Clerkin named artist of the Year

Dedication to arts and culture is often a thankless job. But a service to the betterment of the Erie community will be celebrated Wednesday at the 2014 Fall for Arts and Culture awards ceremony.

The awardees include Al and Peggy Richardson for the Applause award, The Erie Reader for leadership, Young People’s Chorus (YPC) Erie for the Imagine award, and the Rev. Shawn Clerkin for Bruce Morton Wright Artist of the Year.

For over 30 years, Clerkin – an associate professor at Gannon University – has been an integral part of the artistic community in Erie. Clerkin came to Erie as a student at Gannon and earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre and communication arts. He went on to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in Theatre Directing at Virginia Commonwealth University. After returning to Erie in 1989, Clerkin became a faculty member at his alma mater. He eventually succeeded his adviser, Bill Doan, as the director of theatre for the university and has been training new artists for the past 25 years.

In addition to serving as the vicar at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lawrence Park, Clerkin is also a founding board member for the alternative theater group Dramashop. As its director emeritus, Clerkin lends his years of experience and expertise to its every decision.

Among Clerkin’s many bragging rights, he has studied Shakespeare with Janet McTeer, acting with Alan Rickman, shared a professional performance with Sir Ian McKellen and even personally toasted Dame Judy Dench at the National Theatre backstage canteen while studying at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain.

Clerkin has been recognized by the Kennedy Center for his excellence in play directing. In 1986 Clerkin was recognized by Gannon for excellence in theater and communication arts and has been given a medal for character, leadership and scholarship.

He and his wife, Almitra Clerkin, who serves as the executive director for the Erie Playhouse, also share an artistic partnership, where they work to broaden the horizons of students and offer new opportunities for veteran performers through their leadership at both Gannon and the Erie Playhouse.

Clerkin has performed or directed with nearly every theater venue in town, including the Erie Playhouse. Perhaps his most notable role was that of Jean Valjean in the 2012 production of “Les Miserables.” The show shattered box office records for the Erie Playhouse, in large part due to Clerkin’s powerhouse performance.

Some of Clerkin’s more notable roles include Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Mama in “Hairspray” and the title role in William Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

But his most important role is here at Gannon. Clerkin founded and continues to oversee the summer Shakespeare festival offered at Gannon; Shakespeare Summer Nights has become a training ground for old and new performers alike. Simultaneously, Clerkin oversees two weeks of overnight theater camps for high school students.

The Artist of the Year Award was created by Erie Arts and Culture in 2012 in honor of Bruce Morton Wright. This award recognizes an artist who has made a “significant impact on the arts and the cultural landscape” through his or her personal commitment and leadership. The award also acknowledges a local artist for his or her contributions to the community and for mentoring other artists.

AJ Miceli, an assistant professor of communication arts and director of the School of Communication and the Arts, was a colleague of Wright and characterized him as a “gentleman and a musician.” He was “everything that you would expect of a really caring human being and consummate artist; dedicated to his art and willing to share it for free for anyone who would listen,” Miceli said.

Wright’s mission alongside Clarence Beyers and former Gannon President Joseph Scottino was that music was too important to be available to only those who could afford it.

Wright’s story was that of a man who made good by overcoming odds with talent and hard work. An Erie native, he graduated from Strong Vincent High School in 1969.

Miceli said Wright had a loving family, but the ‘60s were a tough time. With Monsignor Wilfred Nash, a man who is described as one of few who was truly saintly and generous to all, Wright succeeded in graduating from Gannon in 1973. Miceli recalls Wright saying that he was the only graduate from Gannon with a degree in music.

Wright’s accomplishments are vast. From assistant conductor at the Vienna Conservatory to directing the Erie Opera Theatre to founding the Erie Bayfront Orchestra, Wright’s mission was accomplished — to make fine music available to the community.

In 1978, Beyers — having heard Wright’s work with the Bayfront Orchestra — approached Gannon to give this orchestra a home. Since then the Erie Chamber Orchestra has fulfilled Wright’s mission to provide free concerts to those who could not afford it and to expose children to art.

“In his spare time, to which he had none, he also created the student concert band,” Miceli said.

Now under the direction of Dana Barrett, in a university that has no academic music program, Gannon still has a student band with over 40 members.

In late July of 2011, Wright died of multiple myeloma at age 65. Wright’s legacy is preserved through those lives that he touched while working at Gannon, and in 2012 a local nonprofit now known as Erie Arts & Culture commemorated his honor by created the award “Bruce Morton Wright Artist of the Year.” Awardees have included Tom Ferraro and Todd Scalise, and now Clerkin will be added to this prestigious list.

Clerkin also serves as friend and mentor to many of his students, colleagues and peers. He is known by his students for giving honest critique of both performances and academic work. Much like Wright, without his contributions, the Erie arts landscape would be far less rich.

Michael Haas, a sophomore political science and theatre major, said, “Father Shawn has been a consistent source of academic and artistic inspiriation for me.”

Wright’s work has introduced classical music and quality of life for the people of this community by providing both orchestra and opera performances. Clerkin has successfully influenced the Erie community with a myriad of theatrical performances that are both of quality and thought provoking.

The 2014 Fall for Arts and Culture is hosted by Erie Arts & Culture and will take place at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Erie Playhouse.

 

BRIANNA WOODS

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