Small town to big stage: Theatre professor shares his story in lecture

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Jerry Jay Cranford, assistant professor for K-State Theatre, speaks during the "What Matters to Me and Why" lecture series at Town Hall in Manhattan, Kan. on Nov. 9, 2017. (Photo by Katelin Woods | Collegian Media Group)

From living with a family of seven in a crowded home to performing in “Les Miserables” on Broadway, Jerry Jay Cranford, assistant professor of theatre, has lived fully by pursuing his passions.

As part of the “What Matters to Me and Why” lecture series, Cranford shared his experience as a performer with humble beginnings who eventually performed in back-to-back renowned shows like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Les Miserables” and “Anything Goes.” Cranford even performed as the genie in Disneyland’s stage version of “Aladdin.”

Before hitting the stage, Cranford grew up in a small town. Cranford said his life behind the scenes wasn’t perfect.

“I was born and raised in Tecumseh, Oklahoma, which makes Manhattan look like Metropolis,” Cranford said. “My home life, looking back, wasn’t perfect. My father was very abusive. … I think I spent my life desperately trying not to be that. I will not allow that part of my genetic pool to define me.”

Cranford said his mother eventually packed him and his three siblings into her station wagon to go live with his grandparents. They shared three bedrooms and one bathroom between the seven of them, Cranford said.

“I talk about it now and I say I could never do that, but it was no big deal,” Cranford said. “The choir kids hung out and played games in our tiny little house, but it was always open and warm and loving. Through that community, we were able to thrive.”

After his parent’s divorce, Cranford said he became the head of the household, looking after his siblings when his mother went back to school to obtain her bachelor’s degree in education. Cranford said he was inspired by his music teacher to follow his own mother’s footsteps in education.

“She celebrated everyone who walked into her classroom, encouraged them and gave them the tools to succeed,” Cranford said.

Cranford went on to double major in instrumental and vocal music at East Central University, performing as Harold Hill, the main character in “The Music Man,” before moving to the University of Oklahoma.

Cranford said at this time in his life, he weighed almost 300 pounds. Bruce Govich, his vocal teacher at Oklahoma, pushed him to lose weight to better obtain his goals.

“I lost about 120 pounds,” Cranford said. “Through that, I started taking dance classes and theatre classes. Because of [Govich], suddenly my career trajectory changed greatly.”

From there, Cranford worked at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma for three summers and worked in his first professional production. Cranford was offered the role of protagonist Don Lockwood in a national tour of “Singin’ in the Rain” and endured a lengthy audition for the role in the city of Chicago.

“I was kept there for four hours,” Cranford said. “They went, ‘Eh, you’re not a great tap dancer,’ and I was like, ‘Duh.’ But they liked my singing and acting.”

The production’s crew set him up in an apartment in New York City with a private tutor and dance studio for five weeks, Cranford said.

“Every day of the week, for eight hours, I tap danced,” Cranford said.

During his time in New York City, Cranford said he had his first experience with “the casting couch.” The production’s director drunkenly called Cranford into a bedroom in the apartment. When Cranford entered, he found the director unclothed.

“Thankfully I knew he was drunk, and thankfully I knew I was talented and I never, ever was going to do that,” Cranford said.

Cranford said he was subjected to several other similar incidents during his career, and he uses his personal experience as a lesson for his students.

“I say this to students: ‘Say no,'” Cranford said. “You don’t have to do that because you all are talented, and once you do that, then it is expected of you. Just as, once you do a really great show, then it’s expected that you are going to be really talented and do great work.”

Cranford’s career progressed to a European tour of “Evita,” a role he received without having to audition. Cranford also performed in “Les Miserables” on Broadway for nearly eight years.

Now, Cranford is a professor at the K-State School of Music, Theatre and Dance. He is currently directing “Into the Woods,” which is running through Nov. 12 at the Mark A. Chapman Theatre in Nichols Hall.

Skylar Prusa, sophomore in life sciences, attended Cranford’s lecture.

“It takes a lot of courage to stand up and share your personal story,” Prusa said. “I know he’s performed in front of thousands of people in his lifetime, but it is so much different than telling a character’s story.”

Kerry Priest, assistant professor in the Staley School of Leadership Studies, said the “What Matters to Me and Why” lecture series is important to the K-State community.

“Community is created when individuals are willing to share their own stories of their experiences, their choices made and their lessons learned,” Priest said. “And as we share and hear and consider other stories, we can begin to find shared purpose, vision and goals. We discover the urgent challenges we share and the choices we must make together.”

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