Robert Schanke, professor emeritus of theatre at Central College, never expected to teach theater, let alone be in the profession for 40 years.
“I was planning on becoming a Lutheran minister,” he says. But in his freshman year at Midland College (Neb.), his roommate persuaded him to audition for a play—to his surprise, he won a small role.
“I fell in love with it,” says Schanke. “And because I was enjoying it so much I kept taking theater courses. It was my senior year when I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a minister. I want to go into theater.’”
That decision was recently affirmed yet again when Schanke received the prestigious Career Achievement Award for Educational Theatre in early August. The award is the highest achievement given by the 1,500-member Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
“To me, this award was a confirmation for faculty members at a liberal arts college—we are appreciated as much as faculty at the large universities. I really feel honored,” he says.
After graduation, Schanke earned a master’s and doctorate at the University of Nebraska, and taught for five years at a small Lutheran college before making his way to Central. Once on campus, the opportunities Central provided helped Schanke grow in ways he never expected.
Besides receiving research and development grants, Schanke took advantage of Central’s unique study abroad programs. During his 27 years at Central, he was able to teach twice in Carmarthen, Wales at Trinity College and once in Merida, Mexico, as well as supervise the London, England program for two years.
“The study abroad programs were such enriching opportunities for me where, at a larger university, I would have never had that opportunity,” says Schanke. “We say studying abroad broadens the students’ horizons, but it broadens faculty members’ horizons when they are able to participate, as well.”
Since his retirement in 2003, Schanke remained active in the theater world. He has published several books, served as the editor of the international journal “Theatre History Studies” and edited a book series with Southern Illinois University Press that has published approximately 30 volumes.
“All of my writing has been about theater artists who were important in their day, but who have been neglected in theater history books and kind of forgotten,” he says. His most recent book, “Queer Theatre and the Legacy of Cal Yeomans,” focuses on little known-playwright Cal Yeomans from Florida, one of the founders of gay theatre whose work was fueled by gay liberation and extinguished by the AIDS epidemic.
Schanke doesn’t intend to slow down any time soon. He is vice president for research and publications for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. He was also recently chosen as the dean-elect for the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. Schanke also travels around the world, having visited India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru and Ecuador amid other locations.
“I’m kept really busy,” Schanke says with a laugh. “Sometimes I feel like, I’m not retired at all.”