When the American Shakespeare Center came to campus in March, it was the renowned touring group’s 13th appearance at Central in 20 years. The campus connections established more than 20 years ago and the ongoing efforts to expose students to professional theater were the work of Central’s resident Shakespeare expert Walter Cannon, professor of English, who will retire at the end of the academic year.
Formerly known as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, the touring company’s Dangerous Dreams tour performed “Julius Caesar,” “The Life of King Henry V” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” for campus and public audiences and conducted workshops for students on costume design and staging, special effects, voice and music in early theater.
American Shakespeare Center’s residency was made possible through the Thomas J. and Charlene P. Gaard Endowed Residency in the Liberal Arts, and Vice President for Academic Affairs Mary E.M. Strey terms the Gaard residency and Cannon’s tenure each as “a signature legacy.”
“Just as the Thomas J. and Charlene P. Gaard Endowed Residency in the Liberal Arts is a signature residency at Central College, designed to provide faculty and students a meaningful opportunity to reflect on the liberal arts, Professor Cannon’s 36-year residency at Central is a signature legacy that has challenged thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues to reflect on and be attentive to the liberal arts,” Strey said.
For Cannon, the campus residency was the continuation of a lifelong fascination with Shakespeare and his personal friendship with the center’s founding director Ralph Cohen.
“I found Shakespeare fascinating from the beginning. His work plays fast to the audience and delivers lots of ideas in a short time. I loved the way the theater brought the plays to life as living things through interaction with the audience,” Cannon says. “His ideas are so resonating and abidingly relevant.”
Cannon’s Central career
Walter Cannon’s steady contributions to college initiatives and classroom teaching have been part of Central education for nearly four decades. The Central bard has worked to move college initiatives forward, such as Writing Across the Curriculum, service-learning and civic engagement, and international studies, to name a few.
Cannon came to Central in 1979 to direct the Writing Across the Curriculum program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Based on his experiences in a summer fellowship in the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley and his observations of the Bay Area Writing Project, his role then was to conduct faculty development workshops at Central.
It was, Cannon says, “the impetus to make broader curricular changes which began in something we called Central Foundations and developed over time into the current Intersections Seminar for first-year students, a capstone course and writing intensive courses throughout the curriculum. Faculty were encouraged to consider writing as a pedagogical tool in all their courses, and they took it seriously.”
That led to Cannon’s next administrative role as London program director for three years in the mid-80s. Cannon recalls, “I got to know Shakespearean actors and made connections at The Guardian that benefitted Central students.”
When he returned to campus, Cannon wrote a grant that funded another faculty development program to further drive the Writing Across Curriculum effort, and this one included an outreach effort to support a Young Writer’s Conference that brought hundreds of elementary and secondary students and their teachers to Central’s campus. During summers, he was involved in the Iowa Writing Project, instructing K-12 teachers in “helping people feel like writers.”
Cannon also started teaching a Non-Profit Writing course as part of a pilot project funded by the Council of Independent Colleges, a grant he helped to write.
Cheri Doane ’98, director of Community-Based Learning, was one of Cannon’s early Non-Profit Writing students, and last year the pair co-authored a chapter for “Service-Learning and Civic Engagement: A Sourcebook,” which is intended for teachers, service-learning practitioners and professionals in the field.
Cannon’s 2011 book, “Who Hears in Shakespeare? Auditory Worlds on Stage and Screen,” co-edited with Laury Magnus, grew out of his long-time membership in the Shakespeare Association of America. “The book endeavor came out of connections I’d made through Shakespeare Association seminars,” Cannon says. “Co-editor Laury Magnus and I invited others to submit chapters after a successful seminar that she directed. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.”
Cannon is also proud of his chapbook, a short collection of poetry, “The Impossible World.” “Writing poetry was something I enjoyed as an undergraduate and have continued as a necessary response to what’s around me” he says. “I’ve enjoyed doing readings of my work over time too.”
Recognition and Reflection
Cannon’s efforts have been recognized with both campus awards and invited participation in national and international workshops and institutes. At Central, he has received the Outstanding Performance Award for Professional Development, Outstanding Performance Award for Teaching, and the Huffman Award for Outstanding Support of International Education.
Iowa Campus Compact recognized Cannon with the Excellence in Community Engagement Faculty Award for his commitment to service learning and civic engagement. He was named twice to Who’s Who Among College Teachers. He was awarded faculty research and development grants for work at the Shakespeare Centre and the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, England; the British and Folger Shakespeare Libraries; and Yeats Summer School in Ireland. He has also received four NEH-funded fellowships for college teachers to study at the University of California—Berkeley, James Madison University, and two at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
If that all sounds like a lot of work, Cannon says, “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s never felt like work. I’ve had a lot of interesting students who have kept me engaged with new ideas. And faculty too; I’ve been lucky to have had such intellectually stimulating and supportive colleagues.”
With the usual full plate of semester commitments, Cannon hasn’t had much time to consider his next chapter but hints that there may be another writing collaboration in the offing. He says, “I have a boutique interest in Irish literature and have been invited to give lectures on Yeats and Shakespeare. I have a collection of essays on Shakespeare I may pursue. I’ll remain active in the Shakespeare association, and I’ll continue my creative writing.”
Throughout Cannon’s career, Shakespeare has remained a constant. “Shakespeare has been good to me,” Cannon says. “As a result of my work with him, I’ve had a rewarding career.”
Students often ask Cannon which is his favorite among Shakespeare’s great works. “I tell them it’s whatever play we’re working on at the time. ‘Twelfth Night’ is a favorite. It plays well on stage — its absurdity and complexity — there’s something you can learn each time you see it. That’s what I like about teaching literature. Not everyone gets to read great literature over and over again.”
You can bet Cannon will continue to crack open the great plays, even though the bust of Shakespeare that adorned his office will soon have a new home.