Jay Cranford: The Man Directing the Madness

 A name you may be hearing around campus lately would be that of Professor Jerry “Jay” Cranford. Cranford, who is lovingly called simply “Jay” by most of his students started working at Augustana this past term in order to create a musical theatre major here at Augustana. Before coming to Augustana, Cranford obtained a BFA in music from the University of Oklahoma, and then set out to act professionally. Cranford’s first big moment in the spotlight was playing Mark in a production of A Chorus Line at Circa 21. Cranford then worked regionally on a non-union tour before gaining his equity card and touring Europe as a cast member of Avita. In 1995 Cranford was launched onto Broadway, playing Prouviare in Les Miserables for seven and a half years. After his success in Les Miserables, Cranford worked with Troika playing Don Lockwood (originally Gene Kelly’s role) in Singing in the Rain, then as Billy Crocker in Anything Goes. Afterwards, Cranford starred in A Chorus Line once again in a Candlelight Playhouse (now defunct) production, first as Zack, then as Don. Cranford then spent four years working in Disneyland. He performed in five shows while working with Disney, the most well-known being the Genie in the Aladdin shows. In addition to this, he also taught workshops to the various high schools and colleges that visited the park. But don’t take this as a definitive list of Cranford’s roles, during our interview he had to look up his own resume in order to list characters he’s played.
Many years of on-stage success later, Cranford returned to academia. Although he had an offer to be in a production of Les Miserables as Thenardier in upstate New York, Cranford chose graduate school, saying he felt that there were “signs pointing to academia”. Cranford eventually received an MFA specifically in directing and then began to guest direct and guest choreograph. Kansas State soon hired Cranford as a professor where he taught musical theatre and basic movement classes. There he directed Vanya Sonia Mascha Spike (yes that’s one play title) and God of Carnage. Cranford has no regrets about his descent into teaching, stating that his mother was a teacher and mentioned that he has been inclined towards teaching since he was a child.
Last January Cranford met with Professor Jeff Coussens and Phil McKinley, and after a series of applications and interviews, landed the job that brought him to Augustana. Although Cranford is still working on the foundation of the musical theatre emphasis, he is bringing in small components of it as he goes. He currently teaches Intro to Theatre and Acting One, and debuted a Music Theatre Dance Styles class last term. Cranford hopes to teach a musical theatre history class next year in addition to a beginning musical theatre dance class that will focus on the techniques of tap and jazz. When it come to teaching, Cranford cites Viola Spolin as an inspiration. Cranford claims that maintaining a “playful environment” allows students to “become much more creative”. Cranford is a big proponent of tapping into a childlike energy in his classroom, saying that encourages students to be better artists. According to Cranford, we put up barriers, but play helps us bring them down. His goals in the classroom are to “create ensemble, engage, and connect”, explaining that he wants his students to find a sense of empathy for a each other, and for the scripts they are reading. When it comes to reading scripts, Cranford also wants students to “find a sense of joy” within them. He continues, saying that connecting peers (much like he would the ensemble of a cast) is integral to his plans. Students work better in a less critical environment, Cranford wants to remind his students that “what we can do [storytelling] can change minds, emotions, and the world”. In Cranford’s world, it’s not just theatre he is teaching students, it is the importance of storytelling and narrative. He says it “may seem frivolous, but we as an art can change people.”  Cranford also discussed with me the importance of empathy, stating that it bleeds over from the stage to the real world, and that you never know when empathy may be exactly what an audience member needs to be shown. Part of his desire to connect audiences and show them relatable material comes from another inspiration, writer and star of Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda.
Jay Cranford is currently tasked with directing the spring musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sweeney Todd is a musical about a vengeful, murderous barber and his partner: a woman baking mutilated human remains into pies. Cranford calls Sweeney Todd a huge challenge, especially given the limited amount of rehearsal time (the show goes up in April), and even admits to being a bit frightened. But, overall, his goal is to tell a good story and honor Stephen Sondheim’s “greatest work”. What can we expect to see in Sweeney Todd? Something “dark and disturbing, yet comical”. Cranford has big plans for the final scene of the musical, as he wants to, for just a moment, humanize Sweeney Todd and show empathy for the mass murderer. Cranford has put many hours into learning Potter Theatre and developing a way to tell a story unique to that space. There will be a horror movie feel, but don’t expect to see Tim Burton’s movie adaption of the classic musical. Expect to see “greed, lust, power, and revenge taken to the extreme”. Cranford wants the audience to know that “what confines us can kill us” and visually punctuate that message using the lack of space in Potter. The audience will even see the orchestra, as Cranford wants the audience to know that they are at a theater. Cranford is excited to see how the show comes together, and even after only two rehearsals believes that the cast “sounds phenomenal”. Although the cast and music together is 450 pages and there is only seven weeks of rehearsal time, Cranford remains optimistic, saying he wants the show to appear “effortless”. Cranford left me with this, he “looks forward to this collaboration between the music and theatre department and is excited to kick off the musical theatre program with something ambitious. Until April, keep an eye out for Jay Cranford roaming the halls of Bergendoff and directing the madness of Sweeney Todd.