Before They Were Educators: Peter Savage, School of Stage & Screen
Published: Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, May 2, 2012 14:05
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.