980. Hustoles loved that the program staged musicals, which are difficult to produce and often avoided by college theater programs.

“I loved Ted, and one of the things I loved about Mankato was it had the most eclectic list of plays I’d ever seen in my life,” Hustoles said. Some of his initial changes included adding a production during the academic year; making the children’s touring theater production annual; and adding a consistent fourth production to the Highland Summer Theatre season.

Hustoles also put a stop to the hundreds of comp tickets going out and raised prices to match the quality of the productions, he said, which increased revenue tenfold. And student recruitment efforts led to an increase from a few dozen majors to more than 200 majors and minors today.

“Those things are really the feathers in my cap,” Hustoles said. Hustoles vastly expanded the scholarship program, upped fundraising efforts and headed up specific campaigns that included building the Andreas Theatre and the recent renovation of the Ted Paul Theatre. He also led the efforts to develop the program’s academics, including the addition of several degree program options.

The department today typically produces 17 shows annually: six mainstage productions, four studio shows, four Highland Summer Theatre productions, two dance concerts and a touring children’s production. That’s more than any other college program in the United States.

“That’s why we’re so good,” Hustoles said. “When our students go out into the real world, they’ve had all that experience.”

Students come first

Students often said that Hustoles’ passion for theater and his vision were most evident when he directed them in shows, especially a major musical with a large cast.

During an early rehearsal for the musical “Titanic,” for example, more than 40 actors stood across the Ted Paul Theatre stage. With just three weeks to mold the troupe, Hustoles was focused and feverish as he maneuvered around.

He painted in broad strokes when warranted and then focused in to fine-tune details. Joshua Ryder Brooks, for example, an 8-year-old about to break audiences’ hearts as the character of Jack Thayer, needed some coaching on projecting his voice. “Louder, Joshua!” Hustoles said, touching the boy’s head before moving toward a group of three actors off their marks.

Mikhayla Clausen, who graduated in spring 2018 with a bachelor of fine arts in Musical Theatre, was one of those actors on the stage that night, taking in every note delivered to her and those around her. A sophomore at the time, she now tours in professional children’s theater companies as far away as New Orleans.

“One of the things I learned from Paul that I apply in my career is how to work with kids,” Clausen said. “He always set an example of how to behave and how to help them succeed in their role.”

Hustoles often said, “We’re here because of the students.” They’re at the root of every decision, and not being near them as he prepares to retire is one of the hardest parts of enduring the pandemic.

“My favorite thing about what I do is watching the students go from freshman to senior year,” Hustoles said.

“I’ll watch and say, ’Oh my God, they’re hopeless,’ and two or three years later, they’re my leading ladies and leading men. That, to me, has been very exciting.”

Plans for the future

In preparation for Hustoles’ retirement, Matthew Caron, an alum, was hired last year to take over as managing director. He teaches, directs, handles theater business and collaborates on public relations, among other things.

Having both studied under Hustoles and worked beside him as a colleague, Caron takes seriously the task of building upon Hustoles’ legacy, including maintaining a diverse slate of theater experiences.

“We all recognize how he built on Ted Paul’s legacy when he came here, and how under [Hustoles’] leadership the program has not just blossomed, but exploded,” Caron said. “We have become not only of regional significance, but one of the strongest programs in the upper Midwest.”

Hustoles might mourn the productions he hasn’t had a chance to do. But there are plenty of career highlights to look back on, including directing “The Odyssey,” which was honored as one of four productions throughout the nation chosen for performance at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

However, he’s not thinking about the legacy he’s leaving behind. As always, he’s looking forward.

All classes moved online after Spring Break. The department canceled an unprecedented 10 shows. So work is being done in earnest to safely plan for a 2020-21 season that will mean 25 percent audience capacity, as well as contingency plans if a cast member gets the virus.

Hustoles is determined to do what he can to make sure a solid plan is in place that will limit lost revenue as much as possible, allow students to have plenty of performance experiences for their resumes and ensure the safety of students and patrons remains paramount.

And, of course, with a passion for the stage that has spanned six decades, Hustoles is also planning for his return to direct the spring musical “Mamma Mia!” followed by a farewell party where he can finally be surrounded by his beloved students, as well as numerous friends.

“There is nothing,” Hustoles said, “quite like the thrill and anticipation on an opening night.”