Robert Vrtis

An Aha Moment

“When the University College of London announced results that heart rates of individual audience members synchronize during a performance, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, of course!’” says Vrtis. He found the announcement both surprising and familiar.

“At its core, theatre is an act of mass empathy and has a power to draw people into a common experience that is unlike any other art form,” he says. “In the best performances of my experience, I feel actor and audience unite in a shared experience that has always fascinated and inspired me. In a world that offers us ever-increasing opportunities to isolate and where empathy is by no means overflowing our personal boundaries, I think it is vital to protect these kinds of shared experiences.”

Endless Learning Opportunities

Vrtis believes that one of the most invigorating things about theatre is that there is always a new play on the horizon. He also knows that preparing for and staging it will be a completely new experience.

“I’m currently preparing two shows. They are Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins,” he says. “It’s very exciting to search for new life in a 400-year-old play on the one hand, and on another try to capture the vital energy of a play less than five years old.”

Vrtis is also working with a colleague on a long-term project. “We’re hoping to develop an acting and script-analysis text that can support a more inclusive theatre pedagogy by centering intersectionality,” he says. “We hope to make conversations about identity outside of our typical assumptions and binaries more nuanced and central to theatre courses.”

Connecting Disciplines

Vrtis believes that the best actors are lifelong learners who reach beyond their own scope to discover and then create a character’s world. “Theatre is a natural fit for the liberal arts and for someone like me who is interested in the connections that bridge disciplines,” he says. “Any given play can ask you to explore history, astronomy, art, politics, or sociology.”

Vrtis realized this connection in his graduate studies when he developed an interest in neuroscience and it shaped his understanding of acting and the way he taught students to create characters. “Even if I can’t make any claim to expertise in neuroscience,” he says, “it provided me with a way of thinking about how the mind and body can create a believable fictional world for an actor to inhabit.”

Broadening Abilities

With his acting classes, Vrtis knows that every person comes from a different place. “One of my objectives is to help expand expressive ability,” he says. “Most of us will, in one way or another, lock down our physical or vocal expression. We don’t typically want what is happening inside of us to get out. Theatre gives you an opportunity to express yourself through a fictional character. I think finding that physical and vocal capacity in yourself adds color and vibrancy to your world. When I can help a student find that ability within themselves, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

High Points of His Study-Abroad Course

Vrtis teaches a Paideia 450 course in London. “In a few short weeks, we see as much theatre as possible,” he says. “We take in a giant West End production, an incredibly intimate one-person show, an experimental new work, a reimagined classic, and more.”

What he finds equally exciting is discussing the productions in class the next day. “I’m always surprised at how much comes out of these collaborative reflections,” he says. “It’s living proof that a play is as multivalent as the number of people who experience it and keeps revealing new meanings.”

Other Roles at Luther

“As current chair of the Diversity Council, I strive to be an advocate for equity and inclusion in our community. I’m grateful for the opportunity because the issues the council takes on should be central to Luther’s identity and will define our community going forward.”

—Robert Vrtis

Expanding His Inspiration

“Nothing has helped reenergize my interest in nature as having two daughters under six years old. They both have a deep curiosity about the world, and one of the best things I can do with that is point to the outdoors. This gets me hiking more, kayaking, animal watching, and generally reminding myself of all the theatre that exists outside of the theatre.”

—Robert Vrtis