“Grand Dame.” That’s what AJ Miceli, Director of the School of Communication and the Arts, calls theatre instructor Paula Barrett.
Barrett took her first step in the Schuster Theatre as a spritely dancer in “The Pajama Game” when she was no more than a high school girl. At the end of this semester, Barrett will have taken her last steps in the theatre in which she has taught for the past 16 years.
Barrett’s credentials include a Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre from the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio, a Master of Fine Arts from Penn State University and a master’s degree from Fordham University. For 20 years, Barrett lived in New York City as a professional actor.
Zak Westfall, a junior theatre and communication arts major, has always looked up to Barrett.
“The first time I met her was right after I switched my major,” Westfall said. “She’s influenced my entire life career and decisions since switching my major.
“I meet with her once a week and we talk about acting stuff and plans for the future and places I could go, things I could audition for – basically life lessons in acting.”
Barrett said she always teaches and directs from the heart. “So it’s always out there. I think I tell every cast ‘I fell in love with you tonight’ at some point,” Barrett said.
Barrett was asked how she feels about leaving Gannon.
“It’s the feeling you feel when a show closes,” Barrett said. “It’s time. It’s been terrible and trying and difficult and as soon as the curtain closes you have a sigh of relief and think ‘it’s finally over’ and then you’re sad that you’ll never do it again; you’ll never see those people again.”
When it comes to retirement, she’s looking forward to learning a language, yoga and drinking herbal tea.
In the short term, Barrett is planning a four-week trip to Florence, Italy with a long-time friend. The ladies take off for Europe at the end of May. Barrett says she is ready for the next play in her life.
Michael Haas, a sophomore theatre major, was first introduced to Barrett in her production of “Loot.”
“The best gift she’s given me is ‘Fake it till you make it,’” Haas said. He recalled Barrett saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing and neither do you, but the reason I’m here and you’re there is because I act like I know what I’m doing.”
Barrett is known for her commitment to her craft and personal investment in her students.
Barrett’s students agree that what makes her different as an instructor is that she knows her students’ strengths and weaknesses and helps to make weaknesses better as well as strengths.
“She is the perfect exemplification of a professor in that she has real-world experience, but she chooses to impart that on students,” Haas said.
“She’s like the Bodhisattva who instead of choosing to go and become Buddha comes back to earth and teaches us all.”
Barrett said the most rewarding thing about teaching theatre at Gannon has been when students “get it.”
“When they seize personal power,” Barrett said. “It’s the moment they see they have power, they own it and use it for good.”
She said it gives her hope for the future – that theater is going to be OK.
Regarding her departure from Gannon, Barrett recalls something she was told a long time ago, “Always leave a party when you’re having a good time.” She said when she taught here she felt like this was home.
Barrett’s parting farewell to Gannon is in one of her favorite quotes from Patrick Overton.
“When you come to the edge of all of the light you’ve known, and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown; faith is knowing one of two things will happen. You’ll have something solid to stand on, or you’ll be taught how to fly.”
“And I hope,” Barrett said, “I have begun to teach you how to fly.”