St. Louis is fortunate to have a rich history in the arts. That continuing presence and the on-going programs St. Louisans enjoy are only as creative and strong as those involved. Accomplished journeymen of the local arts scene, Robert Nordman and Peter Sargent have shared their talents with our community for decades—inspiring many along the way.
Peter Sargent, WEBSTER UNIVERSITY
Peter Sargent, dean of Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts at Webster University and resident lighting designer of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, was introduced to live theater while growing up in a small New England town outside of Boston in the 1950s. Both of his parents were active in community theater; and then one summer, he got his first big break as a child actor. He had found a new love—but as it turned out, it wasn’t on the stage. It was behind the scenes. “I began working backstage and helped my dad hang lights, and that’s how it evolved—that was what I wanted to do,” Sargent recalls. “And that’s why I chose to go to Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) for technical production and lighting design.”
Why lighting? “Lighting is so interesting to me because it’s often the last ingredient that’s added as a part of a play’s production,” Sargent says. “The thing that’s exciting about it is that it deals in all three dimensions. You can’t see something until you turn a light on it and it bounces off it. I’ve always like the fact that it’s a coalescing but also a contributing art form.” He adds that a successful lighting design is one that you don’t notice. “Hopefully, the lighting contributes to the audience’s emotional reaction to something. The audience should be psychologically aware of it, but it isn’t seen.”
When Sargent was in graduate school at Yale University, he got an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I was lucky enough to work on the original production of Camelot on Broadway,” he remembers. “Just the fact that it was a huge Broadway musical made it so much fun, but watching the collaboration—the lighting designer was Abe Feder—and to be observing and participating and helping was wonderful! I was certainly low on the totem pole at that time, but seeing that production come together with Robert Goulet, Julie Andrews and Richard Burton was magic!”
Also while in graduate school, Sargent worked for theater consultant George Izenour, who was the building consultant during the construction of the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts. Sargent recalls working on some of the drawings during the planning of the building, which in turn motivated him to come to St. Louis. “I helped get that building open and operating, and so I came to The Rep as technical director and lighting designer for that very first season in 1966.”
Sargent truly enjoys his role at The Rep and the challenges of lighting a show there. “The exciting thing about that building is it’s a well-designed thrust stage that the audience is wrapped around,” he says, adding that the challenge is to think no matter where a person is seated, that they get the same kind of ambience and feeling about the production. “The wonderful thing about the space is the intimacy, and so you want to try to enhance that.”
At Webster University, Sargent also teaches lighting design and stage management. “Webster is the go-to place for undergraduates to study the arts,” he says. “We have a gifted faculty—they all are talented artists who have a passion for teaching. Our teachers stay engaged in their art, and I think that’s important.”
Sargent is a past president of the Professional Theatre Awards Council (Kevin Kline Awards) and still sits on the board, as well as on Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ board of directors. “One of the great things about St. Louis is the strength of its culture and arts,” he says. “When you compare us to other cities, the cultural activity here is at a wonderful level. With Shakespeare Festival, it’s an incredible thing that 55,000 people will see its spring production! Then there’s The Muny, which is just an incredible institution, and Dance St. Louis— the plate is full and it’s all very exciting! How fortunate we are to have The St. Louis Regional Arts Commission and the Art and Education Council supporting the community. What I look at in the 45 years that I’ve been in St. Louis is how the arts are thriving throughout the entire city.”
Robert Nordman, UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI-ST. LOUIS
Looking back to middle school in Clarksville, Iowa, as a first-year trumpet player, Robert Nordman knew that he wanted a future in music. “I had a couple of really fun band directors in a good band program and that just started me on that path,” Nordman remembers, adding that his plan developed into a goal to become a music educator. “I knew that I could make a living and, at the same time, be very happy.”
In his career, Nordman found happiness, along with great success; and in 2011, he celebrated 50 years as a music educator. “Not only is there this energy while working in a performing arts career that keeps one feeling younger and more alive, but working with young people also does that.”
In the early years of his career, Nordman taught all aspects of music and enjoyed every minute of it. When he moved to St. Louis in 1965, his teaching assignment was at Southwest H.S., where he was the director of bands and orchestra. “During my 19 years there, I was the conductor of the orchestra in the pit for 19 different Broadway musicals—those were wonderful years,” he says.
From 1983 to 2005, Nordman was supervisor of music in the St. Louis Public Schools. In 2006, his career took him to University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he serves as the E. Desmond Lee endowed professor of Music Education, director of the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative and chair of the Department of Music.
Nordman, who teaches a variety of courses at UMSL, still enjoys being in the classroom. “A few years ago, one of the pieces I had selected for the conducting class happened to be composed by an undergraduate professor of mine,” he notes. “I told them the story about having to play this piece from manuscript before it was published, whereupon they looked down at the date of publication. They looked back at me with that You really are old, aren’t you? look.”
The beginning of his 50th year in education began on a very positive note: He was inducted into the Missouri Music Educators Association Hall of Fame. “I had no idea that I even had been nominated,” he says. “But it’s probably the most important award that I’ve received in my career. I was quite proud to be in the company of previous winners, like Ed Carson from Webster Groves H.S., who was my children’s band director, and Douglas Turpin, who was my predecessor here at UMSL.”
As for the Des Lee Fine Arts Collaborative, Nordman explains that it serves 21,000-plus students every year. “We provide opportunities in fine arts— music, visual arts, theater and dance—for those students who would not otherwise have that experience,” he says. “UMSL and 15 other local cultural institutions are a part of the collaborative. For many of these children, it means they will actually be in Powell Hall and hear one the finest symphonies in the country, if not the world, and the same thing with visiting the Saint Louis Art Museum.”
Yes, Robert Nordman has found happiness, but perhaps not just for himself.