When Moira Mangiameli began teaching theater full time at Iowa Western Community College last fall, she had her own ideas about what a two-year theater program could accomplish.
Her students have since caused her to throw those ideas out the window.
As Mangiameli chose Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" for her spring show, which opens Friday, she wondered if she could fill all the challenging roles in this 17th century tale of witch trials in Salem, Mass.
Enter Chris Pittmon, a freshman from Malvern, Iowa, who had never appeared onstage.
"He's very shy and quiet," Mangiameli said. "But he just shocked me how he came out of his shell when he performed in acting class."
Pittmon plays John Proctor, whose wife has been accused of witchcraft by a woman with whom he had an affair.
"His technique was pretty raw on things like being able to be heard, not rushing, turning out toward the audience," said Mangiameli, a much-lauded local actress who has a master's in fine arts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"But in terms of being able to go to the heart of a speech, being able to really connect with another actor, he's astonishing to watch, how he makes those choices."
His gut instinct, she said, is better than that of trained actors she's worked with.
Pittmon, an athlete who at one time aspired to be on Creighton University's track team, said he had always wanted to try acting.
"I trust Moira emphatically," he said. "She gives me a lot of freedom with the character. John Proctor is a very complicated person, full of so many emotions. It's been really hard, but a good experience."
Mangiameli had twice guest-directed shows at Iowa Western before taking the teaching and directing job. She said her casts for Moliere's "Tartuffe," in 2007, and Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in 2006, also surprised her.
"I'm a slow learner," she said, "but I've been schooled. You can't underestimate these students. I have wept at rehearsals (for 'The Crucible'), and I just don't do that as a director."
She said the sense of community and mutual support among the theater students is exceptional, as they celebrate each other's accomplishments.
"The Crucible" opens Friday for a two-weekend run.
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