Luther Jones remembers the castanet-like sound of Josefina Niggli drumming her long fingernails, the wingback chair from which she taught, and how she extended her arm at the steps to the stage and waited for a student – sometimes him – to assist her. That was nearly 40 years ago, when Jones, now an assistant professor at WCU, was a Western Carolina student searching for his path – first as a forestry major, then a history major and finally in the theater.
“When I took ‘Shakespeare on Stage’ from Ms. Niggli, she said ‘It’s only literature if you read it. If you figure out how to present it on stage, it’s drama. Shakespeare was meant to be performed,’” said Jones. “What I got was how to look at something more deeply than I ever had before, analyze it and figure out what needed to be changed or modified to perform it on stage – to adapt to make something work. It was a lesson that applied not just to theater, but to life.”
Jones applied that lesson and others he learned from Niggli often in his 20-year career as a technician in the stage and screen industry. He worked as a props master for Flat Rock Playhouse, technical director for the Warehouse Theatre, and behind the scenes for movies including “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Patch Adams, “My Fellow Americans” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
“We learned a lot more than theater from Miss Niggli,” said Jones, who thought about her more and more with the recent renovations to WCU’s Niggli Theatre, which was named in her honor after her death in 1983.
Niggli was born in Monterrey, Mexico, to American parents in 1910 – the first year of the Mexican Revolution. Her family fled to the United States when she was 3 years old and returned to Mexico when she was 10. In later years, Niggli helped share the beauty and the struggles of people in Mexico as a poet, novelist and playwright. Her achievements include studying under Frederick Koch, who helped found the outdoor drama and folk play movement, and working with Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Green. She also was a stable writer in Hollywood for film and television, and portions of her book, “Mexican Village,” were adapted into the movie “Sombrero.”
Today at WCU, Jones has his students read one of her plays, “The Ring of General Macias,” which is set during the Mexican Revolution. “Part of the play examines why a person became a rebel,” said Jones. “Niggli hits you with both sides, and during the course of the play you begin to understand both viewpoints.”
From1955 to 1975, Niggli served on the faculty at Western Carolina and was a key part of developing the drama curriculum. She made her home in Cullowhee until her death.
Her bequest to WCU has generated more than $120,000 in scholarships for theater students, and a collection of materials from her and about her are in Special Collections of WCU’s Hunter Library.
When Jones realized July 2010 would be the 100th anniversary of Niggli’s birth, he prepared “The Niggli Initiative,” a four-page proposal for a yearlong, multidisciplinary study and celebration of Niggli at WCU. “There’s a lot we can learn from her,” said Jones.
The Office of Undergraduate Studies then began coordinating development of a campuswide integrated learning theme for the 2009-10 academic year titled “Josefina Niggli: A Celebration of Culture, Art and Life.” Activities under discussion include a screening of the movie “Sombrero,” a panel discussion of people who knew Niggli and a celebration event in July.
“We are in the midst of a campuswide thematic and interdisciplinary journey that has generated enthusiasm and created an authentic exploration that will promote scholarship, celebrate cultural diversity and empower artistic expression,” said Glenda Hensley, coordinator of first year experiences with the Office of Undergraduate Studies. “The teaching and learning potential that we have within our grasp if we channel and integrate energies – if we could truly focus on the notion of synthesis and intentional learning – is tremendous. I did not know Ms. Niggli, but do know that her legacy continues to support our students and enhance our experiences. I cannot imagine a more satisfying experience than to witness this level of collaboration as we celebrate her contributions to our university and to our community.”
Faculty, staff and students interested in being part of the effort may contact Hensley at email@example.com or (828) 227-3014; or attend a meeting at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22, in the Cardinal Room at A.K Hinds University Center.