You Ought to Know: The Clerkins

Categories:      Arts & Culture/Entertainment
Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 at 3:31 PM
You Ought to Know: The Clerkins by Alex Bieler
Contributed photo

When we go to the theater, reality as we know it is displaced. Scenarios arise, new faces become friends and foes, and life  shifts to this new plane of existence.

Then the curtain closes.

Suddenly normalcy returns. We return to our regularly scheduled lifetime programming, while the characters we’ve familiarized ourselves with over the past hour or so change back to their original form. While we know their titles – director, actor, and so on – we don’t always get a chance to check out the narrative behind these chameleons.

Cut to the Clerkins.

The Rev. Shawn and Almitra Clerkin are a pair of power players in the Erie theater scene. He’s the director of theater and an associate professor at Gannon University. She’s the executive director at the Erie Playhouse. Combined, the couple directs, acts, and is generally involved in over 20 productions each year at various venues around the area.

You may have seen them before, drawing you in with visions of Baltimore in the ‘60s (“Hairspray”) and spelling bees (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”). But to truly know them is to see them off the stage.

I first met Shawn during my sophomore year at Gannon. I was lucky enough to be in his Fundamentals of Speech class. Eventually, I met Almitra at various shows and random encounters. I was fortunate to get to know them before they took the stage, because even when they aren’t working, it can be hard to get them away from it.

When I first tried to set up an interview, the couple was happy to oblige my request, but there was one problem – they were in New York City. Even in their off time, Shawn, Almitra, and their son, Seamus, were basking in Broadway, taking in a few shows. A few days later, they went from “War Horse” to a morning with me.

“We eat, sleep, and breathe theater,” Almitra said, the side of her mouth curling up into a smirk at the thought.

The extremely personable pair exuded youthfulness—bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, even early in the morning. Smiles were exchanged constantly, broad grins for memories of past shows, quick smirks exchanged between sentences. If it weren’t for the shades of grey in Shawn’s beard, I wouldn’t necessarily buy that the couple were both approaching their 50th birthdays. Perhaps the stage is their fountain of youth.

Appropriately, theater helped bring the couple together. Shawn first laid eyes on Almitra during their freshman year at Gannon. She was dancing during a production of “Lysistrata,” and when an entranced Shawn saw her in class, he knew she was “the one.”

A few years later, the couple was engaged, eventually getting married in the summer of ’85. After living in Richmond, Va. while Shawn earned a master’s degree in Theater/Directing at Virginia Commonwealth University – performing in all of the major Richmond theaters at the time, of course – the couple returned to Erie.

Shawn quickly started as director of theater at Gannon. Throughout the years Almitra worked her way up the Erie Playhouse ladder while directing shows at Villa Maria Academy, eventually landing her current position back in 2006. The two have worked together throughout the years, teaming up in anything from big shows at the Erie Playhouse to productions at St. Peter Cathedral School, where Seamus is in eighth grade.

“If anything, Shawn and I are really good collaborators,” Almitra said. “We disagree out loud, but it works out well.”

“We have pretty defined tastes,” Shawn added. “Entertainment is very important to her, whereas I’m looking more at commentary. At the Playhouse, she has to get people to see the shows. I’m concerned that after four years when [my students] walk out of the, they’re ready for the world.”

The Clerkins may be at odds at times when it comes to artistic vision, but they both agree that all the shows they work on wouldn’t be possible without everyone involved.

“No one does anything alone in the Playhouse,” Almitra said. “When I’m directing a show, it isn’t ‘Almi’s show,’ it’s the Playhouse’s.”

“Maybe that’s our impact, that sometime the theater can see itself as one element,” Shawn chipped in. “We recognize that we are all related, and the better we work together, the better for the community.”

This selfless mentality also pertains to the Clerkin household. After Shawn lived with a host family in Argentina in his youth, the couple returned the favor by hosting four exchange students, one each from Belgium, Hong Kong, Italy, and Russia. While the Clerkins have fond memories of their foreign friends, their favorite student hails from this very city.

“Seamus is our finest production,” Almitra said, beaming with pride.

Almitra likened Seamus to a “mini-Shawn.” Next school year, he’ll be in high school for the first time, attending Cathedral Prep, but Shawn knows the shift won’t bother him.

“He’s an independent kid,” Shawn said. “He will be what he wants to be.”

The Clerkins gave Seamus free reign to decide in what he believed in, refraining from preaching in the house, even if Shawn was ordained as an Episcopalian Vicar back in 2005.

Shawn and Almi were both raised Roman Catholic. Shawn in particular was really drawn to his faith. However, since he wouldn’t be able to marry as a Roman Catholic priest, he and Almitra both converted. Despite his position in the Church, Shawn doesn’t believe in forcing his faith on anyone else.

“I’m a radical pluralist,” he said. “I think our religion informs us, and we’ll happily tell anyone that asks [about it], but I won’t preach to those that don’t want it. I’m a priest that walks in the world. I’m always who I’ve ever been.”

And what Shawn and Almitra have been is a boon to the cultural development of Erie. After dealing with local entertainment for decades, the couple believes in the city.

“Every time we do something, we want to make it better than it was before,” Shawn said. “Anyone who says that there’s nothing to do in Erie on a Friday night is voluntarily ignorant.”

With the couple’s aid, locals have several great shows to see. Still, Shawn and Almitra know that they’ll have to step aside for the next generation. In fact, they’re excited to see what the future directors and actors have in store for this scene.

Until then, we’ll gladly be spectators.

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