If not for Ron Wilson recruiting her to his blossoming theater program at Case Western Reserve, Elizabeth Davis was bound to Boston to study urban outreach and planning—instead of becoming a Tony Award-nominated Broadway actress.
“I am effectively working professionally in the theater because of Ron Wilson,” Davis, a 2006 graduate of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program, wrote in an email. “Every move I’ve made in the last 10 years can be traced to the roots of Ron. That’s the power of a teacher, a mentor, a friend. Ron was all three to me.”
Wilson, the Katharine Bakeless Nason Professor of Theater and director of the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting program and longtime former chair of the Department of Theater, was that and more to so many.
Friends, colleagues, former students and others whom Wilson graced with his kindness, generosity and, yes, curmudgeonly humor, now mourn his passing: Wilson, 70, died Friday, April 14, after suffering his second debilitating stroke since March 2.
Per his wishes, Wilson was cremated and no funeral service is planned, according to friends.
“The hope is to take his ashes to Paris, which he absolutely loved,” said Cyrus Taylor, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who considered Wilson a longtime friend and mentor. “We will plan a memorial service later. His immeasurable contributions to our program, stalwart leadership and inspiring spirit will be deeply missed.”
Wilson once said that perhaps his proudest accomplishment was being able to make a life in the arts, having been a musician in rock and folk bands, a professional figurative and portrait artist, a professional actor and director and playwright, and, of course, a teacher.
Wilson began teaching full time in 1978 in the undergraduate and graduate acting programs at Ohio University. In the 1980s, Wilson, then based in New York City, freelanced as an actor, director, playwright and teacher.
In 1989, Wilson was appointed to the faculty at Cornell University in the Department of Theater, Film and Dance, where he taught acting, playwriting and screenwriting and was a resident director, production movement, period-styles coach and fight choreographer. He joined the Case Western Reserve faculty in 1999 and served as department chair from 2000-15, then continued as director of the graduate acting program.
Longtime friend and colleague Jerrold Scott, chair and artistic director of the CWRU theater department, recalled Wilson’s tireless work—his “vision, energy and drive took a small, graduate actor-training program and put it on the national map. He was a fierce advocate for his program and his students, and with a firm but gentle hand demanded excellence of those around him. His curmudgeonly humor and vast talents are irreplaceable, and our long friendship, and his support of my work, are things that I’ll carry with me forever.”
Don Carrier, adjunct associate professor and associate director of the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program, marveled at Wilson’s gift as a master teacher, knowing when to push a student, when to pull back, understanding that a single observation could make all the difference.
“His influence is incalculable, as the people he taught passed on this knowledge to others who passed it on from there, and so his presence lives on,” Carrier wrote in an email.
Wilson was a member of the Society for Stage Directors and Choreographers (having directed more than 50 productions), a member of Actors’ Equity and of the Dramatist’s Guild of America.
He choreographed fights for more than 50 productions and served as a director, movement coach/choreographer and actor at Cleveland Play House and other regional theaters, staging and coaching hand-to-hand fights, sword fights, waltzes, period-style movement, salsa dances and even lizard movement in multiple productions.
“Many people know about Ron’s drawing talent,” emailed theater alum Rich Sommer, who, among other high-profile roles, portrayed media buyer Harry Crane in the hit television series Mad Men. “He had an amazing eye and a phenomenal ability to capture what he saw. But those of us who took his movement class had the chance to see how he created a picture with his body. He was a mime in his younger years, and his facility with movement would make my breath catch. We could never come close to replicating what he was trying to teach us, but I’ve used the tools he gave us in that class in every acting opportunity I’ve had since.”
While theater was Wilson’s main area of focus, friends and colleagues said he also possessed an exceptional skill as a sketch artist. In 2013, a photograph taken of him drawing a painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art gathered hundreds of comments after the stranger posted it on Reddit. The attention attracted the interest of The Huffington Post, which published an interview that spring.
Jerry Smith, director of national giving at the College of Arts and Sciences, and Wilson had a joint art exhibition at Cain Park in July 2010, titled, “Go Figure,” because it featured figure drawings by each—except Smith used charcoal, while Wilson preferred to sketch in pencil.
“He hated charcoal because of lack of control over the medium,” Smith said. “He liked the crispness and clearness he could get in graphite.”
Wilson would tease him with, “‘Jerry, keep your dust away from my drawings,’” Smith recalled. “He liked to present himself as a curmudgeon, but deep down he was the just the most generous, sweet guy you could ever imagine.”
Quietly generous—especially to his students. Davis said Wilson convinced her to pursue theater instead of urban studies by “bringing me to Cleveland and showing me the beauty of it. I had received an offer (to the MFA program) and Ron said, ‘Come visit us, kid.’”
“When I was having a crisis of faith and threatened to drop out of the program, he was tough, honest and relentlessly compassionate without coddling,” Davis recalled. “When I couldn’t pay for dinner, Ron footed a Louisiana Salad at Nighttown for me. When I couldn’t make rent my first year in New York and was too stubborn to call my parents, Ron paid it. Ron showed up for us, he sacrificed without complaint and was a creative artist by example for every student.”