Before They Were Educators: Peter Savage, School of Stage & Screen

There’s no greater proof that a teacher has left an indelible impression on his students than when his own students rally together to save his job. That happened to Peter Savage, assistant professor in the School of Stage & Screen, a couple of years back when he was told, due to budget cuts, that he was going to be released from his position.

What started with a simple Facebook page made by students escaladed into a full-blown student letter-writing campaign in which Savage’s students wrote nearly 50 letters on his behalf to the dean and provost saying what a difference Savage had made to them. With their hard work and determination, Savage’s students saved his job.

“It proved to me that I had made a difference,” Savage said, recalling on the heart-warming event.

Why did these students go through so-much effort to save one man’s job? Sure, it may be Savage’s easy-going nature, his exciting personality, or his teaching methods, but his fascinating history is more fun to write about.

Born in Alexandria, Va., to a preschool-teaching mom and a banker dad, the family (along with older brother Chris) moved to Maine when Savage was 13, when his dad got tired of the “rat race.” Savage lived in Maine throughout high school, but didn’t envision it being his home forever, prompting him to attend college at Clarkson University in rural Potsdam in upstate New York.

“My dad was a banker and I thought I would be a businessman like him. I did my freshman year at Clarkson, but it was primarily an engineering school and wasn’t for me,” Savage said.

With that, Savage transferred to St. Lawrence University, a liberal arts college also located in upstate New York. However, Savage didn’t find his niche there, either.

“At the time I was interested in partying more than studying,” Savage said of his experience at St. Lawrence, “I spent a year and a half there, but just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.”

Luckily for Savage, that summer while working at a camp, he found his calling.

“I was asked to perform in a production of ‘Damn Yankees’ as Van Buren. It was my first and last musical performance, but I loved acting in it,” Savage said. “After that I took some acting classes when I returned to St. Lawrence, and then my first college play was ‘A Thousand Acres,’ which was an adaption of ‘King Lear’ in the 1950s Midwest. It was good for me to get experience of what it was like in a semi-professional theatre.”

After deciding that St. Lawrence was not for him either and spending a winter skiing in Colorado, Savage moved to his brother’s home in Montana, deciding to transfer to the University of Montana and enroll in their acting program.

“I thought it would be fun, easy, and I would end up with a degree,” Savage said on his decision to become an acting major.

However, Savage fell in love with acting and found that he had a talent for it. He began to take his studies more seriously, even forming an improvisation company called “The Shoppe” with some friends, cashing in on the success of popular television shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and securing their first two-hour show at a venue in downtown Missoula.

“Within three weeks we were selling out the venue, and they had to turn people away,” Savage said.

With the success of “The Shoppe,” Savage received one of the greatest compliments he’s ever gotten: “Now you can send the laundry out,” said one of his University of Montana instructors, which alluded to the fact that “The Shoppe” was successful enough that he would not have to do his own laundry anymore.

While he loved acting, his studies and his improve group, the more Savage worked with people the more he realized that he did not possess the natural talent for acting that they did, many of whom had been acting since middle school.

“While I felt at a disadvantage not having an extensive background in theater, I felt that I knew what they were doing even when they didn’t,” Savage said. “That’s when I realized that teaching could be a great outlet for me.”

With this knowledge and having earned his bachelor’s in theater, Savage enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and its Professional Actor Training Program. While in the program, Savage was afforded the opportunity to perform with the Playmakers Repertory Company, which is the theater company in residence at Chapel Hill.

“One of the good things about Chapel Hill’s acting program is that they give students the opportunity to acquire points with Equity while you are a student. Chapel Hill is one of very few colleges that can offer students these points,” Savage said, referring to the Actor’s Equity Association, a labor union that represents live theatrical performers.

The day after Savage graduated with his master’s from Chapel Hill in June of 2001, he flew to New York, as he had been cast in a small play called “Next Right” in which he played a gay leprechaun, coming out on stage wearing only short-shorts and a bowtie.

“I couch-surfed for a while until I found a place with Piper Perabo’s brother,” Savage said. “I did a couple of short films and then acted in ‘The Secret Sharer,’ which was very off-Broadway.”

However, Savage’s long-distance relationship with his future wife Amanda was taking its toll, motivating Savage to move back to North Carolina, where Amanda was studying for her pharmacist degree at Chapel Hill. However, with Chapel Hill being a college town, Savage felt it was best if he found somewhere else to live.

“I heard from a friend that Asheville was a cool place,” Savage said.  “And when I got there, seeing all of the artists and street musicians, I decided that Asheville was the place for me.”

While Savage had to drive three hours to see Amanda, two brand new theater companies had just started up, the Highland Repertory Theatre, now closed, and the N.C. Stage Company, giving Savage an opportunity to work consistently.

For Savage, his early days in Asheville bring back some interesting memories. For instance, Savage was involved in two productions in which somebody fell off stage.

“The first one was a production of ‘Dracula’ at the Diana Wortham Theatre in downtown Asheville, where I played Quincy, a part sometimes left out of plays. In the very last scene, I was ‘dead’ on the stage and all of a sudden I heard a thump,” Savage said. “I opened my eyes and sat up a bit only to see that the guy playing Dracula had accidently fell off stage because of the bright lights and fog machines.”

On the next incident, Savage said, “It was during a production of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and the guy playing the friar decided that he wanted his character to be blind, so the director gave him some Lennon-style spectacles. One night he was making a beeline towards the edge of the stage and we were all saying to ourselves, ‘It looks like he’s going to run offstage.’ And he did just that. It turned out that he was closing his eyes even though he had the glasses hiding his eyes.”

Savage also experienced one of the coolest occurrences he has had on stage in Asheville.

 “I was at the N.C. Stage Company and was playing Horatio in ‘Hamlet’ and in the last scene, I said ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’ It was around that time in the play that the audience disappeared and I was ‘in’ Demark, the play’s setting,” Savage said. “I got real tears and became emotionally wrapped up in the play, which is scary to do because you can get lost in the role and possibly ruin the production. But it was cool to have that experience of getting lost in the role.”

After teaching some adult acting classes at A-B Tech in Asheville and leading some acting workshops with the Highland Repertory Theatre, Savage heard word from the co-founder of the N.C. Stage Company Charlie Flynn-McIver that Western Carolina University was looking for a professor in the then WCU Department of Communication, Theater and Dance before the department split.

Savage interviewed with Susan Brown-Strauss, fellow professor of theater and also costume design, and was awarded the position.

“I taught COMM 201 and also theater appreciation my first year in fall of 2004,” Savage said, who would move up to work more advanced classes like “Acting I,” “World Theater,” “Theater in Education” and even an “improv” class one year.

Since arriving at Western Carolina that year, Savage has gone on to build a steady résumé, both as an educator and director. Savage has directed on the WCU Mainstage with such shows as “Almost,” “Maine,” “Manuscript” and “Romantic Fools,” which was the first of installment of the new Niggli Series.  

Savage has also become involved in the North Carolina Theatre Conference, a high school theater festival, hosting the event at Western Carolina for six years and being named to the NCTC Board of Directors this year, which he will stay on for three years.

Savage also recently took a part-time job as the director of drama at Asheville High School, where he recently finished his first Shakespearean production as director, “Romeo & Juliet,” which, he admits “exceeded my expectations.”

However, despite his amazing résumé he’s built while at WCU and his love for teaching, this will be Savage’s last semester teaching at WCU.

“My family and I live in Asheville, so the commute is tough five days a week. Plus, if I needed to get home for my ten-month old daughter it would take over an hour,” Savage said. “My wife and I spoke about this for months, and I’ve decided that it’s time for me to start working closer to home, which will give me the opportunity to be more of a dad and return to pursuing my professional acting career.”

Despite the bittersweet feelings he gets about leaving Western Carolina, Savage looks back on his eight years as “nothing but a positive experience.”

“I will miss my students and the faculty terribly. I’ve had such a good experience with these dedicated kids who love the craft,” Savage said. “I’ve also had personally challenging things like learning to direct that have made me grow as a person. If I can look back and know that I made a difference, then I am satisfied,” Savage said, recalling his experience with the students who saved his job a couple of years ago.

“Whether I taught a theater appreciation student answers to some ‘Jeopardy’ questions or helped an acting major to the next step in their career, for me, it’s all about helping the students and making a difference in their education.”