Wednesday June 25 – It’s been a week since Mari Kathleen Fielder passed, though the obituary was just published today. It was amazing to see Facebook light up today with passionate, emotional tributes from former students and colleagues at UArts. It reminded me of the special qualities that make a great teacher and an unforgettable human being.
I had several different relationships with Mari over the years – colleague, boss, friend, collaborator. As her boss, I quickly acquired an appreciation for her dedication to her students and their learning, and for her passionate love of the theater. She wasn’t the most up-to-date of teachers – it wasn’t unusual to get a multi-page handwritten letter from her instead of an email – but she had old-fashioned virtues that remain timeless and valuable: compassion, high expectations and vivid intelligence.
Mari loved great writing, and was a skillful writer herself. She wrote a series of dramaturgical program notes for shows we produced (here’s an example), and each essay was a small masterpiece, packed with erudition and wit. They invariably were longer than we had room for in the program book, but I made a point of publishing her work uncut on the school blog so that people could fully appreciate her contributions.
I call her a “collaborator” but that’s not exactly the word I’m looking for. One day she told me the story of her grandmother’s theatrical career in a way that made me think there might be a musical in the life story of Mae Desmond, born Mary Callahan, wife of Frank Fielder, Mari’s grandparents. I read the doctoral dissertation she had written about the Mae Desmond Players and became convinced this was a fitting subject for a musical, and spent three years writing several drafts of a musical with playwright Seth Bauer called “Leading Lady”. Along the way, Mari was generous with her time and advice, and opened her archives to provide us with incredible scrapbooks, photos, play scripts and primary sources. If anything, she was a midwife, a “ma” for our project.
Mari was a great supporter of the underdog. While she had no trouble spotting and appreciating talent, it was truly touching to see her try to reach students with special learning needs, and students who hadn’t had the advantage of a first-class high school education. She was willing to put in the time and effort to teach each student, and saw each student as a potentially valuable contributor to the world and the theater community. She could spot a diamond in the rough, and some of them were pretty rough indeed; still, it’s touching to hear the expressions of gratitude from students who had the benefit of her tough-love nurture.
Mari was adjunct faculty, which meant she never had job security, no assurance about how many hours she’d have in a given semester or, indeed, if she’d have any hours. Despite that, she gave 110% of herself to the Brind School, serving on committees, attending meetings, representing the adjuncts on the Faculty Council, attending shows.
I think it’s fair to say that her teaching kept her alive. As her health declined, it seemed harder and harder for her to make it from the car to the elevator to the classroom. Even so, she willed herself to keep going; certainly she wanted the income, but also the work gave meaning and focus to her life. Like so many of us, she found that being around college students keeps you young. She loved her students and she loved the theater, and that love gave her the ability to carry on through times when her body made that difficult.
Thanks, Mari! Your students loved you, and your colleagues admired you. I’ve compiled many of the Facebook testimonials below:
About a minute ago, I read about the death of a woman who inspired me beyond explanation. She was always working hard to make sure that her students were pushing themselves to understand her material. Although often frustrated with the lack of enthusiasm from her students that she herself had for theatrical study, she never gave up on any student. Her pure love of Irish theatre and our after class discussions about it, led me to Ireland where I met a fantastic young playwright who wrote my senior project. When Dr. Fielder made the trek to South Philly to see it and told me how beautiful and well-done it was, I felt that my work was officially worthy of any praise that it received because Dr. Fielder had agreed. Last Christmas, she sent me a card to Theatre Exile to tell me how happy she was that I found a theatrical home that was so suitable to me. And when I read it at my desk, I just cried. And last week, with a couple other UArts students, I expressed how disappointed I was that current UArts students would not be fortunate enough to have all her incredible knowledge bestowed upon them. She lived for her family, whom she loved so dearly, and her students, whom she hoped would challenge the theatre as those in history have time and time again. I hope that I will live up to that desire, if not for the betterment of theatre, at least for this incredible woman who was in my life. (Brey Ann Barrett)
Walking into my first week of Grad School Theater History, I ended up just conversing with my teacher in the middle of class, because I retained so much more than I thought I had. I was ahead of the game, and excited to learn more. I’ll miss you, Ma Fielder. No one else in the world cared as much as she did. (Annie Such)
I am still processing the news of the passing of Dr. Mari Fielder. We had a nickname for her, “Ma Fielder”. She was very much like a Mama to us, a mother of theatrical history, guiding and nurturing our intellectual development as young active theatre artists, supporting our artistic endeavors, and encouraging us to never settle for the mundane and simple especially within myself. She was one of the teachers from UArts that believed in my intellectual capacity as well as my talent as an actor… both things that I oftened question during my matriculation at that conservatory. I was incredibly fond of her, her jovial disposition and affinity for dirty humor made lasting impressions on me. Her exit from Uarts was insulting. Rest in Paradise, Ma. I will never forget you. (Aaron Lofton)
A sad goodbye to the beautiful Dr. Mari Fielder. She was kind and passionate and made me seriously consider a career in dramaturgy. It wasn’t until I interviewed her for a class that I realized she was in a class all her own. Her intellect was an inspiration and she had such hopes for all the students that she taught. I will carry you in my heart and mind forever Dr. Fielder. (Alex Keiper)
Rest in Peace, Dr. Fielder. A brilliant woman, the epitome of intellectual integrity, and so full of joy and light and enthusiasm as a professor. (Phoebe Silva)
My dear Mari, woman of massive heart and intellect, I will miss our late night office talks – your passion, openness, insight and wit. Most of all, I will miss your wonderful (sometimes irreverent) sense of humor and your low-pitched, full-throated laugh ringing down the hallway. No one brought more integrity and commitment to the role of educator than you did. You helped me personally in so many ways, including guiding me through the final throes of doctoral dissertation editing and countless program note revisions. Thank you, Dr. Mari Kathleen Fielder or, as generations of theater students will remember you, simply Ma. (Patty Raine)
I am so very saddened by the passing of Dr. Mari Kathleen Fielder. She was a formidable woman who dedicated the better part of her career teaching the students of the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at The University of the Arts. I had the privilege to support her work on the faculty for a good many years. Few teachers worked harder to pack more information into the span of a semester than Dr. Fielder.
My predecessor as Assistant to the Director used a phrase to describe the way UArts worked during his time that I have grown attached to. He said, “A lot of people around here try to pack 20 pounds of stuff into a 10 pound bag”. To me, Mari was most guilty of that. As someone who needed to occasionally come behind her and edit or distill her detailed program notes for space, I will admit it was often a challenge. She loved language. She loved words. She seemed to use 20 words to describe a thing when, in my opinion, 10 would have been enough. That said, the main reason it was so challenging to reduce was because her notes were so witty, wry and filled with insight, it was hard to cut without changing the story she had carefully and delicately constructed for the audience. Often, the 20 words she chose were better than the 10 that fit.
She was driven to share with her students all-of-the-things NOW. Although she moved slowly, she knew her time with her charges was short, and she wanted to make sure that they were fully loaded with all of the information, all the wisdom, and every drop, and gem and morsel of arcane knowledge she had collected as they began their careers in the theatre. To her, it was important that they have it ALL.
She was a scholar and dramaturge who was deeply compelled to share all-of-the-things she knew and loved. She was a constant presence in the lives of her students. To some, I am sure, her teaching methods and style were difficult to deal with. To many, she was the best teacher they ever had. To all, she was memorable.
I shall miss you, Dr Fielder. Yours is a life worth celebrating because your impact on other people’s lives cannot be easily measured. It is as elusive and ephemeral as the theater to which you dedicated your life. Like the theater, one must be fully present to fully experience it. (Darin Dunston)
I woke up to terrible news. My heart is in pain. Dr. Mari Kathleen Fielder but to her beloved students she was known as Ma has passed away on june 18th. She was the smartest woman on earth, she did not need lesson plans she was a walking theatre encyclopedia. She believed in me and pushed me academically in theatre history. We cried many times because she was the only theatre professor who understood me and my struggle of being a big girl and she cried with me and hugged me like a mother would comfort her own child. When Dr. Fielder was let go by Uarts I was there when she cried because it was not fair to let go of her talents. I called her a couple of months later and she told me she was depressed because she was not teaching. This woman loved and wanted to teach. Ma may you rest in heaven, I love you so much. I’m going to keep fighting our battle because you taught me how.
Today at work I couldn’t hold back the tears because I saw all the love for my dearest ma, I did break down when I spoke to her husband because he was so touched by the love the Uarts community is showing. (Shelvy Paredes)
Mourning the loss of the incomparable Dr. Mari Kathleen Fielder with the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts and Theatre Philadelphia communities. She shared her passion for where we came from and the many ways we got here with tenacity, love, and humor. For those who never experienced her earlier years at UArts…man, her curriculum was not to be trifled with, she worked her actors and directors hard – illuminating the soul of Theatre History, our roots, and the endless benefits of pure research. Cuimhnigh go deo. (Allen Radway)
Dr. Fielder was a true Professional. Her knowledge of the Theatre and her desire to inspirer her students I always admired. Be at peace Mari in your transition, you’ve earned it and left us with so many wonderful memories. (Johnnie Hobbs Jr)
Mari was a brilliant teacher a a beautiful soul. Her passing is a loss for all who were lucky to know her.
RIP Dr ‘Ma’ Fielder you are loved and missed. (Nancy Kantra)
She will be missed- gave some of the hardest and most interesting lessons- and loved to teach phallic symbols making something boring way more hilarious. (Melanie Potorski)
The last thing I ever remember Dr. Fielder saying to me at a cookout at Amy Feinberg’s, after I tried horribly to sound smart about some new play was, “Stick to musicals, Derby!” She was everyone’s cool Ma! We’ll never forget her… (Jacob Bremkamp)
Id like to take a moment to celebrate the life of Dr. Mari Fielder. Some educators get by doing the bare minimum. Some are respected but never loved deeply by the students. And then, every so often in the educational world, a professor will take on the role of teacher, mentor, friend and and sometime a “Ma” of her students. Ma Fielder truly was a ray of light, dedicated to inspiring young theater artist. The world has lost a great educator. And I am forever grateful that I was one of the blessed students to learn from her. RIP Ma… (Cara Lisa Franz)
I was lucky enough to be her student and honored to call her my colleague. Love guided her actions always. (Bill Buddendorf)
Dr. Fielder was one of the most intelligent and challenging professors at UArts. She made me crazy with her demand for excellence, but I respected her for it. She knew I was smarter than I believed. Her passion for dramaturgy shone through every lesson, and she was always patient with me, a crazed overachiever, when I emailed her hysterically at 2 am about final projects. She let me re-take an exam one time when I wrote under my name, “It’s tech week. I can’t”. She loved the theatre and dedicated her life to sharing her wealth of knowledge with fledgling artists. Rest in Peace, “Ma”. (Brandi Burgess)
Dr Fielder was an amazing teacher, and a great woman. She really cared about making sure we had the tools to be great theater artists. Ma will truly be missed. (Sara Marie Prince)
Incredibly saddened to hear about the passing of Dr. Fielder. Yes, she was an outstanding teacher and an inspiration to many, but what really sticks with me was that laugh. That joy is what I will remember. (Jarrod Markman)
Terribly sad to have lost Dr. Mari Fielder. She was an inspiration to me as a colleague, a friend and a theatre historian. And her sharing her dissertation on her extraordinary grandparents led to the creation of my first musical. I understand from our students that she was a challenging professor, (praise indeed) but for the years that we shared an office, I confess that it was always she who stayed the latest, carefully reading and grading papers late into the evening. And I will picture her in the hallways with her chair stacked with papers, as she carefully filed them into everyone’s mail boxes straight away after grading them, long after the rest of us had gone home. I’ve learned so much from you Mari and your dedication to your craft and your students’ learning is a model to us all. (Seth Bauer)
I think it’s safe to say the 6th floor of Terra will never be the same. (Rebecca O’Connell Franco)
Dr. Fielder, you were a rock of the Uarts program and optimistic and pleasant in each and every encounter I had with you. You will be missed. (Ed Renninger)
Dr. Mary Was an absolute awesome teacher. She was tough but let me, Ryan Walker and Tom Osborne sit together in class. I remember Matty Strool would join us every once in a while although he was in the other section, and she was totally cool with it. I know my theater history and can have great conversations with people and teach about history in theater because of Dr. Mary. She’s at rest but The Uarts community lost a gem. (Alex Diaz)
Raising a glass for Dr. Mari Fielder. (Amanda Schoonover)
Dr. Fielder challenged and empowered me more than anyone at UArts. She was more universally loved and celebrated and she never even got a proper send off from the school. I could never articulate how important or inspiring she was to me. But now she’s gone, and all I can do is try to emulate her acumen, only hoping I could be as knowledgable and loving as she was. (Aria Velz)
Today, I learned that the theater and academic worlds lost a dear, dear educator, friend, mentor, and human being. In her classes, at the University of the Arts, I learned more about the history and foundation of my craft than I could have ever expected. She introduced me to plays, text, and ideas that I would have never been able to approach as adeptly as I did without her guidance. She trusted me to tutor many students in several of her classes throughout the year. Beyond education, she had a laugh that could make people from miles around at least crack a smile, if not join in in the most hearty, jolliest of laughs. Since graduating university, I have missed her brightness, energy, mind, and thought-provoking attitude. I think I can truly say she gave me my first thoughts towards becoming a director. Now, I will miss that even more, but feel so blessed to have spent so much time with her from 2003 to 2007. (Adam Deremer)