Lights … camera … and a return to their roots

April 18, 2011

By Mike Killeen

Michael Hayden '87 (left) and Carla Noack '89 field questions from Tom Darnall, CSB and SJU theater professor emeritus, during their visit to campus.

Acclaimed actors Carla Noack and Michael Hayden have found success on stage since graduating from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. A recent return to campus stirred memories of one unforgettable professor. Tom Darnall, CSB and SJU theater professor emeritus, played a leading role in their lives as students.

Noack (CSB Class of 1989) and Hayden (SJU Class of 1987) spoke about the impact of Darnall while visiting CSB March 7 for an informal performance and conversation about acting and their lives in the theater.

When Noack came to CSB as a student from Arlington, Minn., she never dreamed of a stage career. Her passion was volleyball, and she spent her first two years playing for the Blazers. That changed one day when she happened to walk through the Benedicta Arts Center of the College of Saint Benedict.

"I was walking through the BAC and I saw posters for auditions for what must have been the spring show," Noack said. "I'd never met Tom before, and he gave me the 'Bananas' monologue from The House of Blue Leaves. He had me come back the next day and work this monologue with him.

"I will never forget that experience, because he just gave totally of himself and made me feel like I could do anything. He just listened to me, and got what I was trying to do," Noack said. "Even though I played volleyball for one more year, I knew that I was going to be a theater major after my first little bit of time with Tom."

Darnall recognized her talent before she did.

"Tom specifically told me he worked for two years to get Carla away from the volleyball team to get her in the theater," Hayden said, laughing.

Noack has gone on to teach theater herself, at the University of Missouri Kansas City. She previously served as co-artistic director of the Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro, Minn., and has worked with theater companies in Minneapolis and Winona, Minn.

"Carla acts and teaches at a very high level. Tom (Darnall) was a brilliant acting teacher and also a great actor, which is incredibly rare," Hayden said. "I got to experience that with Tom, and I know that Carla is giving her students a great experience as well."

Hayden got to experience both sides of Darnall during a CSB and SJU production of The Crucible. An actor was struggling to learn his lines, and bowed out of the part only days before the production was to start.

The show must go on, but how?

"Tom was our director, and he said, 'What am I going to do?' I finally said, 'Man, you're the only person who can take this part over; you're the only one who knows it. So we all got to act with Tom," Hayden said. "It was a fantastic experience for both him and us."

Hayden has continued his trek on stage. He attended Julliard following graduation from SJU, and got his first big break when he played Billy Bigelow in Carousel in London and on Broadway. Most recently, he played both Richard II and Henry V at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. He has also performed at Lincoln Center in New York City and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Both Hayden and Noack said their experience at CSB and SJU helped shape them as actors and people. In fact, Hayden called both schools "a jewel" in the middle of Minnesota.

 "At a place like (CSB and SJU), you learn how to learn. Once you learn how to learn, you're set for life. You have a hunger for it. It doesn't matter what palette you choose for your work," Hayden said.

Noack said it is important for students to embrace opportunities for involvement.

"I would just encourage students to take advantage of everything that is here, to see all the dance companies and shows and operas that come through here, but also to really take their time here by the horns and get involved," Noack said. "It's pretty easy as a theater major to spend all of your time here in the BAC, and I think that's a wonderful part of an education in theater. But I think what I've learned over the years is just what Saint Ben's taught me about getting involved in life."

Noack and Hayden both said it was great returning to their roots.

"I walked by the theater, and I thought I heard people calling for lights and I heard all the same voices," Noack said. "But of course, some of our teachers are still here - Kaarin (Johnston) and Willene (Mangham)."

"I walked into the office, and I sat down like I always did," Hayden said. "I listened to the kids, and I think, 'They're a lot younger than we were when we were here.' But then I realize we were as young as they were - not that we've gotten older."