New Theatre Degree Instructor Goes Beyond the Stage with Her Students
Meet Prof. Erin Austin, a new adjunct professor in Saint Leo University’s theatre degree program who is sharing her versatile career with her students.
Prof. Erin Austin has been exposed to nearly every aspect of the performing arts and digital media realms. Having lived in three time zones with stints in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, she decided to bring the spotlight back to her hometown to educate Saint Leo University students in its undergraduate theatre degree program.
The 37-year-old adjunct professor of theatre is a native of Tampa, FL. After living around the country, she recently returned to Tampa. She and her husband, Tomo Lekovic, have a six-month-old daughter, Skye. They also have a Cavapoo mixed breed dog named Hansel.
Austin has been involved in performing arts since she was a young girl.
“I’ve always loved performing,” Austin says. “My parents gave me lots of opportunities to be part of this community. We would regularly attend shows at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center [now called the Straz Center for the Performing Arts].”
She attended Orange Grove Middle Magnet School of the Arts and Howard W. Blake High School, both of which offer highly-rated programs for students interested in the performing arts.
For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in musical theatre from the University of Miami in 2007.
“I sang and danced my heart out while there,” she says. “Several fellow artists and I who connected in that program moved to New York City together and built a community up there.”
While in the Empire State, they started the Plastic Flamingo Theatre Company. Through this organization, she and her colleagues wrote, directed, and acted in off-Broadway shows at festivals and other venues in the area. She also performed in shows on the Children’s Theatre Tour, including “Madeline and the Bad Hat.”
“I performed during the day and spent the nights writing my own plays,” she explains. “I started to realize that maybe I was more of a playwright at heart.”
In order to gain more playwriting experience, she decided to pursue graduate studies at Northwestern University in the Chicago area. She earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing for the screen + stage.
While in the Windy City, she also got the chance to try her hand at teaching theatre at Northwestern and Chicago High School for the Arts. She even taught elementary and middle school students.
Outside of the classroom, she worked as a playwright for the American Theatre Company, producing various performances. She also spent time as a producing playwright for Living Room Playmakers where she worked on sight-inspired theatre. Plus, she had the opportunity to showcase some unique stories through stage shows with Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“I worked with different communities, interviewed them, and then turned those interviews into performance pieces,” she says.
One area of focus was helping promote the stories of people with cognitive and physical disabilities.
“I asked them about what they felt like is not being showcased on theatre productions and in the media. These types of productions engage the community in a different way. When your stories are being told, you want to be part of that theatre community.”
Austin has had opportunities to help develop scripts for TV, film, and educational programs as well. As a writer, she contributed to an episode of Green Screen Adventures, a nationally broadcast children’s TV series. Specifically, she worked on an episode called “Scruffy the Horse.”
Additionally, she wrote for Ernst and Young Learning Labs, a digital learning arm of the accounting giant, crafting scripts for educational videos and interactive games for adult learners.
Her dad, Ed Austin, held several roles with Saint Leo University from 2002 through 2018. He served as director of marketing, assistant vice president of marketing, and associate vice president of business development. Her knowledge of the school led her to seek out her current role.
“Because of my dad and others, I had always heard wonderful things about Saint Leo University,” she says. “I thought about dipping my toe into adjunct opportunities. I applied and was lucky enough to join the faculty as an adjunct instructor.”
This fall, she began her Saint Leo teaching career in the BA in theatre degree program at University Campus. She is teaching six course sessions covering a variety of topics in theatre.
One of her classes this fall is called Devised Theatre.
“The name of this class is a term many theatre professionals are not very familiar with,” she explains. “The concept is that it involves performances based on ensembles and collective groups of performers rather than the hierarchy of a typical institutional production. It kind of goes back to the roots of the performing arts.”
She is also teaching Playwriting.
“The students get to write and develop 10-minute plays in this class,” she says.
In addition, she has four sections of Practical Skills in Theatre.
“The students are creating audio dramas, essentially fictional podcasts. They get to act, direct, and use sound effects to tell these stories.”
Austin explains her teaching style and how she approaches the curriculum from an instructor’s standpoint.
“I look at it like we are all in a workshop together. The students and I are all fellow artists working together to elevate our own work and the work of each other. Theatre is about community, teamwork, and showing up for others. The better you are, the better your collaborators will be.”
She adds that the six Saint Leo University core values – personal development, responsible stewardship, integrity, excellence, community, and respect – are a big part of her courses as well.
In addition to teaching students while they are enrolled, she hopes her impact will encourage them to keep their creative juices flowing long after collecting their theatre degrees at commencement.
“I think it’s so important for students to feel empowered to create their own work and carve their own paths. I want them to write their own plays and continue to collaborate with other artists.”
And where does she get the most satisfaction in terms of teaching at the college level?
“I love theatre and being around people who also love theatre,” she explains. “Even though I’m an instructor, my students and I learn from each other all the time. It is pretty neat to geek out about this ancient, powerful, plague-proof art form.”
From her vantage point, Austin explains the top benefits of the Saint Leo theatre degree program.
“The biggest thing that stands out to me is how we offer small classes,” she says. “My biggest class has 10 students. I get to give my students so much individual attention. This allows me to tailor the types of theatre they like to their personalities, giving them more opportunity for growth potential. You’re just not going to get this type of experience at larger universities.”
She also points to the Black Box Theatre, a cozy venue housed on the first floor of Benedictine Hall. In her view, this unique setting is perfect for the program and its performances.
Austin underscores the versatility of career tracks students can pursue upon earning a theatre degree.
“Just because you’re a theatre major doesn’t mean the only thing you can do is acting or directing in performing arts,” she says. “I have friends who work in health and wellness and have incorporated dance into their work. I also know lawyers who have benefited tremendously from acting. My husband took improv classes in college and uses these skills in business meetings. The bottom line is that this degree can lead you in so many different directions.”
Outside of teaching, she exemplifies the variety of areas one can pursue in this field. She has written for and directed a popular sci-fi comedy podcast called “Dear Earth, I’m Really Sorry.” She is also working toward goals of creating more audio dramas like this podcast series and connecting with artists of all types around the Tampa Bay area.
“I think there are lots of really cool artists and great spaces for art in this region,” she says. “I’m glad to be back here after all those years.”
LEARN MORE: Check out Austin’s website to learn more about her background.