Although the footlights have fallen dark on an influential Western Carolina University theatre professor and director, a final curtain call for Stephen Michael Ayers is in the works behind the scenes through the establishment of an endowed scholarship in his memory.
Created by friends and family members led by daughter Maribeth Ayers Stickel of Denton, Texas, the Stephen Michael Ayers Endowed Scholarship will provide financial assistance to deserving students studying in the School of Stage and Screen within WCU’s David Orr Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts.
Ayers, who died Jan. 4, 2022, was a faculty member and director at WCU for 22 years until his retirement in 2008. A prolific director, he mounted nearly 100 theatrical productions on campus stages during his tenure, taking several shows on the road to the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, Southeastern Theatre Conference and New York International Fringe Festival.
As the primary – often only – professor teaching acting at WCU, he had an impact on the lives of hundreds of students in the theatre arts program over the years, said Claire Eye, director of what is now the School of Stage and Screen.
Eye should know; she got her start as a WCU theatre minor while majoring in radio and television. “He asked me to read a monologue from a play he was going to direct. I did. He asked me to read it with a Southern accent. I did. He then cast me in my first play ever, ‘Quilters, the Musical’ – a production I am currently directing as my last production before retiring at the end of this academic year,” she said. “Talk about full circle.”
Ayers also acted in numerous motion pictures and television programs, with roles in films including “Days of Thunder,” “Mr. Brooks” and “The List” and TV shows ranging from “Matlock” and “In The Heat of the Night” to “Dawson’s Creek” and “Savannah.”
When he returned to campus after working on movie and TV sets, he would bring invaluable insights into what would be required of students after they graduate and seek jobs in the entertainment field.
“Each opportunity I have to work with my colleagues in the entertainment industry at a national or international level, I am participating in and observing the very latest techniques in acting, directing, editing, sound, lights, set and costumes,” Ayers once said. “Each time, I can’t wait to get back to my classroom and share these observations with my students.”
Eye can attest to that fact. “When Steve was shooting ‘Days of Thunder’ with Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall, he arranged for a handful of us to come to set to watch them shoot and meet the stars. He always had headshots and a change of clothes in the trunk of his car, in case an audition opportunity came up. The first time I traveled to a professional audition, Steve called me on the way to make sure I knew the shortcuts. He helped me land my first agent,” she said.
“I could say without exaggeration that Steve started me on my career as an actor, which then led to my second career as a teacher of acting, and director,” Eye said. “Steve was a force in the lives of everyone who worked with him at WCU. I don’t know anyone from those years who doesn’t have a great Steve anecdote and who doesn’t remember him as having a significant impact on the development of their lives.”
Ayers earned his bachelor’s degree in drama from Maryville College, master’s degree in drama from the University of Houston and his doctoral degree in theatre history from Colorado University. Although he had several offers from universities around the country after receiving his doctorate, he decided to move his family across the country and start a life in Cullowhee in 1986.
Stickel and her brothers, Michael and Billy, spent hours of their childhoods in the theater at WCU, playing in the audience while their father directed – and sometimes even put them in his plays as extras, she said.
“I watched him work and was always mesmerized. He was at home there. He was filled with joy and fire. His sacred church was the theatre, laughing and cursing and smoking and yelling from the back of the house, pushing his actors too hard, knowing he could get more out of them,” Stickel said. “He nurtured, in his own charming but aggressive way, so much talent in his career as a theatre professor.”
After an initial initiative via GoFundMe, fundraising efforts have moved to WCU’s Division of Advancement, which is seeking additional contributions from former students, colleagues, audience members and patrons of the arts to push the fund to the $25,000 mark necessary to begin awarding endowed scholarships.
Ayers continued to speak about his students right up to his final day, Stickel said. “I think in the end, he finally realized and believed that his time teaching was his ultimate and greatest legacy. He was so proud of them all. So many of them have reached out to me upon hearing of the severity of his illness. I wish he knew that,” she said.
“Arts education was his life’s work, and I know he’d be so honored that he is still able to help a young actor find their feet,” Stickel said.