The Professor Who Changed My Life

Lea Wait, here, and remembering. As a high school student, I was one of the nerds. Shy, desperate to have friends, but unsure of how to do that, I was self-conscious about my appearance, my clothes, and my intelligence. I ended up being the editor of the high school’s newspaper, and the others on the staff (all boys and all nerds, like me) became my friends. We didn’t go to the prom, but we did win a Scholastic Press Association Award for publishing the best high school newspaper in New Jersey.

I looked forward to leaving New Jersey. I chose a women’s college – Chatham, a small academically strong school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But, arriving there, I was still shy, easily intimidated, self-conscious, and unsure of myself.

Dr. Jack Neeson

But academics weren’t a problem for me, and in the second semester of my freshman year my advisor suggested I take an advanced course, designed for juniors and seniors. I’d worked at a summer theatre in Maine for four summers, and thought a course in drama would be interesting. I was signed up for Philosophy of Drama, and it changed my life.

The professor, Dr. Jack Neeson, had two doctorates (one in theatre) and also taught acting and directing, courses I hadn’t taken. On the second or third day of our class I sat on the floor of the college’s green room with seven or eight women who were drama majors and who’d taken other courses from Dr. Neeson.

I don’t remember what the topic of the day’s discussion was when he turned to me, pointed, and said “Act ‘to overcome.’”

I froze. I had no idea what he meant. I sat, frozen, as he repeated his order, time after time. Within a few minutes I was in tears, frustrated, and still totally ignorant of what he was asking me to do.

Lea, in a college production of The Boyfriend

Finally, he turned to another girl in the class and said, “Help Lea.”

The girl got up, came over to me, and said quietly, “Stand up.”

I did.

Dr. Neeson nodded in approval.  “Good. You’ve overcome your fear.”

Relieved, I sat down again, still unsure of what I’d done, but glad I was no longer the center of attention.

Later I spoke with him, and eventually I took his courses in acting. He believed in dividing scenes into motivations. Every character wanted something in every scene. That overarching motivation might stay the same through an act, or even through an entire play, but there were secondary goals, too, which changed often. All of them were defined by action verbs.

In his acting classes I first learned to have the courage to get up in front of others and to act out the motivation I was assigned.

After a few weeks, Dr. Neeson pointed out something I’d never known about myself. “Lea, every feeling and goal can be acted out, or acted in. You always act in.” He was right. I realized I did that not only in class, but in life. If I was angry, I clenched my fists and jaw and tightened my body. Others yelled or threw things. If I was sad, I looked down, ignored others, and walked into a corner alone. Others cried or screamed.

Understanding the different dynamics of actions encouraged me to try different ways of expressing emotions, and become more comfortable with them.

After college I went on to take improvisational theatre classes in New York City, produced and was on-camera for a daily closed circuit corporate television show for two years, and spoke to large audiences in person and on national television as an advocate for adoption of older children. Today I speak about writing at schools, libraries, and conferences.

And I write characters who have goals and motivations.

Thanks to Dr. Neeson, who taught me “to overcome.”

And changed my life.



About Lea Wait

I write mysteries - the Mainely Needlepoint, Shadows Antique Print and, coming in June of 2018, the Maine Murder mysteries (under the name Cornelia Kidd.) When I was single I was an adoption advocate and adopted my four daughters. Now my mysteries and novels for young people are about people searching for love, acceptance, and a place to call home. My website is To be on my mailing list, send me a note at
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10 Responses to The Professor Who Changed My Life

  1. kaitlynkathy says:

    Great post, Lea. And its coincidence time. We did The Boyfriend in college too. Sandy was the father. John Shea, who went on to turn pro and was, among other roles, Lex Luthor on Lois and Clark, was the male lead. I worked backstage–my safety zone.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    What fun, Kathy! I was the grouchy old lady — I’m not sure I remember her name (Mrs. Broadhurst???) don’t remember her name, but I do remember she was the only major character who didn’t sing a solo. Singing, much as I enjoy it, has never been my strength, fortunately for the world!.

  3. fangswandsfairy(alt) says:

    I have to send this to my sister Deb, who loves your work. She caught the theater bug in HS and has never shaken it off.

    • Lea Wait says:

      Not a bad bug to have! Being able to improvised has turned out to be one of the most useful skills I’ve ever acquired! (I used in all the time at the corporation where I worked for years.)

  4. bethc2015 says:

    It is amazing how something as simple as standing up can be life-changing, especially if championed by supportive people. A good reminded for each of us.

  5. J.d. Neeson says:

    My father would be very pleased by your kind words. He used to say that you were the most organized student he had ever had and was both pleased and amused that 30 years later and a thousand miles away from Pittsburgh his son moved next door to his former student. And that his son also thinks that his neighbor is the most organized and talented people he has ever met. A great writer as well.

  6. Lea Wait says:

    I’m blushing — but, thank you! Before he died I did tell your dad what he had meant to me. I’m so glad I was able to do that. And .. since you live next door you know I’m not REALLY that organized! But, again — thank you. And thank you to you and Barbara for all your support. Bob and I are very lucky to have you as neighbors.

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