Through four decades Maureen Shea’s intelligence, eloquence, wicked sense of humor, and passion for theatre guided Emerson College’s Department of Performing Arts.
Shea, 71, died on September 20. She taught directing and dramatic literature at Emerson College since 1988 and held many roles, including chair of the Department of Performing Arts from 1999 to 2007, and co-chair from 2021.
From 2012-2016, Shea headed up the Theatre Studies program, and she led the BFA program since 2016. She served as Director of Special Projects for the School of the Arts for three years, bringing in guest artists such as actor Olympia Dukakis, director Woodie King Jr., and playwright Jeffrey Sweet.
Friends and colleagues described her as a passionate, larger-than-life presence, who had a wicked sense of humor, was irreverent, funny, generous, loving, a great story teller, passionate, hard-headed, and a force of nature. She valued the Emerson community and theatre greatly.
Sarah Hickler, associate professor of Performing Arts, worked with Shea for more than 25 years at Emerson and outside of the College. Hickler and Shea co-directed a virtual production of Men on Boats in 2021 during the height of the pandemic, the last Emerson Stage show Shea worked on.
Hickler said Shea had an ability to cut through everything and get to the point, and her eloquence was sought by the department when a speech honoring or memorializing someone was needed.
But one story about Shea stuck out for Hickler.
Emerson was discussing the re-development of the Colonial Theatre, including the potential for a dining hall, and Shea, Hickler, and Senior Artist-in-Residence Amelia Broome were chosen to speak to a College governing board on behalf of the Performing Arts Department.
“Maureen got up, had nothing prepared, and just started speaking from her heart. After she said something about responsibility of stewardship of these historic buildings, she started crying. She said, ‘I know you don’t understand, but for us, to turn a theater like that into a dining hall is like having to watch people eat french fries in church,” said Hickler. “And I watched the entire board … change their minds at the moment. Afterwards they were giving her hugs.”
She became the artistic director of Emerson Stage shortly after starting at Emerson, a position she held for 10 years. She directed more than two dozen plays for Emerson Stage including a modern take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and its relation to the #MeToo movement in 2018. She and Hickler co-directed Men on Boats in 2021, and Shea directed Richard III in 2016, and The Grapes of Wrath in 2012.
Rob Sabal, dean of the School of the Arts, said Shea was filled with care and concern for her community, and he will miss her terribly.
“Maureen Shea believed that making art — in this case theatre art — was the best form of liberal arts education that any college could offer its students. When, in a meeting I was in, someone suggested that the worlds of art practice and liberal arts were different, she responded, ‘Theatre IS the liberal arts! That’s what we’re teaching, ya know!’ Then she’d tick off the components — critical analysis of dramatic literature, creativity in concept and craft, complex problem solving, and collaboration with a team.”
For decades, Shea had a great effect on students such as Alex Ates ’13, who worked with Shea as an actor and assistant director. She also guided his independent studies.
“Maureen understood life at the madly sensorial, hilarious, poetic, plane—this is why her shows (and her thoughts) were so epic, combative, and saturated,” Ates said. “She ran her life this way, too. It’s also what made her the great teacher, the chief priest of an order of other great Emerson theatre teachers.”
Shea and Ates were so close that she is the first and only person to have dinner with his parents and godparents. Ates’ bond with Shea remained after college, and almost a decade later, she attended his graduate school shows at New York University.
The night before Shea died, Ates was up late.
“I stayed up later than I ever do last night, with the feeling that I was holding vigil for something; now, I’ll remember the night I was awake for my mentor,” he added.
Shea was Jen Deaderick’s (’94), advisor and directing teacher, who taught her valuable lessons about leadership (a director had to at least look like she knew what she was doing so the actors felt safe enough to do their best work), and storytelling.
Deaderick remembers a classmate in Shea’s class directing a short piece that took place at a diner. A character ordered coffee with milk, but when the server came back she poured black coffee, brought no milk, and the character drank it anyway.
“In the critique later, Maureen was livid about that: no one who takes coffee in their milk would just drink it without! They’d remind the waitress,” Deaderick said. “The problem wasn’t one of realism. It wasn’t about being accurate. It was that the audience would keep wondering about the milk. Which I had when I watched. It was Chekov’s gun, but with dairy.
“I carry that lesson with me in all my storytelling. Never leave your audience wondering about the milk.”
Professionally, her directing credits include the Circle Repertory Company and Music-Theatre Group in New York, Philadelphia Drama Guild, Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, where her production of Richard III won four 1996 Drama-Logue Awards.
In Boston, she directed productions with the Huntington Theater Company, Coyote Theatre Company, Nora Theatre Company, and The Theatre Offensive. Shea also directed a number of workshop productions and staged readings for Next Stage Inc., New Voices, and Word of Mouth in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston.
Before joining Emerson, Shea taught at Virginia Tech’s Department of Theatre Arts, and her production of How I Got That Story was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a national finalist in the American College Theatre Festival.
She was an artist-in-residence at the Iowa Playwrights Lab and at the Toneelacademie in Maastricht, The Netherlands.
In the 1990s, Shea served as an associate director of the Company of Women, an all-female Shakespeare company led by Kristin Linklater, then an Emerson faculty member, and Carol Gilligan, where Shea directed Henry V and King Lear. Her production of Robbie McCauley’s Sugar was presented at New York Live Arts by Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts. She also directed performances of Annie, Fiddler of the Roof, and Grease at the Jenny Wiley Theatre Amphitheatre in Kentucky.
She was a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
Shea received her BA in English, cum laude, from Clark University; an MA in Theatre from University of Connecticut; and her PhD in Theatre from The Ohio State University. She also studied Theatre at the Free University in Berlin.
She leaves her partner, Mirta Tocci, her brother Michael Shea, her sister Kathleen Bergeron, and many friends, colleagues, students and collaborators whose lives she enriched.