Opening Up the World of Theatre

Dr. Diane Merchant seeks to impress her love for the arts upon the Cedarville community

by Katie Milligan

Dr. Diane Merchant, Cedarville University Professor and director of Theatre, has held a deep love for the theater throughout her entire educational and professional career. Even when it was difficult and opportunities were scarce, she found a way to pursue this passion and make it available to others who shared it. Merchant intentionally finds ways to grow her passion for theater and pass it along to her students.

[Photo courtesy of Dr. Merchant]

Merchant has been involved in theater at Cedarville for 35 years: four years as a student and 31 years as a professor. She is part of the group that built the theater major to what it is today, and stays involved by directing three mainstage productions each year. She said she sees theater as an avenue through which the world can be revealed to her campus community.   

During high school, Merchant’s dedication led her to juggle both music and theater at the same time.

When Merchant attended Cedarville College, the theater major did not exist. It was only available as a concentration within the communication arts program. She graduated in 1978 with a degree in speech education instead, and married her college sweetheart, Mahlon Merchant. She then became a high school teacher and taught English, debate and, her favorite, theater classes. She then earned her Ph.D. in Dramaturgy at The Ohio State University.

Merchant said she never intended to return to her alma mater. However, in 1986 when the opportunity arose to teach speech and direct a stage production each year it was too fortunate to pass up.

“It seemed clear that this is where God wanted to put me,” she said. “Everything just kept falling into place.”

For 10 years, Merchant acted as the advisor of Cedarville’s chapter of the Alpha Psi Omega National Theatre Honor Society. Before the theatre major was available, this was how students could get involved with producing and directing plays.

The year  2000 was a turning-point for Merchant’s department: a theater major was finally implemented into Cedarville’s curriculum. The Stevens Student Center and DeVries Theatre also opened in the same year.

This venue holds everything the young department needed to be successful: state-of-the-art equipment, advanced stage design, and premier seating. DeVries Theatre is directly at the entrance of the SSC next to the admissions office; it’s one of the first things visitors to campus see, which immediately communicates that Cedarville is a campus that supports the arts.

“The Christian has a responsibility to make use of all this new media,” Merchant said.

According to her, the Christan’s tendency  has been to separate from the world.

“But that changed over when people noticed the power to convey messages for good to lots of people,” she said.

In addition to her round-the-clock job in the theater, Merchant teaches courses on Theatre History, Directing, Dramaturgy, and Arts Administration.

Additionally, Merchant is part of the four-person team who decides which plays Cedarville will perform, strategically laying them out with the students’ best interest in mind. During the typical student’s four years at Cedarville, they will experience about 16 plays of varying genres.

Merchant said she feels that providing this broad exposure to the world of theater is essential. She finds that students who attend the plays as a requirement for another class often discover that they enjoy the experience, and make it a priority to become a frequent play-goer. Her goal is to “open up the world of the play… so that it invites people in.”

Merchant enjoys many different aspects of her job, but none more than her students.

“I love my students here,” she said, “they understand that we are reflections of God’s creativity.”

Remy Patterson, a senior theater major, has had Merchant as a professor for four courses over three years and said he appreciates her unique and experienced teaching style.

“I like that she’s casual, but knowledgeable,” Patterson said. “She is very good about bringing up outside perspectives, but also making sure that we have a strong foundation in our Christian beliefs.”

Patterson is the dramaturgist for the upcoming production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” meaning he’s in charge of creating a pamphlet of relevant historical information for the audience. He said he’s grateful for Merchant’s guidance throughout the intense research he’s had to do.

“She’s been super influential in the ways of opening up the world of theater” he said, “in the sense that it’s not just performance… there’s also arts administration and dramaturgy and all these different levels as well.”

Going forward, Merchant hopes that her and her colleagues’ hard work will leave a legacy in the theatre department for years to come. She aims to impress her love and pursuit of the arts on Cedarville students.

“One of my main hopes,” she said, “is that even if people aren’t involved in doing it, they would come see what we do to better understand the world and the people in it.”

Katie Mulligan is a freshman English major. She enjoys taking polaroid photos, eating pasta, and watching Disney movies.

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