Runyan reflects on theatre career, acting, and growth of department


By Jim North
Southeast Campus Editor


Jim Runyan recalls the time when there was no performing arts stage, auditorium, scene shop, costume shop, or lighting and audio facilities at Tulsa Community College (TCC). Acting workshops were once taught in the cafeteria of the Metro Campus basement.

“I’ve seen this program grow from nothing. We had nothing. You look around at all we have here—it’s just unbelievable. To think, we were building sets in an old car shop, an old body shop—and rehearsing above these oil drains, downtown at 12th and Detroit.”

Runyan is the production supervisor at TCC and has been on staff since the founding of the Performing Arts Center for Education (PACE), 20 plus years ago.

He was born and raised in Tulsa, attending the old Central High School at 6th and Cincinnati. He aspired to become an actor and performer in junior-high.

In those days, his family tuned in regularly to “The Red Skelton Show.” Runyan was drawn to the comedic style of Skelton, especially his signature “hobo” character. Runyan then informed his parents of his dream to either become an actor—or a hobo.

His parents supported his aspirations of an acting career, as he eventually enrolled at the University of Tulsa (TU), through a theatre scholarship. He graduated with a bachelor of arts and later returned in his 40s to Oklahoma State University to obtain his master’s degree, both being in theatre.

Runyan says he had no intention of becoming a director.

“That came later … never intended to direct … never thought I wanted to teach, although that’s [now] probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

All he ever wanted to do was act—if he could make a living that way, he would be happy.

Many have approached Runyan, asking him what it takes to be a great actor. He often replies that he doesn’t really know.

“What it takes more than anything is that desire,” he concludes.

Professionally, Runyan began his career with “Oklahoma Theatre,” based out of Oklahoma City. He later became a founding member of the “American Theatre Company,” assuming the role of education director, during the early 1970s in Tulsa.

“We saw that as part of our mission, to take some art and theatre training [out] to rural communities.”

A rewarding aspect of their mission as a theatre company was taking workshop programs to the disabled and those with special needs.

Runyan commented on the necessity of clearly defined goals for an actor.

“If actors know what they want as characters in every given moment … they will move toward and away from people, or toward and away from things appropriately.”

As a director, Runyan tries to give actors the leeway and freedom to explore choices on stage for themselves. He says the tendency likely stems from his being an actor first, and becoming a director later.

He believes an acting class can benefit any person, no matter what career into which they may be entering. He cites the importance of interweaving communication in any sphere of endeavor, whether as a teacher or lawyer.

“Acting is an exploration of what it means to be human and to communicate that humanity with each other,” he says.

Communication on stage takes place through the voice, body, facial expression and even spatial relationships.

What a person says from a great distance, may be interpreted differently than when up close and personal, or from behind a person, he explains.

Improvisational teacher and author, Patricia Madsen, has said: “Every living creature is engaged in continual communication.”

Actors are continuously engaged in tactics to get what they want, Runyan adds.

“The way we move toward or away from someone is a tactic. Sometimes just a noise or slamming something down on the table, becomes a tactic.”

Runyan says even dogs and babies use tactics to get what they want.

Another benefit of acting is the building of self-confidence, he says.

“It further ties your actions to your thoughts. It just makes you a stronger, more well-rounded individual, I think.”

Confidence is like poise, which cannot be directly taught, but can be acquired. He says performing becomes easier each time a person acts in front of a group.

Different shows and scenes have a varied sense of rhythm, feel, timing and pace. Even silence is designed to convey feeling, he adds.

“In theatre, there’s no such thing as nothing … everything is something … if the curtain opens, and you see me sitting in a chair doing nothing; that says something.”

Another element of great theatre is clear diction. He stresses its necessity, saying audiences will tune-out if they have to work hard at hearing lines of dialogue.

“They will not work to understand what you say … it is our job, absolutely, as actors to be easily heard and understood.”

Runyan calls theatre a collaborative art form. Many parts make up the team or ensemble. The success of one part necessarily contributes to the success of the others.

Lighting directors, costume designers, make-up technicians, stage-hands, audio engineers, directors, cast, crew and audience—all help to comprise the whole.

“The truth is there are so many people involved in any production that make it what it is … a synthesis of many art forms … and brings them all together in a manner that can only exist as a unit … it’s definitely a team effort.”

Runyan encourages excellence in student productions. Anything other than doing one’s best is not rewarding or satisfying, he believes.

“We all want to have a
successful show. We don’t want to put something up on stage that’s not worthy.”

He encourages those hanging on the acting fence to venture out, describing theatre as a place people can feel unconditional acceptance, regardless of their differences.

“You never know if it’s for you or not, until you try.”

Runyan has taught, mentored and directed hundreds of students through the course of his 25-year career at TCC.

Debts can rarely be repaid to mentors, but are often paid forward through influence and encouragement in the lives of others.

Many students are grateful for Runyan’s inspiration and influence. His mark upon TCC as an institution, while influencing the hearts and lives of innumerable students, will have a ripple effect for decades to come.

For more information about TCC theatre or acting classes, contact him by e-mail: or call (918) 595-7733.