25 years: HCC professor marks milestone in directing local plays

December 02, 1999

Mike HarshBy MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

photos: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

Four days before opening night of "Inherit the Wind," Director Mike Harsh wasn't fazed when he found out one cast member is in the hospital and another is ill.

The concern he feels for the students is obvious, but he knows the Robinwood Players' show must go on.

cont. from lifestyle

"Something happens when you hit 40. You've got to let it rain," says Harsh, professor of drama, speech and English at Hagerstown Community College.

After 25 years of directing plays in an educational setting, he's used to hitches. He's also learned what's really important - doing his best and helping students do the same.


Through Sister Sharon Dei, who led the drama club in the 1960s when Harsh was a student at St. Maria Goretti High School, he learned that theater is "a nice way to try to reach people."

He also sees it as an equalizer, a place where those who may not thrive in the athletic or academic arenas can shine. That's not to say that great athletes and students can't excel in theater, too, he's quick to point out.

Mike HarshHarsh received his bachelor of science degree in speech and drama from Towson State College, where he also minored in English. He has a master's degree in liberal arts from Western Maryland College and a certificate of advanced studies in teaching from George Mason University.

His teaching career started in 1974 at St. Maria Goretti. He accepted a part-time position at Hagerstown Junior College in 1976 and went to full time in 1983 after serving as executive director of The Maryland Theatre for four years.

Harsh says acting is a tough profession, a reality he doesn't hide from his students.

As an avocation, though, it's priceless.

"It's a wonderful thing to have as a lifelong interest," says Harsh, 48.

He hasn't acted since the late 1970s, when he was doing plays at Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pa.

Then he and his wife of 23 years, Linda, started a family, and his priorities shifted. They have three daughters, Katy, 19, Rachael, 16, and Laura, 11.

"I'm not nearly neurotic enough to be an actor, but I'm neurotic enough to teach," Harsh says with a smile.

Mutual respect

Adapting to the needs of his students, many of whom are juggling family schedules and full-time jobs, is the biggest challenge he faces.

"Tough love is real. You do whatever works," he says. "I have a lot of admiration for them."

The feeling is mutual.

"Mike's great to work with," says David Chiarenza, 33, who started working with Harsh five semesters ago. "He will let you decide how to play your character," but will tell you if there's something he disagrees with.

"He's very relaxed in his teaching. He lets you run with ideas," says Robin Shaner, 35.

Her first theatrical experience was in one of Harsh's drama classes years ago while she was studying administration of justice and police services at HCC. She acted in a few plays but found her real niche was in costume design.

"I started working with the costumes and I realized, 'that's it,' " says Shaner, who now teaches a class in costume design at HCC and designs costumes for the school's productions. She has worked for Center Stage in Baltimore, where she constructed costumes following a designer's guidelines, and has been the resident costume designer for the past two summers at Totem Pole Playhouse.

John J. Frantz, one of the owners of Wright, Gardner and Tischer Insurance in Hagerstown, has been in 14 plays under Harsh's direction.

"I have fun. He makes life interesting," says Frantz, 58.

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