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magazine home > archives > winter 2005 > features

Thanks to the support of two cousins - James and Scott McGehee - University of Memphis students are learning about Italian culture, art and an ancient style of theatre in an unusual setting - a 13th century Italian villa.

Broadening their Horizons
by Amy Gillentine

U of M alumna Courtney Sharp looks back on the semester she spent in Italy and sums up the experience with a single phrase - "life-changing."

  Courtney Sharp

U of M alumni Courtney Sharp in Italy

"I loved it," she says. "I was very interested in the fact that it focused on Commedia dell'Arte, or comedy of art. That was the main reason I wanted to go."

Sharp took part in Accademia dell'Arte's first-ever performing arts program, a semester-long course aimed at teaching students this ancient form of theatre while bestowing a healthy appreciation for culture, literature and art in Italy's renowned Tuscan valley.

The school, located on a hill overlooking picturesque Arezzo, Italy, is housed in a refurbished 13th-century villa, once used by the Catholic Church's bishop as a summer home. The church restored and refurbished the villa exclusively for the school. The U of M serves as the American university of record for the program.

"This kind of study-abroad program provides a great opportunity for students and faculty," says Moira Logan, associate dean of the U of M's College of Communication and Fine Arts. "Students from other institutions may receive credit through the U of M for their work at the Accademia. It benefits all of us."

Renowned instructors in theatre, dance and art taught Sharp and other students a variety of lessons, including Italian language classes. The instructors, ranging from an Italian Commedia professional to an Irish stage actress, as well as professors from the U of M, were some of the best in their field, Sharp says.

"Commedia is nearly extinct as an art form," Sharp explains. "We studied with people who have learned it, generation after generation. It was fantastic."

Commedia dell'Arte focuses on structured body movements and exercises, as well as improvisation. Elements of Commedia dell'Arte - one of the oldest forms of theatre - are still seen in theatre, movies and television. Logan says Accademia dell'Arte students learn more than just another language or another form of theatre, they also learn about culture and its ties to the arts.

"It's not just about one form of the arts," she says. "It's about music and theatre and dance. A country's culture is embedded in the arts. We leave that out at our own peril."

Logan says learning the history of the art form greatly benefits theatre professionals. Since Commedia is at the root of the performing arts, theatre professionals from directors to actors learn about the beginning of the field.

"Having a sense of history of your art form is important," she says. "Not just a history that is read about in books. But this is a live form - it is not dead. It is practiced still. People who work with this form can take aspects of it into other art forms. Commedia is a nonverbal, movement-based form. It is very technical, like ballet."

While the spring semester focused on theatre, the summer session at the school focused on opera.

Sharp, who graduated last year with a degree in theatre arts, joined students from Brazil, the United States, Ireland and Italy for the intensive course. The U of M graduate, who is interested in directing plays in Chicago and New York, says the opportunity to work with professional actors was the chance of a lifetime.

"It was wonderful to work with people who knew about the 'real world' of the theatre," she says. "Even the students could learn from each other. It will be a great benefit for my career."

Sharp believes the program has already generated positive reviews from other students and universities.

Logan says that while there are other Italian study-abroad programs, most of them focus on Italian language or the country's extensive art tradition.

"There are fewer opportunities to study performing arts," she says. "And I haven't really seen another program that focuses on theatre."

James McGehee
Memphis businessman James McGehee Jr. funds a scholarship that allows U of M students to attend the Accademia dell'Arte performing arts program in Arezzo, Italy.

Logan says the founder of the program, Little Rock native Scott McGehee, brought together a rich potpourri of teachers and cultures for this school. Scott's cousin, Memphian James McGehee Jr., is also a major player in the program.

Sharp attended the academy on a generous scholarship provided by James and his wife, Virginia. McGehee is a local businessman who owns McGehee Realty and Development Co. He is also a member of the board of directors of Pinnacle Airlines and former chair of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority Board of Commissioners.

"My cousin Scott shared his dream with me," he says. "My wife and I regularly travel to Tuscany and agreed to become involved - I sit on the board of directors for the program. Two of my sons studied abroad for a semester, and just as it did for Courtney Sharp, it had a profound effect on them.

"So many young adults have never been abroad, never been out of this country and that colors how they see things," McGehee notes. "I think studying abroad changes their outlook on life, as well as their career plans. One of the unique aspects of college scholarships is that they definitely broadens the students' horizons, lets them learn what else is out in the world."

Logan says McGehee's involvement indeed opens educational doors for students.

"Many study-abroad programs will let you go if you can afford it," she says. "But so many students can't. Thanks to Jim, and now to alumnus Frank Flautt Jr. (BS '63), two students from the University will be able to go, to learn and to study at this really wonderful school. Jim understands from personal experience how people can benefit from leaving their niches and making their own way in other cultures."

The U of M plans to continue its association with the Accademia, which is welcome news to Sharp.

"I think it will only grow, and will bring prestige to the University of Memphis," she says. "In the next four years, it's going to become phenomenal. I was so fortunate to have this experience; it really changed my focus - it changed my life."


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