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Comedy, courage courtesy of Kagan

By Henry Giattina

Hampden-Sydney College

Navigating the long stairways and tall stage of Johns Auditorium is no small feat when doing so in a wheelchair, unless you’re Barger Barclay Professor of Theatre Shirley Kagan, who has fought arduously to overcome this and other recent physical challenges.

Shirley Kagan

Moving into her 22nd year at Hampden-Sydney College, Kagan recently suffered a life-threatening stroke, one that kills 70% of its victims and leaves many of the remaining either deaf or blind. Kagan defied these statistics, however; she not only survived the stroke, but successfully managed — in a wheelchair — to reconstruct one of England’s newest hit comedies, “One Man, Two Guvnors,” on the Hampden-Sydney stage.

“Even with the challenges I am facing, I get the gift, daily, to go in and make a difference,” says the director, whose road to triumph has been rooted, in part, in Hampden-Sydney’s student body. “Teamwork,” she explains, “is the secret sauce to becoming a true Hampden-Sydney gentleman.”

Teamwork seems a fitting description for the way her students have supported Kagan through this challenge, as our student body has given what she considers “a purpose to come to work every morning that is sustaining and gratifying on the deepest level.”

But this group effort is also due, in large part, to the way she puts the college’s mission of “forming good men and good citizens” into practice with her students.

“We train our actors to work together, to help one another, because that’s half of what makes acting work,” she says. “The other half is teaching them how to approach people in any situation.”

Kagan’s style of teaching paid off greatly this semester, as she managed to cast one of the funniest plays Hampden-Sydney Theatre has yet to offer.

“One Man, Two Guvnors,” written by Richard Bean in 2011, opened its run in Johns Auditorium on Nov. 7 and concluded it on Nov. 15. A slapstick farce about a man facing the difficulties of having two bosses, the former West End and Broadway hit featured mistaken identity, physical comedy and even music.

With help from her students and family, Kagan currently sits in a healthy state — both physically and mentally — and it’s safe to say she won’t give up her efforts to continue doing what she loves anytime soon.

“You’re going to encounter challenges in life,” she explains. “You will become ill, injured, fatigued, but if you feel like your life has a purpose, then it becomes a meaningful one.”