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UW Profiles

The Fantastic Four

Four siblings from California share how the UW Department of Theatre and Dance has helped shape their futures.

By Katherine Iris Kirkaldie

When Billy Higgins (’08) of San Rafael, Calif., first stepped foot in the Department of Theatre and Dance on the University of Wyoming campus, he had no idea of the possibilities that were about to open up for him or for his younger siblings Mary (’10), Sean (’13) and Dan (expected, fall ’14).

Closely knit and fiercely protective, the Higginses have wide-ranging interests and experiences, but were exposed to the arts from a young age.

“We were essentially performing from a young age,” says Mary, whose mother was a home health care provider by day and performer by night. “My mother was a singer-songwriter, and we would run around in front of her while she was performing, and she made more money that way.”

Their mother also was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and watching her address the challenges associated with such a chronic disease while raising four kids was instrumental in shaping their worldview.

“We understood that family was a really a driving force,” Sean says. “That sense of family was one of the reasons why we ended up at UW.”

Bill Higgins (’66), the father of the four Higgins children, has been a guiding light of love for his children.  “Dad strongly advocated for Wyoming as this hidden gem of the Rockies that excels in all areas of education,” Sean says. “I don't think any of us would have considered UW if it hadn't been for his championing it as an option.

“When young theater-makers ask me for advice on where to go to school, I too unveil all the gifts this program has to offer,” he adds.

All three boys enjoyed sports in addition to performing arts growing up. By the time Billy began shopping around for colleges, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in theater, and he was encouraged by his father to give the brown and gold a try.

The UW Difference

“I got an incredibly powerful foundation here at UW in the way that we understand theater in America to be,” Billy says. “Not only did I get that here in a wonderfully challenging way, but I also got it through experiences with guest artists like Bill Bowers.”

Mary soon followed suit. A struggling student in high school, she found her way into the department and hit the ground running. Mary knew she wanted to know more about the intricacies of theater, but was still trying to see where she fit in until she also became involved in UW’s International Studies program. Combining the two fields allowed her to pursue a passion for helping others through the arts, which was inspired by her mom’s selfless compassion for the people she served.

“There is such a tie between them,” Mary says. “Theater and dance are magical because you don’t need a common language to understand each other―all boundaries are crossed. Theater makes you more articulate with expressing yourself bodily and facially, and when you go out internationally, people see that and attach to it.”

For his part, after considering a career in the health sciences, Sean enthusiastically embraced moving into theater at the collegiate level and soon became a staple on the UW stage, soaking in all the program had to offer.

“For me, UW has provided so much in the faculty dedication to me as an artist on an individual level,” Sean says. “I have worked with just about every faculty member in class or on a show, whether it’s a main stage show or something else, and each one has influenced me—you take a little bit from each person and use that to help shape your craft.”

Ranked 20th among California’s high school quarterbacks, Dan was receiving a lot of invitation letters from schools. But he gave UW a shot and became a dance major during his first year in college after Sean asked Dan to join him and a friend in a partnering class.

“We thought, ‘That sounds fun, let’s go toss some girls around,’ ” Dan says. “But about three-quarters the way through the semester, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really great.’ ”

Dan met with dance faculty member Marsha Knight, and she advised him to jump into the program and not look back, even though it meant starting out at ballet class with 9-year-old girls.

“Stepping out of sports into dance was perfect for Dan,” Sean says.

“I definitely could have taken the sports route to college, and regret not doing it at times, but I’ve got a good thing going now,” Dan says. “I always liked dancing growing up, and I always loved to be the guy in the center of the circle. I guess it’s just the feeling I receive when dancing that is beyond anything else―it’s just joy in its most pure form.”

These days, Dan is finishing up his senior year and looking forward to dancing professionally after matriculating.

“I want to finish out my last year strong, and I’ve been working with Repertory Dance Theatre in Utah for the last year,” Dan says. “I am understudying four pieces of theirs right now, and they just hired me to start with the company in Salt Lake City at the end of June 2014.”

Perfecting Their Craft

Billy went on to an academic theater program in Ireland, and then returned stateside and worked full time in theater for nearly a year in the San Francisco Bay area. But he felt he still had more to learn and started seeking out complementary graduate work and found a home in Dell Arte, a physical and ensemble-based theater program, which he completed in spring 2014.

Mary also pursued a graduate degree in Ireland, writing her thesis on drama therapy with post-war children, an experience she calls “crucial.”

Mary now works with youth in schools using drama therapy and also with the Renegade Theatre Company in Duluth, Minn., where she recently devised a children’s theater piece based on poetry. She also does work with the Duluth Playhouse.

“That is my dream job—what I would love to go and do, trying to help kids find out how they fit into the world,” Mary says.

Sean is in his first year in the prestigious actor training program at Yale, a long-held goal which he credits to his years at UW.

“I’ve loved my time here, the growth I experienced and the different shows I’ve been in,” Sean says. “The access and the mentoring are the department’s biggest strength.”

After completing his Master of Fine Arts degree, Sean will pursue a stage career and perhaps also film. But he also has a larger vision in mind.

“For me, a huge driving force is my mother and her perseverance,” Sean says. “My goals as a theater artist—though I want to be successful—are to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis using theater as a grounds for dialogue, whether that be for research or whatever. If am able to do that, that would be awesome.”

The rest of the fantastic four nod in agreement.

“This place has really provided us with the foundation to branch into the areas we all want to be,” Billy says. “It opens enough doors for you that it then pushes you through. It’s the joy and the lifetime that is in it, being able to cultivate a lifetime of that engagement.”

“Our parents, though supportive, worry about the financial sustainability of careers in this field,” Sean says. “To this we answer, ‘If you ferociously pursue what you love, you will find happiness. Everything else will work itself out in the wash.’ I got a card once that said you have to dream your own dream and follow your own star—our stars just seem to all be in the same cluster.”

Mary Higgins

Mary Higgins
Mary Higgins in the 2007 Department of Theatre and Dance production of comedian Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile." Mary graduated from UW in 2010. She now works with youth in schools using drama therapy and also with the Renegade Theatre Company and the Duluth Playhouse in Duluth, Minn.

Sean Higgins

Sean Higgins
Sean Higgins in the 2012 Department of Theatre and Dance production of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit." Sean graduated from UW in 2013. He is in his first year in the prestigious actor training program at Yale, a long-held goal which he credits to his years at UW.

Dan Higgins

Dan Higgins
Dan Higgins in the 2013 Department of Theatre and Dance performance of composer Carl Orff’s "Carmina Burana." Dan is scheduled to graduate in fall 2014.

All for one

Billy, Sean, Dan and Mary Higgins
Billy, left, Sean, Dan and Mary Higgins all found their passion for the arts fulfilled by the UW Department of Theatre and Dance.

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