Peter Cocuzza, former chair of the Department of Theater and Dance, has retired after 26 years at SIUE. In that time, he was involved in creating several projects, such as Xfest.
Cocuzza said his retirement plans are not to write a novel or change the world, but to not plan anymore.
“For 26 plus years, I’ve been planning lessons, planning classes, directing shows, creating field trips and I’m not going to plan anymore. The plan is to actually live each day as fully as I can, see what gets presented in front of me every day, take advantage of it and if it leads me to doing something monumental, then it will,” Cocuzza said. “At this point it’s like hitting the reset button, which is kind of freeing.”
Cocuzza said he decided to retire because he feels like it’s his turn after over 40 years of being in the workforce.
“I still have enough of my health, so I’m still moving around well, that I want to enjoy some time with my wife, whatever that means, whatever that brings to us, while I can … It’s not that anything was going badly,” Cocuzza said. “It felt like I’ve done what I could do.”
During his time at SIUE, Cocuzza created a number of projects, one of which was the Cougar Theater Camp, a summer theater camp for elementary school, middle school and high school students. Cocuzza said while the department had been doing summer shows, he wanted a way to earn additional money to create scholarships or take students on field trips.
“I went to the Dean at that particular time, who was Dixie Engleman, and said, ‘Do I have your permission to create a summer camp?’ and her first question was, ‘What’s it going to cost?’ And I said, ‘Nothing, because whatever money I charge, that’s what I’m going to use to pay for the camp,’ and she said, ‘OK.’ So we did our first camp in, I think it was 1998 … It was a great success,” Cocuzza said.
Cocuzza also helped create the Cougar Theater Company, a group of actors that toured a show across schools in the area.
“Not only was it a great way for the students to make a little money, but then to be in a show, and it was great outreach for community service. It checked off a lot of boxes,” Cocuzza said. “We created that with Lana Hagan, who was the director of theater education at the time, and it was meant for theater [education] students to do just that, to pick a theater-friendly, children’s or family-oriented show, and then tour it.”
Cocuzza and a colleague also came up with the idea for Xfest, a week-long theater festival.
“I talked to a colleague about doing a summer festival that we could run in the summer that was an experimental theater festival. We would bring in theater companies that did avant-garde theater, and then maybe put them in residence and then invite people to buy a subscription,” Cocuzza said. “Not only could they see a summer show and a musical and get their kids involved, but then they could see all these wonderful things that they would never see somewhere else. That was the kernel of the idea.”
Cocuzza said the idea has grown. Xfest now takes place during the first semester, because many students go home for the summer. Cocuzza also said Xfest puts SIUE in the national spotlight, makes the theater department unique among other departments at SIUE and gives students the opportunity to see productions from across the country because they get to see many performers in one place.
“It helped them understand that it’s not just about Broadway … There’s many, many, many ways you can have a career in the theater arts and not be on Broadway,” Cocuzza said. “Just having this festival is a great way to let the students know that here are these great artists coming in who are not on Broadway, but have a career, who are creating their own work, presenting their own work, marketing their own work, doing all the marketing, graphics, directing, and so it encompasses all of the things we’ve been trying to teach our students.”
Cocuzza said he got into theater after quitting his job as a chemist. He said he went back to school at Ohio University and got a BFA and an MFA, and was then determined to be an actor before he realized he wanted to teach.
“For five, six years, seven years, I was auditioning, getting small parts, doing commercials, being an extra in a movie, and I found myself getting all of these varied experiences. I knew what it was like to be on a movie set, I knew what it was like to do a dialect, I knew what it was like to work in dinner theater, Christian theater, an outdoor theater, children’s theater, Shakespeare, and I found myself being able to teach these things as an adjunct,” Cocuzza said. “There was a time when I realized I am a better teacher than I am an actor. It was funny, my mentors in my MFA program, they knew that I was going to be a teacher well before I did. It just took me a while.”
Kathryn Bentley, assistant professor of theater, said Cocuzza was her colleague for 17 years, and that she, Cocuzza and Chuck Harper worked together in the performance specialization of the Department of Theater and Dance.
“It was the three of us, and we collaborated on classes that we offer, we collaborated on the production, collaborated on student mentorship and our voice in the department. We had a very cohesive trio between the three of us in our work together,” Bentley said.
Bentley said Cocuzza was a great mentor to her in the department.
“Seventeen years ago, this was my first teaching gig, so I learned a lot from him as far as developing a curriculum and classroom management. I learned a lot from him, so it was a great collaboration,” Bentley said.
Tiffany Ellis, a sophomore theater major from Chicago, said she had Cocuzza for THEA 112, which is a first-year theater class that theater majors take. Ellis said Cocuzza took time to make sure the students understood what he taught.
“We did a couple of scenes from a couple of plays that we were reading throughout the year, and with those, he didn’t really tell us what to do or how to do them. He let us figure it out for ourselves, and then he asked us guiding questions to make us figure out what our purpose was for that scene,” Ellis said. “He gave us notes but really he was just good at guiding us in order to figure out what we could improve ourselves.”
Ellis said Cocuzza was a really good teacher, so she’s sad that he’s leaving.
“I’m really sad to see him go, since I only got to spend one semester in his class. I got to audition for one of the plays that he was doing. But he’s a really good guy,” Ellis said.