Michael Rulon is a professor at Northern Arizona University and a passionate thespian, volunteering in many roles at Theatrikos Theater Company in Flagstaff Arizona. In this episode we talk about his tendency to over commit, how he has learned to embrace discomfort in the classroom and how stories of how we lived the maxim, the show must go on!
Mentioned in this episode:
- Northern Arizona University
- Theatrikos Theater Company
- Do Good, Be Good Facebook Page
- Do Good, Be Good website
00:03 Speaker 1: This is Do good Be good, the show about helpful people and the challenges they face in trying to do good. Your host is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom a career do-gooder, who also loves craft beer and a good hard tackle in rugby. Sharon speaks to everyday people about why they do good and what it means to be good.
00:24 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Hello, I’m your host, Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, we’re back with Do good Be good. My guest today is Michael Rulon. I met Michael through volunteering at the local community theater, Theatrikos. In fact, on today’s show, we reference one of our latest productions, The Legend of Georgia McBride, in which I was the stage manager and Michael co-directed with the fabulous Becky Daggett, who you’ll also get to meet on a future episode here on Do good, Be good. That show was fabulous in every way and it was also pretty eventful. During our final weekend run, we actually had two different performances in which two different actors were unable to perform their roles and in both cases, I actually stepped in and filled in for those roles at pretty last minute notice.
01:17 ST: In one case Michael was also called in to perform one of the roles because we had an actor who performed two different parts, so I took over for one and he took over for the other, it was quite the adrenalin rush but you know, the show must go on, and don’t worry both actors recovered and are completely fine now. Although Michael and I know each other through theater I wanted to bring him on as a guest to the show because of the multitude of ways that he is involved in the community and just active in life. And that’s where we begin today’s conversation. Oh, and one more thing, listen to the very end of today’s episode for a funny outtake, you don’t wanna miss it. You are like me in the way that you seem to perpetually overcommit yourself to things, so I’m wondering, has that been a lifelong trait?
02:10 Michael Rulon: Oh good Lord, yes. It was something that was instilled in me and my siblings from a young age. I grew up in a town about the size of Flagstaff, you know how small towns are, the ladies all talk over the fence or they hang out on the front porch, they look through the blinds. My mother would look out the window and say to no one in particular, “Mrs. Dawson’s back from the grocery store.” The implication, of course, being that in 30 seconds, she had better not see an 80-year-old lady with a cane in one hand and a grocery bag in the next. That was our cue to go out and help. Helping people and volunteering was something that I was brought up with. It’s something that I’ve always done, I definitely have been known to overcommit myself. In high school, I was in so many different clubs that eventually my parents set an ultimatum and said, “You need to drop one activity or we’re not driving you to any more”.
03:12 ST: My parents did that too. Also in high school. [chuckle]
03:14 MR: Oh, my God. We’re the same person.
03:16 ST: I know. We actually made… And then I was like, “But I don’t know, I like them all.” And so, we did a cost-benefit analysis or pro… No, it was simpler, it was a pros and cons list of all the different activities I was involved in.
03:31 MR: I ended up dropping my accelerated math class. Which was a good thing ’cause I really didn’t enjoy it at that point and it gave me room to do theater, and Environmental Club and Science Olympiad and the quiz ball team.
03:47 ST: So, backing up for a minute, what was this mythical town that you grew up in?
03:51 MR: Wilmington, Delaware.
03:52 ST: Oh.
03:53 MR: Yeah, I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, in a very tight-knit neighborhood, a lot of older people, so I would go and do yard work for them. Of course, our back yards were about the size of this studio. Sometimes they would call me over and ask me to do some weeding for them. On the rare occasions when we got enough snow that it needed to be shoveled, we would do the entire block and Mrs. Dawson the lady with the groceries and the cane, she never paid us but at the end of winter she would always send us a big tin of pretzels. And we were always told, if the old people ask to pay us, first step is to say no, second step is to say that’s too much, if they keep pushing then we could take money from them but it was… We were not supposed to try to earn money by doing good things for the neighbors.
04:51 ST: Michael and I switched to talking about his current role as a professor at Northern Arizona University.
04:57 MR: One of the most frustrating things about teaching is that your students always grow up. They have a nasty habit of leaving.
05:05 ST: How long have you been teaching for?
05:08 MR: At NAU, for six and a half years, and then at Chapel Hill, I taught for nine years, so it’s been over 15 years total.
05:17 ST: Well, does it feel like it’s been 15 years?
05:21 MR: In some ways, it feels like it’s been longer. In some ways, it feels like it’s been longer. [chuckle] No. It’s been such a big part of my life that it feels like I’ve always been doing this. Sometimes when I think about it, it is a little surprising that all this time has gone by so quickly.
05:45 ST: Yeah, you talked about your students growing up, those who were some of your early students are now like in their 30s or… [chuckle]
05:52 MR: Yeah, I have students who also have PhDs, I’ve got students who are lawyers and it’s really neat to stay in touch with them and see what kinds of things they’re doing.
06:00 ST: Is there a particular student who made an impression on you early on or changed your style of teaching or anything?
06:00 MR: What happens a lot more often is that they really inspire me because they just blow me away with how bright they are, how well they take to the subject matter.
06:00 ST: Do you see it right away when they start out or is there ever a time when someone just completely surprises you?
06:00 MR: I’ve had of little both. I’ve had some who from the first day of class, I knew this is gonna be a star student. They are going to do amazing things with their lives. And I love them dearly. But the ones that I’m most proud of are definitely the ones who start off, and I’m wondering if they’re even gonna make it through the semester and then by the end, they have really gotten things together and they’ve figured it out, and they’ve learned that sometimes struggle is worth it.
07:09 ST: I was just talking about that actually. I was doing a training, ’cause I used to run AmeriCorps programs, and I was doing a training for AmeriCorps supervisors. And many of the AmeriCorps members are just out of college, so they’re still kind of in that demographic. This is sometimes, their first work experience. These supervisors are helping them navigate some of those first big challenges that they face being out in the “real world” trying to do that real job. That’s usually something that they’re really passionate about or they studied, and they think that that’s the career path they want, and then they get into it, and it’s a few months in, and they start to not only struggle in their work, but think, “Oh, what did I do? Like, “I just studied this for four years or six years and now, this is either harder than I thought or it’s not at all what I expected.” And they start to have a complete quarter-life crisis, meltdown. And trying to help them deal with that, process it, move through it. Part of AmeriCorps that I like is that the point is not to make it easy for them. The struggle, the challenge of it is baked into what it means to serve and what it means to be part of something like AmeriCorps.
08:30 MR: Yeah.
08:31 ST: So it is an expectation in a way that I could see that being the same with being in college, it wasn’t meant to be easy.
08:39 MR: No. And it’s not meant to be comfortable. I mean, growth comes from discomfort. I always warn my students the first day of the semester, “You’re gonna be uncomfortable in this class and you need to deal with that.” That’s part of the real world. I mean, I have uncomfortable situations every day and that’s how I have gotten where I am. I was never comfortable with conflict as a kid. My first job was an internship at MBNA.
09:11 ST: And what is that?
09:12 MR: It was a credit card company that was based in Wilmington. They had a scholarship program that I was part of, and it came with the option to do four summer internships while you were in college. And I worked there for three summers and every summer, my boss gave me the same feedback. “You’re really organized, you’re really efficient. You need to work on being more assertive.” Knowing me now, I can imagine that’s a funny thing to hear, but I had a lot of trouble asserting myself. And it wasn’t until I got into positions where I really needed to assert myself that I learned that sometimes, conflict can be productive and it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.
10:00 ST: What do you teach and how does this discomfort in the classroom show up for the students?
10:04 MR: Well, I teach a lot of different classes. Mostly, I teach French. And the biggest thing that students struggle with is being okay with making mistakes. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I’m finding that more and more young people do not want to make mistakes. Sometimes, I’ll make mistakes in front of them and point them out just so that they can see that I have a PhD and I don’t know everything. I make mistakes, it’s okay. The worst thing that happens is you learn from it. Some students just never get to that point and they feel like when I correct their errors, I’m making fun of them. Humility is a really important life skill. It’s something that everyone needs to have. You need to admit, at some point, that there are things you don’t know. Sometimes, you make mistakes and it’s okay, we’re all human.
11:06 ST: That’s actually still one of the biggest things I struggle with is being okay not knowing things.
11:12 MR: Yeah.
11:14 ST: I am such a millennial in the way that I am really bad at mailing things in the actual postal system.
11:23 ST: And I had something to mail this week and it said that it had to have tracking on it. And I was confused as to whether that meant I needed to go the post office or if I had to go to UPS. I had never been to UPS before. And I went to the UPS shipping place, and it was their main shipping warehouse. They would take packages, but I guess, it was a little bit more complicated. And so, I walk in and I don’t have any postage on this ’cause I didn’t know what I needed. And the woman just looks at me and is like, “That has to be paid for first.” It was the first thing out of her mouth, and I was like, “I don’t even know where to start.” I don’t know what I’m supposed to pay? If I’m even in the right place.” And I just, I finally had to take a breath and I went, “This is my first time ever coming to UPS. Can you please help me?” And it was so hard for me to do that, but I wouldn’t have done that like 10 years ago. In my 20s, I would have been too mortified. I would have just walked out and never gone in there again. They did help me. It made my…
12:29 MR: You learned something.
12:30 ST: It made my blood pressure spike tremendously. I can empathize with your students.
12:35 MR: Yeah. But I also do teach classes that deal more with difficult social issues. I teach French Civilization, I teach Cinema Studies, I’m teaching a first year seminar right now on the history, rhetoric, and practice of protest. I ask students to look at controversial issues. I ask them to look at how other people have protested these issues and to understand the who, what, why, where, when, and how of the protest. And a lot of times, it asks them to rethink their own viewpoints. As a matter of fact, when we look at abortion, the first thing I ask them to do is to bring in a text that supports a position other than their own. It’s really neat to watch them think about how much more complex issues are, just by listening to other people. There are definitely a lot of uncomfortable moments in that class even for me, and I tell them that. But I’ve had students really open up and share personal experiences that helped humanize issues for their classmates. I’ve had students talk about being indigenous in Hawaii and losing land rights because of development. I’ve had students talk about surviving abuse. It is very uncomfortable, but at the same time it makes the students a lot more empathetic and understanding, and it broadens their view on the world.
14:27 ST: Are there things that you intentionally do before you get to that level of topic to try to help the students be able to share controversial beliefs?
14:42 MR: Sometimes I don’t need to do anything. Sometimes there are students who are really comfortable, they’re the ones who open the door. And once one person starts sharing personal things, then other students realize that this is a place where… I use the term, safe space, even though it’s a very loaded term that a lot of people misunderstand, but it is a safe space for students to explore things that are uncomfortable. It’s not a place where they’re safe from being uncomfortable, but it’s a place where it’s safe to be uncomfortable. I really prefer it when one of the students can help set that tone because they’re a lot more relatable. I’m old, they call me Dr., I don’t have the lingo. A lot of times really, I do depend on the students to do that.
15:47 ST: Just a quick break to remind you that the show notes from today’s episode can be accessed at dogoodbegoodshow.com. You can also join the conversation about this show at facebook.com/dogoodbegoodshow. And if you have any questions or suggestions for me about the show, you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. As we rejoin the conversation, we transition to talking about our love of the theatrical arts and why we volunteer at our community theater.
16:25 ST: At a young age, when you were doing all the things, all the activities, one of those things was theater.
16:31 MR: Yes.
16:33 ST: So you started in the theater passion early on, is there anything in particular that sparked your interest in theater?
16:40 MR: It started off as an accident honestly, I got cast in the third grade class play, didn’t even really understand what was going on. I got pulled out of class, taken to the music classroom and asked to sing. Okay, and I got one of the smallest roles, but it was fun. I didn’t get to do a whole lot more until I got to high school, and like I said, I did a bit more than I probably should have. And so, it wasn’t until junior year that I really made time for it. I got cast as the Friar in Much Ado About Nothing.
17:22 ST: Oh, one of my first plays as well.
17:24 MR: The Friar was actually a really interesting role, he was the voice of reason in otherwise completely chaotic situation. And it was fun to be the person who said basically, “Calm down everyone, I got this.” I also got to work behind the scenes, I worked with the costume crew. A lot of my friends were on stage crew, and it was just magical seeing all these different pieces come together and become something so captivating. I particularly enjoy acting because it lets you be someone else, and by being someone else you find out a lot about yourself.
18:14 ST: That’s true.
18:16 MR: Every character I’ve ever played has become a part of me.
18:20 ST: So my first time doing Much Ado About Nothing was also my first time and only time assistant directing, though we called it assistant director and really, I think I was a stage manager. It was one of my good friends, this was eighth grade, summer I think, between eighth grade and ninth grade. She is still one of the smartest people I know. She had read all the works of Shakespeare by the time she was in eighth grade. And she created her own abridged script of Much Ado About Nothing, and then just decided that we should put it on. And we recruited our friends, and we held a casting audition, and we found a location which happened to be a church nearby, and we created programs, we created advertisements, and we did everything. We ran rehearsals, we found our own costumes, props, the whole thing, and spent the summer putting on this production. It was absolutely amazing. I mean, it… I’m sure it was also bad, though.
19:30 ST: The only part that really stands out to me was that one of our less responsible friends was playing the villain.
19:40 MR: Don John the bastard.
19:40 ST: Don John the bastard. He loved having that role. But he was not good about learning his lines. And it came time for the show. We only had one performance, and he was partway through the scene, one of his great monologues, and he completely just blanked, had no idea what he was supposed to do. And I actually went on stage, and we were in a church. And so, I quickly, I grabbed a Bible, and I threw the script inside the Bible, and then I went out on stage and just put my arm around him and pretended to be some girl hanging on his arm as I held the script for him so he could finish the scene.
20:29 MR: So you really do have a track record of stepping in and saving the show?
20:35 ST: I do, yeah, that’s apparently my talent. Impromptu saving of the shows is my specialty.
20:42 MR: Well that’s also one of the fun things about live theater is, it’s always a unique experience. On the one hand, it’s so sad that it’s ephemeral, but on the other hand, it’s so exciting to sit in the seat or to be on the stage and know that this is a once in a lifetime thing.
21:07 ST: I’m sure you have your own stories, do you have…
21:09 MR: Oh. Merciful heavens.
21:13 ST: Let’s see, I haven’t even been in that many shows, and like half of them have some story about something very unexpected.
21:18 MR: Oh, yeah, well, there was a show at Theatrikos, “The Constant Wife”. There was a bar on set. It’s a comedy of manners set in the 1920s., so of course everyone’s drinking and smoking all the time. There was one point where… I was only on stage for about 10 minutes in that show, so I spent a lot of time downstairs. We heard a crash on the monitor, it turned out the bar had collapsed on stage. There was glass all over the place. Everyone on stage stayed in character, one of the actors pushed the button that they used to call the maid. And the actress, Lise Bremer, ran upstairs in character, cleaned up the mess, and it just felt like it was part of the script.
22:10 ST: Lessons learned from theater, is there one in particular you can think of that has translated for you into either work or life?
22:19 MR: If things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, fake it. Really, I mean, the show has to go on, and sometimes things don’t go the way they’re scripted, and you find a way to salvage it. And sometimes the unexpected snafus can actually turn out to be pretty fun.
22:46 ST: I feel like the audience is often, almost a little sadistically waiting for something to go wrong.
22:54 MR: Yeah.
22:54 ST: It’s like they wanna see the show, but the fact that it’s live theater sometimes means it’s more exciting. I had friends when I stepped in during “Legend of Georgia McBride” to play the roles of other actors who weren’t able to be on stage. It was like… My friends were like, “Oh, I hope that happens again, ’cause I wanna see you in that role.” That’s mean, the actor is not feeling well, that’s not good.
23:17 MR: Yeah. Well, I had a student who was in the audience the night I went on, and it was kind of fun because she was expecting to just see a show that I had co-directed, and instead, she got to see me acting.
23:35 ST: As you continue to volunteer in theater, what do you hope to get out of it?
23:44 MR: I hope to always find something that challenges me and makes me grow. So far, I think everything I have done has done that. I’ve always had to step outside of my comfort zone.
24:00 ST: Yeah, when I stepped into particularly, to play Joe, since that one, I had quite a few lines…
24:08 MR: Yes.
24:08 ST: That was my first time filling in.
24:12 MR: Yes.
24:13 ST: I had always had this hang-up that I thought that I couldn’t memorize lines. So I just never even auditioned for anything that had more than like six lines. So to suddenly go out there with only a couple of hours notice, and be able to make it work without a script, and the second half, I pretty much got all the lines. I mean, it was only really the first scene, but I didn’t get the lines, but we still made it work.
24:41 MR: You did a lot better than I did. I had the script in my hands, and I still screwed up some of the lines.
24:46 ST: It’s harder with the script in your hand, that’s part of why I didn’t want it in my hand.
24:50 MR: Yeah.
24:51 ST: It was just so liberating, it was like, I should stop telling myself what I can’t do.
25:00 MR: Well, I’ve always seen myself as a character actor. I love doing voices, I love playing villains. And I figured I would never get a lead role, I don’t audition for them. And then in the holiday show, I got one. And one of my first thoughts was, “There are a lot of lines.” It wasn’t easy, I’m sure there are lines that I never once got right. It showed me that I was able to do something that I had never even thought I would do.
25:31 ST: You mentioned that you learned about yourself through playing these other characters. Is there one particular example you could give of something you learned about yourself from a character?
25:43 MR: I’m a lot nicer than the persona I project. Playing villains is so much fun, but it feels so dirty. I really have to step outside of myself to do some of the nasty things that in “Wait Until Dark”. And I was a nasty, nasty character, and also cowardly. And it was one of the most fun roles for me to play, but in some ways, it confirmed to me that I am not the kind of person who would take advantage of other people, and also definitely not the kind of person who would leave a blind woman alone with a psychotic murderer.
26:27 ST: It’s good to know you draw the line somewhere.
26:27 MR: I have limits to my evil, yes.
26:43 ST: Yeah. I’ve never auditioned for something that I felt was such a complete remove from my own values, because that does seem really hard to do. It’s one thing to sort of typecast yourself for something where you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I could see myself in kinda being like this person”, but taking on a character that’s just so different than yourself. It does seem very, very hard.
27:08 MR: Well, that’s why those are some of my favorite roles to do. I play buffoons more often, because we don’t do a whole lot of plays that really have villains and I’ve got some buffoonish qualities that aren’t that hard to draw on.
27:22 ST: That’s actually what I love is playing physical comedy, silly characters, because there is a part of my personality that is that, but I don’t let it out very often. And so, when I have the license to, by having a character on stage, I’m like, “Yes, this is actually really part of who I am and now I get to show it.”
27:44 MR: And there’s a certain aspect of that to playing a villain as well. You do get to find your dark side and draw on it, even if you do come to the conclusion that that’s something you don’t want to actually draw on in your real life. But it is fun to poke around in your personality and see what’s there and what you can bring to the character.
28:09 ST: Well, the show is called Do Good, Be Good. What does it mean to you to be good?
28:15 MR: To be good? Oh, that’s a big question. One of the big reasons I like volunteering is because it gives me a sense of community. And so, for me, to be good is to do something that makes the world a better place, not just for yourself, but for others. And whether that’s a small act that just brings a smile to someone’s face or something earth-shattering. You don’t have to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner or anything like that, but to do something that makes someone else’s life better.
29:05 ST: I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Michael. Thank you for listening to Do Good, Be Good. For show notes on all of our episodes visit dogoodbegoodshow.com. Thank you so much to Michael Rulon for coming into my home studio and sharing his story. To subscribe to this podcast for free, you can go to any podcast player like Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Google Music, and just download the episodes. This podcast was produced by me, Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, edited by me, put together by me, whatever the roles are, you can believe that I did them. Music in this episode is bathed in fine dust by Andy G. Cohen, released under a Creative Commons Attribution international license and discovered in the Free Music Archive. Now for a little outtake.
30:00 ST: So as we practice getting these audio levels, if you could move closer to me, this is gonna be a very intimate conversation.
30:07 MR: Oh, my.
30:08 ST: ‘Cause we only have one mic. [chuckle]
30:13 MR: Is it a Magic Mic?
30:16 MR: Is he gonna take his pants off?
30:17 ST: [chuckle] I don’t know, maybe.
30:22 ST: Until next week, this is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom signing off.