13:59 PM

Moments and Magic: UST’s Venerable Drama Professor Claire McDonald Takes Final Bow

Retiring Chair of Fine Arts, Drama & Dance, Claire M. McDonald, MFACurtain up! Light the lights! You got nothing to hit but the heights!

The lyrics and music from the iconic Julie Styne-Stephen Sondheim tune capture the moments and magic Claire McDonald has infused into the University of St. Thomas-Houston Drama program for 39 years. Her next production is retirement, and she took some time to reflect.

“I was 28 years old in 1984 when I came to UST as a former high school teacher with a Master’s in Fine Arts from UT-Austin,” she recalled. “I thought I’d go somewhere else eventually and be a big shot, but I liked it here.”

And UST likes McDonald. She has been the University’s respected Chair of Fine Arts, Drama & Dance for 29 years.

She said, “I grew up with the Basilians at St. Anne’s, so there has always been a warm familiarity at St. Thomas.”

She Is a Gift to Her Students

Within the encouraging UST ethos, McDonald taught 23 different courses and guided students to surprise themselves with their talents.

UST History Professor and former VP for Academic Affairs, Dr. Dominic Aquila, said, “For four decades Claire McDonald has brought to the fore the artistic talents of her students, often talents they never knew they had. These newly discovered talents served them well, no matter what their major areas of study or professional aspirations were.”  

A Remarkable Childhood & When the Drama Bug Bit

McDonald led a remarkable childhood. She learned German from her economist father, who grew up speaking German and French.

Along the way, her penchant for acting and directing was irrepressible.

“The drama bug bit me as a child putting on Christmas plays in the living room with my siblings and neighborhood friends. But my Thespian side really took hold when I was taught acting by UST Drama Program founder and Professor Emeritus, Sam Havens, in the Alley Theatre Merry-Go-Round program as a 12-year-old.”

Years later, Havens and McDonald would cross paths again (and not recognize one another) when he hired her for the job at UST. But after 22 years of sharing the same office, they became an inseparable team.

Among the Productions to Remember

Today, McDonald is “tremendously proud of our program,” including 30 years of children’s plays.

“The year we did ‘Charlotte’s Web’ we had 18 sold-out performances playing to 5,400 local school children—the largest grossing show at UST ever.”

Then there is the stage triumph that looms the largest for her.

“My most vivid recollection was a production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ which opened the same weekend as the Houston Holocaust Museum,” she remembered. “Local survivors of the Holocaust came to our performance, and I was scared to death to have people who lived through this coming to see our college show. At the end of the story, the Germans are pounding on the door. Lights go out. Then the lights come on, and you’re in the present time when the diary is found. We decided to have everyone remain on stage and bathed the characters who had perished in the concentration camps in blue light. The memory still gives me chills. I’ll always remember these survivors coming up and thanking me.”

What She Will Miss

“I’ll miss interacting with students,” the gregarious professor said. “We just have so much fun. It’s not a nine-to-five job. We’re often here till 2 a.m. slapping paint on a set. And it’s delightful to have watched so many students grow so much. What they learn about teamwork, cooperation, supporting other people, and meeting deadlines no matter what — a phenomenal camaraderie develops. You can’t put a price tag on it. Of course, I’ll miss many faculty and staff friends too.”

Aquila called the accomplished professor a “great and creative teacher” with a far-reaching impact on students of all majors.

“She embodies the qualities of a great teacher—a total command of her subject matter and a genuine concern for her students,” he said. “Her reach extends beyond drama, dance, and art students in that she is a much sought-after advisor for students of every major.”

Taking Care of Family and McDonald’s Bucket List

McDonald and her retired technical director husband, Scott, will continue caring for her 96-year-old mother and 57-year-old brother with special needs.

And they plan to shine a spotlight on future adventures. Having traveled the world, including East and West Africa, Europe, and Russia, McDonald has enjoyed an extraordinary life. But she still has an active bucket list.

“My standout bucket list item is to cruise far north of Norway to see the northern lights in 2024. I’m an adventurer and ready for my next adventure.”

So, as McDonald blows a kiss and takes a bow, know that she is off to her next “curtain up.”