The Tatnall School’s Bruce Chipman Takes His Final Bow
After a nearly 50-year career at the Delaware school, the teacher and theater director will put on his final show this February.
Bruce Chipman had a simple question when he arrived at the Tatnall School in 1973: “Where’s the theater?”
Turns out, he was standing in it.
“There were no lights, no stage, and backstage was a classroom that served as a changing area for the actors,” says Chipman, who was hired to teach English, coach football and baseball, and direct plays.
For the latter task, Chipman would have to get creative. Despite the structural shortcomings he faced, he wasn’t about to deliver a subpar production. He built a stage, hung some lights and recruited a cast and crew committed to big things. His first Tatnall Showcase, Guys and Dolls, was a hit. “That first play was so instructive to me and the kids,” he says. “They loved it.”
Chipman isn’t too keen on directing musicals, but Guys and Dolls had been chosen before he arrived on campus. Since then, he hasn’t done another one in his 47 years of helming Showcase. Don’t expect that to change. This coming February, Chipman will direct the farce Play On! It brings to an end a remarkable run of service to the dramatic arts that has touched nearly 1,000 student participants. Though Chipman, 73, will still teach, he’s stepping away from something that has helped define him at the Greenville, Del., private school.
What Tatnall’s Victor Clarke birthed and nurtured in the 1960s has grown from a lobby curiosity into a full-on sensation in the $14 million, 450-seat Laird Performing Arts Center. The Laramie Project, The Diary of Anne Frank, A Doll’s House, The Miracle Worker—Chipman certainly hasn’t shied away from mounting serious plays. But he’s also directed comedies like The Odd Couple (three times) and Flaming Idiots.
But Showcase isn’t just about the show—it’s a bona fide class in which students learn how to stage a production. For Tatnall, it’s a phenomenon that goes well beyond the three-show schedule each year. “Bruce thinks about Showcase year round,” says Rick Neidig, the Laird Center’s technical director, who’s been at Tatnall in some capacity for 35 years. “He’s always on the lookout for resources and for students who can be part of the cast.”
Chipman has had to step away from something else he loved at Tatnall, when a back injury prohibited him from coaching. At this point, he remains unwilling to contemplate what it will be like to disengage fully from the Tatnall community. He gives his assurance that if he ever has two days in a row when he doesn’t want to go to school, he’ll retire. That hasn’t happened yet. “When I hit the classroom and shut the door, that’s my world,” he says. “The students are mine, and I’m theirs.”
Bruce Chipman graduated from the University of Virginia in 1968 with a B.A. in English. He came to Tatnall five years later, after teaching for three at Tufts University, where he’d earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. In addition to his time in the classroom, in the theater and on the fields, Chipman has been an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware.
Showcase has always been more than a side project for Chipman. It’s a way to connect with students away from the traditional classroom constricts. Participants meet after school hours and on weekends, and Chipman’s collaborative approach empowers students to solve many of the problems that arise, allowing him to build relationships that last years and sometimes decades. Thirty years later, he still refers to those who performed and worked on the crew as “my kids.” “One thing that has come out in all the wonderful emails I’ve received from kids is that they all mention togetherness and community,” Chipman says of the responses so far to his retirement announcement. “It all comes from the fact that we’re a single community.”
As always, “the show is the thing.” But those who’ve worked with Chipman take away much more. Scott Bell graduated from Tatnall in 1987 and has spent the last 25 years as an accountant for various federal government agencies, including the Treasury Department. His senior year at Tatnall, he played several roles in a Showcase production of The Good Doctor. “A lot of what I do now involves speaking in front of large groups of people or in a meeting setting, and I draw on my experience with Bruce and the Showcase program,” Bell says. “They provided me with the fundamentals and foundation and confidence.”
Bell describes Chipman’s teaching style as a mix of entertainment and education, counting him as a mentor and a close friend. “He’s one of the most free-thinking people I know,” Bell says.
Bell participated in Showcase for only one year, but it was enough to revel in the collaborative effort Chipman fostered. “It was as much a collegial experience as it was theater,” Bell says. “We had a tremendous amount of autonomy. Dr. Chipman was still the director, but he valued what we thought. We were encouraged to express our opinions about how to present a certain scene. Bruce was very open to working with us.”
That culture of collaboration has continued through four decades. A sophomore at Boston College, Molly Soja spent three years in Showcase—the first two as an actor and the third as stage manager. As a freshman in college, she took a course in stage management for those interested in handling that job on campus. “I felt I was so prepared, and I knew everything the course covered,” she says.
Soja also had Chipman for AP Literature, and though she describes herself as “a math and science person,” the course was her favorite at Tatnall. “Disappointing Dr. Chipman was one of the scariest things on the planet,” she says. “Not because he gets mad— it’s just that you respect him so much.”
As for the other adults in the room, Chipman’s wife, Robin, handles makeup and hair design, and the Laird Center’s Neidig began working with Showcase when he was a University of Delaware sophomore. Since then, Neidig has done lighting and stage-tech work in New York, toured with Delaware-bred rocker George Thorogood, and traveled with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “He’s probably the main reason I keep coming back,” says Neidig of Chipman. “He reminds me of one of the best teachers I had in high school. He’s a student’s teacher—he makes it about the process. It’s not ‘my way or the highway.’ He throws it open to collaboration.”
It’s worth noting that Chipman isn’t stepping away because of his dwindling affection for Showcase. Although a successor hasn’t been selected, he promises to be a resource—though he doesn’t want to intrude. He’ll enjoy the renewed contact with his “kids” as they honor him in his final year. He’s also preparing for more free time with Robin and his son, Zachary, whose wife works at Tatnall. The couple has two children there, and Zachary helps with stage design for Showcase productions. Chipman also has a daughter, Hannah, who works in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.
Chipman admits that he’s giving up “a third” of his professional self. And he still looks at Showcase as a growth experience. “I’m proud of what we’ve done,” he says. “But we’re still improving.”