It was the first day of class, and Helen Manfull had just begun the opening lecture of Theatre 100 when two students began shouting at each other. Manfull pulled off her reading glasses and scanned the packed Forum Building classroom. Suddenly, the two students stood, eyes locked. One pushed the other. The other pushed back. The rest of the 375 students sat frozen. Was this really happening?
Manfull charged to the stairs and marched up, all 120 pounds of her dressed in a pleated prairie skirt with a graying bun perched on the top of her head.
“You need to leave,” she snapped, shooing the offenders through the door as she followed behind, shaking her head.
A minute went by. Then another. Finally, Manfull walked back in—arm in arm with the scrapping students. “Class,” she announced in a stage voice that filled the room. “You have just seen the first performance of the Theatre 100 Company. Theater can happen anywhere!”
For nearly three decades, thousands of Penn State students experienced this surprise, which launched Manfull’s renowned course, Theatre 100: Introduction to Theatre, in which a troupe of student actors performed significant theatrical works, from Sophocles to Sondheim, live in class.
“She came up with the only way you should teach young people about theater—don’t just tell them, show them,” says actor Ty Burrell ’97 MFA A&A, best known for his role on the TV comedy Modern Family and a member of the Theatre 100 Company for three years. Her theory was simple: If you exposed people to the theater, it would become a part of them.
Manfull, who died on Oct. 15, 2023, just days shy of her 90th birthday, leaves “a huge legacy,” says retired professor Bill Kelly, a longtime department colleague. “There are countless Penn Staters who attend theater today because they took her class. She was the most widely known professor in the department … the heart of the entire program.”
Theater was always a part of Manfull’s life. As a child in Canton, Ohio, she tagged along with her mother, who made costumes for a local community theater. There, at 8, she was cast as “Mary” in The Women but stayed out of the limelight until joining a theater club at Ohio’s Western College for Women. The magna cum laude graduate—commended with a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship—pursued a master’s and doctorate in speech and theater at the University of Minnesota.
On Manfull’s first day of grad school, as her professor droned on about a play, she heard a student behind her mumble, “This is pretentious BS.” She turned and saw “a gorgeously handsome man,” as she described him. They dated, and she soon discovered that the dashing playwright and Ph.D. candidate Lowell Manfull shared her ideology about theater: Whether acting, directing, teaching, or writing, the goal is to find the simple truth.
“To me, Helen’s magic was her taste,” says Burrell. “It was so high and so excellent. It was a hard thing to live up to. And I wanted to. We all wanted to.”
Married in 1956, the Manfulls headed to the University of Wisconsin, where Helen worked at the Wisconsin Centre for Theatre Research and wrote her first book, Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942–1962. Then, in 1965, the pair came to Penn State, where she taught part time while raising their two sons, Benjamin and James.
“She encouraged any creative instinct we had,” says Ben ’87 MBA Bus, who lives in Connecticut with his wife, Judy, and three sons, Nathan, Isaac, and Thomas. (When each grandson turned 12, Helen took them on a one-on-one trip anywhere in the world they wanted to go.) The Manfull boys spent their childhoods watching plays from the lighting booth in the Pavilion Theatre and playing backstage at the Playhouse. “You can’t grow up like that and not develop a love of the theater,” says Ben.
It was also cool to have a mom who was a campus celebrity. “Helen loved to tell the story of my kindergarten teacher asking what our parents did for a living,” says James, who lives in Maryland with his partner, Sharon. “I announced, ‘My mother is in creative drama, and that’s as high as you can go.’”
Manfull began teaching full time in 1973 and, says James, “she never slowed down.” She taught directing, acting, and everything in between, earning the Lindback Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching in 1985. She founded the Children’s Theatre Ensemble, wrote three more theater books, directed shows (her favorites were Fen, Frog and Toad, and Our Town), and performed onstage (her Ouiser in Steel Magnolias was legendary) and on screen (most notably as Grandma Boorg—with her full beard—in the 1996 comedy Kingpin).
In 1996, she officially retired, receiving the Lion’s Paw Medal for notable service to the university; in 2007, she was named an honorary alumna. Two student awards are named for the couple: the Helen and Lowell Manfull Theatre Scholarship and the Helen and Lowell Manfull Music Endowment. After Lowell died of leukemia in 2004, Manfull returned to teach for four more years and continued to volunteer, consult, and mentor until 2020.
Much of Manfull’s service happened far from a stage. She volunteered at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts as an audio describer for visually impaired visitors and as a teacher at the Community Academy for Lifelong Learning. She also read aloud weekly to nursing patients at The Village at Penn State, where she lived independently until her last months.
Even in nursing care, Manfull joked with visitors and nurses and sang along to show tunes. When she had to memorize a rehab exercise she needed to do, she repeated it out loud as only Manfull would—first in a sprightly cockney accent, then in a slow Southern drawl.
Because, as Manfull proved to thousands, theater can happen anywhere.
Vicki Glembocki is a writer based in Atlanta. She took Helen Manfull’s Theatre 100 class in 1990.