Steven Berglund: From Home Movies to Head of CMU Theatre

Story and photo by Justin Cooper

The path that led Steven Berglund to become the head of Central Michigan University’s theatre program began not with theatre but with 8mm films.

Beginning in fifth grade and stretching into middle school, he and a friend filmed sketch comedy and parody shorts based on movies, TV shows and commercials.

He was drawn to the accessibility of theatre compared to film in a time before digital cameras. He continues to be drawn to a particular type of theatre called solo performance or a one-man show.

Berglund, whose tenure at CMU began with a one-year contract, just finished his 33rd year at CMU. In the early years of his career, he developed CMU’s first stage combat class which teaches students how to safely fight with “hand-to-hand, quarterstaff and rapier-and-dagger techniques” which is still taught today.

Berglund’s favorite production is usually whatever he’s currently working on, he said. One that still resonates with him is a University Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s called “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” which he directed in November 1988.

During the play, performers fired blank rounds from authentic Prohibition-era guns including a Thompson submachine gun, otherwise known as a Tommy gun. The weapons were provided by a Roseville collector whose vast warehouse of early 20th century cars and furniture had burned down, leaving only his collection of antique guns which he had kept in safes in his home.

Seeing this story in a newspaper, Berglund contacted him about using the guns for the play and enlisted him to teach workshops on the best practices for gun safety in stage productions to all of Berglund’s students.

In one scene of the play, one of the henchmen of Arturo Ui fired about 30 blank rounds out of the Tommy gun in the direction of a character who had fled down an aisle in Bush Theatre, begging members of the audience to protect her.

“It was the only time I think I’ve ever seen 125 people, who were in that general area, probably wet their pants at exactly the same moment,” Berglund said. “It was frightening, but in a fun kind of way. It was a tough show.”

His favorite playwright? William Shakespeare.

He’s performed in two seasons of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, and a shelf in Berglund’s office is dedicated only to Shakespeare’s plays. Most plays are represented there multiple times – there are at least five editions of “Macbeth” and seven editions of “Measure for Measure.”

“If I could only perform one playwright for the rest of my life, I’d just do Shakespeare,” he said. “There’s enough there to last a lifetime, and it’s just great stuff.”

Berglund has developed and written two solo performance pieces. He performed his first, “Digressions: Based On Events That May Have Been True”, at the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival in 2010. His second, “MAN”, was awarded Best Autobiographical Show by the United Solo Theatre Festival, the largest such festival in the world, in 2017.

Both pieces are composed of semi-fictionalized anecdotes taken from Berglund’s life. In “MAN”, he challenges our culture’s ideals of masculinity, taking aim at assertions about what men should be based on what he’d found in sources from Cosmopolitan magazine to the Boy Scout Handbook.

“We’re defined by our stories,” Berglund said. “Our lives are just a collection of stories, and how we remember the stories sort of dictates what our lives are to us; what they mean to us.”