Ivy Leaf - Fall 2002
Living Life Through the Arts
When Tom and Marlene Liszka moved to Altoona nearly two decades ago, they felt certain that they would be closing a door on a part of their lives.
Born and raised in Chicago, Tom and Marlene Liszka both discovered a passion for the theater arts at an early age. No one can say where this passion found its birth. It may have been Tom's portrayal of a dancing bunny in a kindergarten production, or Marlene's turn as a hula girl in her mother's choral group. It may even have started at Tom and Marlene's first meeting when they appeared in the chorus of Finian's Rainbow, produced by Marlene's high school. Regardless of its beginnings, their excitement for theater brought them together.
After high school, Tom went on to earn a doctorate in English while Marlene earned her master's degree in theater arts. After teaching English for several years at the University of Illinois in Chicago and DePaul University, Tom was offered a job as an assistant professor of English at Penn State Altoona. In 1984, Tom and Marlene packed up their three daughters, Kate, Amy, and Joann, and moved to Altoona, leaving behind friends, family, and a wealth of artistic pursuits. Marlene fondly remembers the day they moved into their new home.
"Our neighbors came over to welcome us," she says, "and then they stuck around to help us move in."
The shift from the commotion of urban life to the more tranquil feeling of a smaller, more rural town was somewhat frightening, but also surprisingly refreshing.
"It was like taking a few steps back in time," Tom says. "We were in a town where people still sat out on their front porches at night."
Tom began teaching at Penn State Altoona, while Marlene stayed home with their daughters. Although they soon grew to love their new home, they felt that the small community would never be able to fully satisfy their appetite for the arts.
In 1989, Marlene volunteered to help with the lighting of an Altoona Community Theatre production. She stepped inside Altoona's historic Mishler Theatre and suddenly discovered what she and Tom had been missing. They found not only a superb performance space, but also an enormous cultural community. Before long, Tom and Marlene were volunteering in nearly every aspect of the arts in Altoona, including three community theaters, several singing groups, and a local ballet troupe.
In 1990, Marlene joined the faculty at Penn State Altoona as a part-time instructor in theater. She began fostering a partnership between the College's theater program, local community theaters, and several area high school theater programs that continues to grow today. By having her technical theater students design and build set pieces for college, community, and high school productions, she provides them with the opportunity to witness the entire process of set design, from the initial design drawings through to the actual production.
Tom has made use of his background in literature by encouraging Altoona Community Theatre to produce classic plays that had never been considered for production. He has directed productions of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie as well as Moliere's 1668 comedy The Miser. Currently serving as Altoona Community Theatre's president, he continues to push the group in new directions and encourages new ways of thinking. Tom has also lent his abilities and talents to local school districts by participating in arts workshops in local elementary schools.
Marlene currently serves as technical director for both the Paul and Margery Wolf Kuhn Theatre at Penn State Altoona and the historic Mishler Theatre, making it possible for her and Tom to work with nearly every group using either of these two spaces. These interactions have provided the couple with an outstanding education in the arts. Since becoming involved, they have performed, designed and built sets, and directed numerous productions for Altoona Community Theatre. Marlene has integrated Altoona's rich artistic community into the classroom by requiring attendance at community theater productions for all of her theater arts classes. Students are asked not only to watch the show, but also to take part in a behind-the-scenes tour of the Mishler Theatre.
Through their work at the College and in the community, Tom and Marlene have formed numerous professional and personal relationships.
"We've made more friends in this little town than we ever had in Chicago," says Tom. "It's a wonderful community. A set of friends you wouldn't believe. The commitment isn't just to the theater; it's to the people."
"It's a core of artists I wouldn't have dreamed of," adds Marlene.
Tom and Marlene's passion and enthusiasm for their work and their art have proven to be contagious, spreading to both friends and family. Their children have all been involved in theatrical productions in the community, both on and off stage. Kate, their oldest daughter, is a recent graduate of Penn State, having double majored in Classical and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and International Studies. Amy, their second daughter, is currently a student at the American Music and Dramatic Academy in New York. Joann is currently attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and majoring in Industrial Design.
In addition to inspiring their children, Tom and Marlene have also had a tremendous influence on members of the community. Several members of the Penn State Altoona faculty, staff, and student body have become involved in community artistic endeavors because of Tom and Marlene. Likewise, many of Altoona Community Theatre's best set and lighting designers learned most of what they know from working with Tom and Marlene.
Marlene credits her love for teaching the arts to a professor she had in college. "I wanted to learn about technical theater," she says, "but my professor didn't have any training in that. So he taught himself how to do it, and then passed it all on to me. That's what made me want to teach it too. I love to teach people how to do it because then there's more technicians to go around. I can sit back and watch other people learn as they go."
Tom adds, "The theory of community service is that university faculty are resources who should be teaching the community as an extension of their teaching mission. But I feel like I've learned a lot more about theater from the community than I've ever taught."