When imagining a theater professor, I would not immediately think of Peter Hackett. Instead, I picture a man in a black turtleneck and beret, someone who sports the sort of mustache that belongs in an 18th century portrait and drops French words into every conversation. Or perhaps a tall, brooding woman with the stature of a stately praying mantis and a collection of wool cloaks that would put the whole cast of Harry Potter to shame. At the very least, I’d expect the professor to be wearing a monocle, a feather boa or some sort of dramatic accessory.
Turns out I have a pretty skewed view of the Dartmouth theater department. While there aren’t any festooned, feathered teachers running around teaching the fine art of acting, there is Hackett. Looking around his cozy office in the Hopkins Center’s Shakespeare Alley, with its walls speckled with bright posters from various productions and events, one gets the impression that behind Hackett’s calm veneer is a perceptive, lively teacher. As a professor and a member of the Class of 1975, he’s pretty much seen it all.
Hackett saw the College through countless formative moments, he said, witnessing the impact of events ranging from the abolition of the Indian mascot to the implementation of the D-plan to the beginning of coeducation.
Despite arriving at Dartmouth with plans to become a doctor, Hackett majored in theater, or drama, as it was called then.
After graduating, he spent a few years teaching at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, went on to get his Masters of Fine Arts in directing at the University of California at San Diego and then headed to Hollywood where he worked for Paramount Studios for three years. It was in such a whirlwind of theater experiences that Hackett came upon the opportunity to return to Hanover as a professor.
“It never occurred to me that I would be teaching undergraduates until this position at Dartmouth opened up,” Hackett said. “My Dartmouth experience was such an extraordinary one that when the opportunity arose to come back and teach, I jumped on it.”
Between Hackett’s graduation and his return in 2004, however, major changes had transformed the theater experience at Dartmouth. The introduction of coeducation, for instance, had completely shifted the dynamic of both performances and the department itself.
“When I was first here, the women’s roles were played by the female exchange students from the seven sister schools or community members and faculty wives,” he explained. “In 1972, women were admitted and then there were women in the department. It was a whole different thing.”
Some important aspects, however, have remained static. Hackett said that at Dartmouth, all department productions are open to anyone who auditions, unlike at other schools where roles are reserved for theater majors. This has been the guiding principle of the College’s theater department for a long time, Hackett said, and one he believes must continue in the future.
This semester, Hackett is teaching Acting 1 for the first time. The class is designed to be a gateway to the department in that it seeks to attract many types of students — theater majors, those looking to complete the art distributive and the simply curious.
Raveena Gupta ’16 is one of many who joined the class to satisfy a certain acting urge.
“I heard from a lot of upperclassmen that it was the class to take before you graduate,” Gupta said. “I’ve always had an interest in movies, and I wanted to see how actors are shaped. I always notice, especially in my favorite actors like Steve Carell, the little nuances they do to steal a scene.”
Taking Hackett’s class has helped her gain a working knowledge of actors, she said, an essential skill for understanding both direction and production.
Like me, Gupta initially assumed that any theater professor would fit the exaggerated stereotype of the monocle-wearing type.
“He’s not eccentric or anything crazy,” she said. “He’s cool and laid-back, but he definitely has a strong passion for what he does.”
Nick O’Leary ’14, a veteran thespian who worked in productions across campus as an actor, director and set designer, agreed about Hackett’s calm and collected nature.
“Some directors are very specific and almost dictatorial,” O’Leary said. “Instead of trying to tell you very specifically and exactly how it should be, [Hackett] just kind of is willing to sit back and ask some questions to draw that out of you.”
In describing this point, O’Leary referenced a comedy he and Hackett had worked on about a failed relationship. Hackett had a vision that was more stylized and exaggerated than O’Leary’s had been originally. To illustrate his point, Hackett brought in a copy of The New Yorker, then explained his vision of the set as a New Yorker cartoon. O’Leary said this collaborative process ended up taking his work to the next level.
In addition to focusing on theater productions in the classroom, Hackett also performs as an actor and works on special projects.
One such endeavor is Dartmouth Change, a non-profit organization comprised of alumni, students and community members concerned with ending sexual violence on campus. In conjunction with the organization, Hackett staged, toured and acted in a production of “Undue Influence” in 2011 and 2012. The dance-theater piece aimed to represent the realities of sexual violence in an original and provocative way.
Hackett’s best advice for students — acting is a balance.
“You have to rely on your intuition and give the work that comes out of your intuition equal value with the work that comes out of your more analytical side,” he said. “There’s both parts — there’s preparation and analysis, but there’s also spontaneity.”
I may just throw off my cloak and boa and take his advice.