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Acclaimed teacher, director and choreographer George Pinney retires after 30 years at IU

Nov. 2, 2016

When the lights go up Nov. 4 at Indiana University's Ruth N. Halls Theatre, it will be a dream realized for George Pinney. 

"We've been wanting to do 'Jesus Christ Superstar' for, I think, the past 30 years," said Pinney, a professor in the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

George Pinney

George Pinney will be taking his bows after 30 years of teaching, directing and choreographing at IU. | PHOTO BY CHAZ MOTTINGER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

Each time the show was slated to be staged at IU, "the tour would come through and then the rights would be pulled," he said. "It was amazing."

But now, in Pinney's last year at IU, he wants his "Superstar" to shine.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about the last days of Jesus and his circle has remained popular since its launch in 1971. With material this familiar, "finding new twists and turns has been a huge challenge, but I think that's the art of it," Pinney said.

"The Passion of Christ, to me it's the passion of life," Pinney said. "Everyone has a passion for what they think is right. Even though this is religious, it's highly political, just as our democracy is. It's interesting what pushes people forward --  the right reasons and, obviously, the wrong reasons."

Accolades

Pinney joined the IU faculty in 1987. Since then, the head of the Musical Theatre BFA program and professor of stage movement has earned five IU Board of Trustees Awards and the Herman Frederic Lieber Award for excellence in teaching.

He also has directed or choreographed more than 150 productions for IU, regional theaters, London's West End and Broadway, as well as national and international tours.

"The university has been so incredibly supportive of my work all through the years," he said.

While Pinney has fond memories of many productions, "My most exciting performance is whatever I'm working on right now," he said. "And then, of course, there's 'Blast' -- and 'Blast' on Broadway, 'Blast' in London, 'Blast' in California, 'Blast' in Tokyo …"

George Pinney choreographing

Pinney works with students to choreograph a number for "Jesus Christ Superstar." | PHOTO BY CHAZ MOTTINGER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

Pinney received a Tony nomination for his choreography on "Blast" and ultimately won an Emmy for its PBS broadcast in 2001.

He said IU allowed him to take leave for six weeks on several different occasions to work on the show.

"IU has always been smart that way," Pinney said. "They know the more the professors do and then connect to the classroom, the farther the students are going to go."

Finding a path

"I was all over the place as a high school and undergraduate student," Pinney said.

Raised in Decatur, Ill., he earned a bachelor's degree at Illinois State University at a "very special time," with classmates such as Rondi Reed and Judith Ivey.

"I was in theater and about five other majors for a while, and I wound up in music education. But really, my heart was in musicals," Pinney said.

For three years, he taught at a junior/senior high school in a small town. For shows, he fashioned floodlights from coffee cans and strung them around the gym. "Everything was from scratch and done the hard way, and many times the wrong way. But I really learned from all those experiences," he said.

Pinney went on to earn an MFA at Southern Illinois University, go to New York, and return to the university to teach before coming to IU.

"Looking back, I'm really glad it was such a circuitous route I took," he said.

A major legacy

There was no such major as musical theater when Pinney was in school.  And even at IU, the BFA in musical theatre did not exist until 2007. 

Before then, Pinney guided two or three students a year through the Individualized Major Program in the College of Arts and Sciences.

He enjoyed working with the Jacobs School of Music and also contemporary dance, then separate from theater, to tailor programs that matched the strengths and weaknesses of each student.

The BFA program grew from those roots. Now about a dozen students a year are accepted to IU's musical theater program.

George Pinney on stage

Pinney received a Tony nomination for his choreography on "Blast" and ultimately won an Emmy for its PBS broadcast in 2001. | PHOTO BY CHAZ MOTTINGER, IU COMMUNICATIONS

Students learn technique in the context of a liberal arts education. Pinney said everything relates back to the human condition: "There is a global outlook. We understand the world."

Graduation

As an acclaimed teacher and mentor at IU, Pinney's winning formula is that there is no single, perfect formula.

"Each person is absolutely unique," he said. "I sense where the actor is going, what help they're going to need, but also their desires. So, it becomes a true collaboration.

"If there was a secret to my success, it's because I listen -- boy, do I listen," Pinney said.

Because he remains open to others, he learns from everyone. "I've met so many different professors, staff, students and administrators that have been so inspiring," he said.

Yet as much as he has loved IU, Pinney looks forward to the spring, and moving on. "I'm really looking at this as my graduation, he said.

"I've had this incredible professional career alongside my education career, but come fall I've always been in front of the desk or behind the desk every year since age 5, except for one."

Although he is retiring from IU, Pinney's work continues. He has a madcap musical in the works called "Front Page Flo," which is set at a New York newspaper in the 1940s.

His unlikely collaborator on the dance musical is a doctor from Akron, Ohio, who is a jazz pianist and a prolific composer. "Yeah, he's quite brilliant," Pinney said.

Pinney also is thinking of heading east, to the mountains.

"I want a house on a lake with a front porch. And I want to be able to get up in the morning and walk down to the lake, get in a kayak and paddle around, come back and sit on my front porch," he said.

Before that, he's thinking of another body of water, at least in metaphor.

"My success has been based on the shoulders of so many people here. It would take a sea of thank yous to everyone that I've met and done things with," he said. "I think for me, that's what I'll leave IU with."

George Pinney's achievements and engagement with students aligns with priorities outlined in the university’s Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success and celebrating IU's community of scholars.

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