February 6, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 40°F


Multitalented couple speaks on theater and fiction

This week, actor-writers Malcolm Hillgartner and Jahnna Beecham held two presentations at Ithaca College. The husband-and-wife team has written more than 130 young-adult novels and has worked as playwrights, audio book narrators, directors and producers while continuing to act for the stage.

The first presentation, held at 4 p.m. Monday in Studio 4 in Dillingham Center, focused on the audiobook industry and offered participants a chance to read and record a passage of their choice, which Beecham and Hillgartner critiqued. The second presentation, held at noon Tuesday in Studio 2 in Dillingham, was an informal question and answer session in which Beecham and Hillgartner discussed the importance of wearing multiple hats as a creative professional.

Both presentations were organized by Kathleen Mulligan, associate professor of theater arts, and funded by the Department of Theater Arts Guest Artist Fund and the H&S Educational Grant Initiative, an award of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Mulligan said she hopes that the presentation exposed students to other industries where they can use their creativity.

“I hope that it makes them think about another option, something [where] they can make very good money using their skills and not have to bartend or wait on tables,” Mulligan said.

Beecham said that branching out into other creative fields besides acting helped her and Hillgartner regain some creative license that they feel actors don’t have.

“Being an actor, somebody picks you,” Beecham said. “Your job, as people in the theater right now, is to find ways that you are driving the bus. And the way to drive the bus is to sit on both sides of the table.”

The couple first met at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival more than 30 years ago. At the time, Beecham was doing a series of local commercials. As she looked at her scripts, she began to think of ways to make them better. Soon, she and Hillgartner were writing their own scripts.

Beecham said that the rules for writing fiction are the very similar to the basic principles of acting.

“I wish that colleges had classes that combine theater and writing, because they go hand-in-hand,” Beecham said.

Freshman Olivia Dillon said Tuesday’s presentation confirmed her interest in double-majoring in writing and theater studies.

“The resumes of these two people looked amazing,” Dillon said. “Their lives are just so incredible and I was like, ‘I want to learn how to do that.’”

Beecham and Hillgartner’s accomplishments include the award for Best Picture at the 2001 Burbank International Children’s Film Festival for “The Ruby Princess Runs Away,” which they wrote and produced, and Beecham directed. Hillgartner also recently won an Earphone Award for his audiobook performance of Walter Issacson’s “Kissinger.” The couple is currently workshopping a new stage musical based on Ann M. Martin’s “The Doll People” at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Hillgartner said he and Beecham don’t see their other endeavors as a distraction from the greater goal of storytelling, but a way to enhance their artistic careers.

“People will come to you and say, ‘You can’t do that. You don’t have a degree. You haven’t been trained for that.’” Hillgartner said. “You know what? Sometimes you just jump in and you do it, and the opportunity is there and you learn. So if the door opens, leap.”